‘In the Penal Colony’ is one of the best-known stories by Franz Kafka. After ‘The Metamorphosis’, it is his most acclaimed and widely discussed shorter work. Kafka wrote ‘In the Penal Colony’ in two weeks in 1914, while he was at work on his novel, The Trial. He revised it in 1918, as he was dissatisfied with the story’s original ending, and it was published in 1919.
You can read ‘In the Penal Colony’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of the story below.
‘In the Penal Colony’: summary
A man identified only as the Traveller arrives at an island penal colony. He is being shown an execution device, whose purpose and operation are explained to him by a man known as the Officer. There are two other characters: the Soldier and the Condemned. The Condemned has been sentenced to death for failing to salute his superior’s door upon the hour during his night watch. However, he is unaware that this is why he has been sentenced to be executed.
The execution process is a slow one, and involves the name of the condemned person’s crime being inscribed on their body over the course of several hours, as they slowly die from their wounds. The dying ‘criminal’ usually experiences some kind of epiphany after a few hours of slow death at the ‘hands’ of the device.
The Officer makes repeated reference to the previous Commandant of the penal colony (now dead). He is the man who designed the machine. With his death, the execution device he designed has fallen out of favour with the authorities. Its last great champion is the Officer, who enthusiastically explains its workings to the Traveller.
The new Commandant is not a fan of the device, so the Officer urges the Traveller to speak to him and request that he recommend its use. The Traveller refuses, but says he will speak to the Commandant in private before he leaves. The Officer is so disappointed that he has failed to win the Traveller round to the benefits of the device, that he sets the Condemned man free and puts himself into the machine, programming the words ‘Be Just’ to be inscribed on his skin as he slowly dies. But the machine malfunctions, and stabs him to death so he is denied the slow death, and accompanying religious epiphany, which he had hoped for.
The Soldier and Condemned show the Traveller the grave of the old Commandant, which contains an inscription stating that he will return at some point in the future and rule the colony once again. The Traveller makes plans to leave the strange colony as soon as possible, forbidding the Soldier and the Condemned from following him.
‘In the Penal Colony’: analysis
There are three main strands of interpretation we might explore when analysing the meaning of ‘In the Penal Colony’: an autobiographical, political, and theological reading.
Kafka’s work is intensely autobiographical, and whilst it would be reductive to analyse ‘In the Penal Colony’ as merely a reflection of Kafka’s own attitude to his life and art (the presence of writing in the story, as the device literally inscribes words upon the condemned person’s body, is significant in the work of an author as self-referential as Kafka), it is important to observe the extent to which ‘In the Penal Colony’ has its roots in Kafka’s own experiences and attitudes. The fact that the device enacts the punishment of Kafka’s characters through writing upon them before killing them is a highly suggestive detail, since it describes, amongst other things, what Kafka himself was doing at the time in his novel The Trial.
Another key autobiographical fact in relation to ‘In the Penal Colony’, as with virtually all of Kafka’s other work, is his relationship with his father. Fathers, or their stand-ins, tend to be unsympathetic to their sons’ plight in Kafka’s work: in ‘The Judgment’, Georg’s father effectively persuades his own son to drown himself, while Josef K.’s uncle in The Trial is more concerned with the shame his nephew is bringing upon the family than he is about his nephew’s own welfare. And in ‘The Metamorphosis’, which we have analysed here, Gregor Samsa’s father throws apples at his son, who has been transformed into a giant beetle or ‘vermin’. The Commandant of ‘In the Penal Colony’ is, in a sense, the ultimate towering father-figure, to whom deference is demanded at all times. Kafka had a difficult relationship with his father, who was a domineering and frequently aggressive and irascible presence in young Franz’s life.
A political interpretation of ‘In the Penal Colony’ is also possible, in that – like much of Kafka’s work – he prefigures and predicts the nightmare totalitarianism that would grip so many European countries in the decades following his own death, in 1924. Being arrested and executed on trumped-up charges because the accused has not shown due deference to the state and its leader (the Commandant) eerily foreshadows so many regimes from Stalinism in Russia to Nazi Germany to Mussolini’s fascist Italy, as well as many other tyrannical regimes. But it’s not simply that Kafka foresaw such regimes, since the germs of nascent totalitarian political systems were already in evidence in his own central Europe in 1914 when he wrote the initial draft of ‘In the Penal Colony’.
