In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka: Summary, Analysis, Review

the words "in the penal colony franz kafka" written next to a picture of franz kafka

In the Penal Colony, also known as “In der Strafkolonie” in German, is a short story written by Franz Kafka. First published in October 1919, this story has seen massive popularity and has been adapted widely around the world with film, chamber operas and plays to its name.

In the Penal Colony: Summary and Plot Analysis

The story is set in an unnamed place and focuses on a traveller who has been invited by the new commandant of a penal colony to see and understand the working of a mysterious machine.

A penal colony or exile colony is a settlement used to exile prisoners and separate them from the general population by placing them in a remote location.

The unnamed traveller meets with an officer for this purpose. This officer is to explain the apparatus and justification behind using it. They meet in the middle of a desert and are in the company of two other men – a condemned man and a soldier.

The traveller finds the officer to be deeply enthusiastic about this assignment and is highly engaged. He is very proud of his creation and engages in an animated conversation about its functions.

This machine, as it turns out, is something used to dole out punishments to the convicted.

It has three parts – the bed, the inscriber and the harrow.

The condemned man is supposed to lie on the bed, the inscriber has the law broken by the condemned man, while the harrow contains needles that inscribe the law on the condemned body and splashes water on the body to clear away the blood.

It is usually a long process drawn out till 12 hours, the first six of which is the period where the condemned is said to feel only pain.

After six hours, there seems to be a shift from pain to thoughts about the message being inscribed by the needles on their body, a state of trance, so to speak.

The condemned usually die by the 12th hour and their body is dropped into a pit beside the machine.

While still horrified by the torturous apparatus, the traveler is even more surprised when he finds out that the criminal sentences that are carried out are without the accused having a defense.

Anyone accused is considered guilty and hence punished.

He is told that the condemned man in their company was found guilty of not saluting the captain every hour like he was supposed to.

The captain reported that the man was found asleep at the gate. The officer instantly found him guilty and there he was, for his own inscription day.

Not only does the officer instantly doles out the judgment but also justifies this process citing the time that is saved by not listening to the other side, which he believes leads to a lot of lying making the process much longer than it needed to be.

The condemned man, tied up and watched over by the soldier, however, is completely unaware of his fate.

He is curious about the apparatus and sneaks a peek at it and tries to listen intently to the conversation between traveler and the officer to understand the apparatus.

The officer, having explained the machine to the traveler with the slight hint of pride, asks the soldier to strap the condemned man on to the apparatus and begins to lament at the lack of support for this punishment method to the extent that he was the only one who was an open supporter.

He reminisces of its glory days under the old commandant, now deceased. He beams with pride and has a shine in his eyes when he recalls the crowd that used to throng the place on days of execution, turning the event to a popular spectacle.

And all that changing completely under the new commandment, who is against this mode of punishment, makes the officer visibly disheartened.

The officer thinks that the traveler, as an outsider, is the means that the new commandant is using to completely rid the penal colony of this mode of judgement. He implores the traveler to defend the machine, just by not voicing any objections to it.

The traveler disagrees as he does not find his punishment system just.

Seeing that the traveler is adamant about his view, the officer orders the release of the condemned man and fixes the machine with another message for the inscriber “Be just”.

He removes his clothes and is helped by the condemned man and the soldier to be strapped on to the machine.

The machine falters and instead of being inscribed he is being stabbed by the needles. The water does not wash the blood and the machine suddenly stops. The officer is completely mutilated, a needle having gone right through his forehead.

Intrigued by the officer’s account of the old commandant, he visits the gravesite and finds the plaque saying he will return and his old followers will rise up.

He prepares to leave the town and at the port sees the soldier and the condemned man who seem to be wanting to join him on the boat.

The traveler gets on the boat and successfully prevents the other two from doing it.

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In the Penal Colony: Quotes, Theme and Review

Kafka is in his full element with this story raising deeper questions about the role of justice in a well-functioning society, moral means of carrying out the judgements and the purpose or meaning of one’s life.

The characters in the story, each have their desire at loggerheads with the others, preventing them all to find meaning in their lives.

The officer wants the machine to be accepted by the new commandant by getting a favorable view from the traveller. The traveller was against it. The condemned man wanted to be free, the soldier and the officer were against it.

None of them would be able to get what they wanted without affecting what the other did. Zero sum game.

I couldn’t help but draw parallels to the real life applicability of this predicament.

The utterly absurd means of judgment stands out to me as the most poignant theme in this story. Consider this quote by the officer for example:

The basic principle that I use for my decisions is this: Guilt is always beyond a doubt. Other courts could not follow this principle, for they are made up of many heads and in addition have even higher courts above them.

The fact that the officer is completely convinced of the correctness of his means is horrifying. We didn’t see him faltering even when his own judgement was carried out. He didn’t flinch once.

This is crippling, come to think of it.

People in the position of authority, with their misguided ideals can wreak havoc on societies as a whole.

The famous Stanley Milgram experiment is a case in point. People, when working under authority, can go to great lengths administering atrocities.

Another theme stands out: life as a slow torture.

The machine is supposed to carry out the punishment in a long drawn out process. The condemned  death is slow and painful. The condemned know their fate, can not raise their voice against it, the society does nothing to support them.

Traveler`s observation looking at the condemned man for the first time.

The condemned man had an expression of such dog-like resignation that it looked as if one could set him free to roam around the slopes and would only have to whistle at the start of the execution from him to return.

And his own surprise getting to know that the condemned man was unaware of his fate

He doesn’t  know his own sentence?

A society like this clearly marking the beginnings of a dystopian society.

Commenting on his Kafka stories, Anatole Broyard had once said:

“They are an encyclopedia of our insecurities and our brave attempts to oppose them”

In the Penal Colony definitely fits the bill.

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