In the Penal Colony Themes
by Franz Kafka

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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The story is a fantasy-allegory portraying the critical condition of religion in the modern world. The explorer, representing the humanitarian outlook of a secularist culture, visits an earth that is in a state of sin. The old commandant created and organized the penal colony and invented its dreadful machinery of justice/injustice—call him the god of an authoritarian faith. Somehow he lost his hold over the colony, but one day he may return and reclaim it. Meanwhile his fanatic disciple, the officer, serves the colony as its police officer, judge, and executioner.

What the explorer must choose on this island is either morality or spirituality, for Kafka regards the two as having suffered schism. The Old Order is revoltingly sadistic, but, according to the officer’s testimony, it does offer humankind redemption through an agonizing ritual of pain. “How we all absorbed the look of transfiguration on the face of the sufferer,” exults the officer. “What times these were, my comrade!” Nevertheless, the explorer has no difficulty condemning the Old Order’s inquisitorial severity: “The injustice of the procedure and the inhumanity of the execution were undeniable.”

The New Order is humane, sentimental, and concerned with the colony’s economic and political recovery. It allows the machine to fall into disrepair while improving the island’s harbor installations. The New Order, however, lacks the strength of conviction to confront the practices of the Old Order directly and abolish them outright. It is slack, shallow, and worldly, unable to offer humanity more than palliatives and fleshly indulgences. The new commandant immerses himself in a sea of admiring women, who weaken the law’s rigor through erotic enticements.

The victory that the New Order achieves over the Old Order is therefore unredemptive and pyrrhic. The explorer, while convinced of the Old Order’s injustice, is also careful to keep his distance from the new dispensation’s slovenly ways. He admires the officer’s dedication to his faith and willingness to martyr himself to the machine. “If the judicial procedure which the officer cherished were really so near its end . . . then the officer was doing the right thing; in his place the explorer would not have acted otherwise.” Unlike the officer, the explorer is adrift in a sea of aimless, situational ethics, anchored to no absolute standard, trained only in rational positivism.

Why does the machine execute the officer and in the process commit suicide? Possibly because the injunction it is asked to write—“BE JUST!”—contradicts the despotic nature of the Old Order and therefore violates the nature of the machine’s tyranny. In the hour of its self-destruction, the machine becomes animated as a horrifying monster that shows its teeth as it jabs the officer’s body and drives its iron spike into his forehead, murdering him without granting him absolution or transcendence. Like the hunter Gracchus in Kafka’s later sketch by that title, the dead man remains earthbound and unredeemed.

The story’s conclusion has puzzled many readers. Because the explorer has denounced the Old Order as inhumane for its cruel treatment of the soldier-prisoner, he might be expected to exhibit his own humaneness by taking the freed man aboard his boat as he leaves the island. Instead, he threatens him with a heavy rope to prevent him “from attempting the leap.” Perhaps Kafka means to have the explorer show his contempt for the condemned man’s previously demonstrated refusal to extricate the officer from the machine’s harrowing needles. In effect, the explorer enacts the adage, “A plague on both your houses!” In allowing the explorer to escape the colony, Kafka also allows him to evade a meaningful choice between a purposeful but blood-drenched religion and a purposeless but humane secularism.


(Short Stories for Students)

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The story concerns the administration of justice in a penal colony. A time has recently...

(The entire section is 1,583 words.)