In the Penal Colony Analysis
by Franz Kafka

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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Kafka’s allegory does not establish a strict, point-for-point parallelism between its literal and abstract levels of meaning, as do Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1599) and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684). The Old Order does not pointedly correspond to the Hebrews’ Old Testament era or the strictures of John Calvin’s Christianity. The deadly purpose of the old regime’s machine violates the Sixth Commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” Nor does the Old Order’s ethic confirm a reciprocal covenant between God and humankind, as the Judeo-Christian Scriptures do.

Still, the Old Order does symbolize all religions that base their authority on transcendent rites and absolute decrees. The machine’s Bed is an altar on which humans are sacrificed to appease the wrathful majesty of a Moloch-like Law. Its creator clearly corresponds to a Lord of Hosts, and the labyrinthine script that guides the machine’s operation stands, not necessarily for the Hebrew Torah recording Judaism’s laws and learning, but for Scripture in general. When the explorer, unable to read the script, describes it as sehr kunstroll—that is, “highly artistic”—he defines himself as a representative modern man who can admire the Bible as literature but refuses to accept it as dogma.

Kafka’s style is realistic in its Swiftian accumulation of plausible detail, stressing a sober sense of documentary verisimilitude. After all, the explorer is an empirically trained social scientist, conditioned to observe cultural patterns dispassionately and maintain an attitude of suspended judgment. As the onlooker through whose perspective Kafka chooses to filter the action, he validates what might otherwise be an incredible fantasy by convincing the reader that a fable that violates ordinary notions of probability is nevertheless credible: “I, an accredited anthropologist, saw and heard all this.”

Kafka was never wholly satisfied with the ending of this story. He wrote an acquaintance that “two or three pages shortly before the end of the story are contrived.” In these pages, the explorer kneels before the tombstone over the old commandant’s grave so that he can read the “very small letters” on it, which promise that the commandant “will rise again and lead his adherents . . . to recover the colony. Have faith and wait!” Does the explorer’s physical gesture of obeisance signify his subconscious respect for the Old Order? Does Kafka want the reader to accept the Old Order’s relentless religion of victimization and painful punishment as morally superior to a sentimental, mild materialism? His conclusion is inconclusive.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

World War I Gives Rise to Expressionism
The psychological discord evident in Kafka's writing was influenced in part by the chaos in Europe prior to World War I. Nowhere were the period's social, religious, and nationalistic conflicts greater than in his birthplace, Prague. By 1914 the Austro-Hungarian empire was coming to an end and World War I engulfed all of Europe. The war, which had been brewing for years, began when Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, members of the ruling Habsburg family of the Austro-Hungarian empire, were killed by a Serbian assassin protesting the Austro-Hungarian empire's claim over his country. The Austro-Hungarians declared war on Bosnia after they failed to comply with their demands for an investigation into the murders. This war's brutality was unlike anything the world had ever seen, and millions of casualties were caused by technical advances such as poison gas, guns mounted on airplanes, and trench warfare. Militarism, hedonism, and nationalism reflected the attitudes of Kafka's day. The cruelty and futility of these events fueled Expressionism in art and increased Kafka's own anxiety and dread.

The key characteristic of Expressionism—a literary movement which spanned approximately fifteen years (1910-1925), the same period as Kafka's productive life—is said to be the...

(The entire section is 2,086 words.)