A religious or theological analysis of ‘In the Penal Colony’ also readily makes sense if we view the Commandant as God. He can variously be interpreted as the Old Testament God, Yahweh (in the English translations of Kafka’s story, ‘Commandant’ is close to ‘Commandment’, reminding us that in the Old Testament, God gave Moses the so-called Ten Commandments as a sign of his divine rule) or as Jesus, given that he ‘died’ and it is believed that he will return to the land at some unspecified time in the future.
In this connection, it’s worth remembering that Kafka was at work on his novel The Trial when he wrote ‘In the Penal Colony’, and in some respects we might view the latter text as a sort of pendant or offshoot from that longer and more ambitious work. The Trial famously opens with its protagonist, Josef K., being arrested for some unspecified crime, and in the course of that novel (spoilers alert!), he finds it difficult to prove his innocence, not least because he doesn’t know what specific crime he has been charged with. He is, if you will, presumed guilty until proven innocent, much as the Condemned in ‘In the Penal Colony’ is unaware of his crime and presumed guilty with no proper chance to prove his innocence.
At the end of The Trial, Josef K. is stabbed to death by the authorities, and this mirrors the Officer’s quick but brutal death at the hands of the machine in ‘In the Penal Colony’. Of course, the difference is that in this story, the man who approves and works for the system readily offers himself as a willing sacrifice on the altar of the device, if you will. The Condemned is actually allowed to go free.
But in both texts, a religious interpretation is applicable. Religion often encourages presumption of personal guilt, for which one must spend a lifetime atoning with good deeds. The doctrine of Original Sin teaches that we are, in the words of the poet Fulke Greville, created sick and commanded to be sound. So the attitude to guilt and punishment that both stories present is in keeping with a theological analysis of Kafka’s work.
Of course, parallels can also be drawn between the slow, lingering death (and mystical epiphany) experienced by the victims of the execution device and the Crucifixion. In this interpretation, if the Commandant is the Old Testament God (i.e., God the Father), the Officer can be viewed as the one who continues his work (i.e., God the Son, or Jesus), who takes the place of the Condemned and willingly sacrifices himself in the other man’s place, much as (so Christianity teaches) Jesus took all of humanity’s sins upon himself when he was crucified.
But if this parallel holds, it’s worth observing that there is no accompanying resurrection following the death of the Officer. And although the Commandant is believed, by his followers, to be capable of returning from the dead at some point, he hasn’t yet done so. In the last analysis, the Officer’s death is meaningless, even for himself, as he is robbed of the chance to experience some transcendent experience as he dies, some great awakening or moment of consciousness. The machinery of punishment has failed him, its greatest proponent.
About Franz Kafka
The German-speaking Bohemian (now Czech) author Franz Kafka (1883-1924) has been called everything from a modernist to an existentialist, a fantasy writer to a realist. His work almost stands alone as its own subgenre, and the adjective ‘Kafkaesque’ – whose meaning, like the meaning of Kafka’s work, is hard to pin down – has become well-known even to people who have never read a word of Kafka’s writing. Perhaps inevitably, he is often misinterpreted as being a gloomy and humourless writer about nightmarish scenarios, when this at best conveys only part of what he is about.
The critic J. P. Stern attempted to define ‘Kafkaesque’, the adjective derived from Kafka’s works, by using synonyms ranging from ‘weird’ and ‘mysterious’ to ‘tortuously bureaucratic’ and even ‘nightmarish’ and ‘horrible’. Undoubtedly all of these terms are applicable. Perhaps only ‘Orwellian’ can stand ahead of ‘Kafkaesque’ as a twentieth-century literary term which so sharply describes, and even shapes, our own thinking about our twenty-first-century world. As Stern observes, though, alongside ‘nightmarish’ we must also place ‘humdrum’: the ‘everyday quality’ of Kafka’s people and situations is indistinguishable from its horror.
Much of Kafka’s work remained unpublished until after his death. As he lay dying of tuberculosis in 1924, he commanded his friend Max Brod to burn all of his unpublished material (and even his published work). Brod refused to honour Kafka’s dying wish, seeing his friend’s slim body of work as an original contribution to literature and too important not to publish.