“In the Penal Colony” Write Up by Zoe Vastakis


In the Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” we are first introduced to the characters, the Officer, the Traveller, The Condemned Man, and the Soldier. The Traveller was asked to attend an execution, using the apparatus, for a man who insulted his superior but he doesn’t care and doesn’t even really want to be there. The Officer messes around with the apparatus, even though the isn’t a mechanic, but it’s obviously how much he loves this machine that the traveller doesn’t say anything. The Officer says that the machine breaks down a lot, and because the machine must run for 12 hours, any breakdowns have to be fixed right away. He briefly mentions the previous Commandant before going on to explain how the machine works. There are three main parts to the apparatus: The Bed, the Inscriber, and the Harrow. The Traveller hasn’t really been listening. It is briefly mentioned that the Condemned Man doesn’t seem to understand what they are talking about, for they are speaking in French. The Officer then proceeds to explain what each part does. The Bed is the part of the apparatus that the person who is being condemned will lie on. There are straps so the person cannot escape, and something that will be placed in the person’s mouth so they don’t bite their tongue off. The Inscriber controls the Harrow which will inscriber the person’s crime into their skin. “[T]he Harrow … has the job of actually carrying out the sentence.” We find out that the Condemned Man doesn’t know his sentence. And the officer isn’t going to tell him because he will know his sentence when it is inscribed into his skin. There was also no trial, or jury, because the Officer is also the judge and if there were a trial he would just be confused and the Condemned Man wouldn’t get his punishment. The Officer then goes back to explaining how the apparatus works. The Traveller doesn’t like the way things are run and hopes that the New Commandant fixes everything and comes up with a new procedure for execution. When he asks if the Commandant is going to be at the execution the Officer says it’s not certain and that they need to hurry up. The Officer continues saying how the apparatus works. The Harrow has three needles, one that punctures the skin and the other two squirt out a liquid to clean the cut so that the condemned can see their sentence. The officer tries to get the Traveller to read the diagram, but it just looks like scribbles and the Traveller can’t decipher it. This is when we learn that the apparatus isn’t supposed to kill right away, but over a period of 12 hours. Here we learn that after the letter is first carved on the back, it will be patted down and prepared for deeper inscription. He will be in excruciating pain until about the 6th hour. After the inscription is complete, they will quickly bury the person who has been inscribed on. The Soldier cuts off the Condemned Man’s clothes then straps him down to the machine. One of the straps rips off and The Officer complains about how they no longer have the resources that they once had when the Previous Commandant was in place. Again, The Traveller thinks about how he wishes he could change things, but he is just an outsider and can’t do anything. He then thinks that based on the fact that he was invited here was to put a stop to this trail, and it was the New Commandment’s way of attempting to end this process. Suddenly, the Condemned Man throws up and it gets onto the apparatus. The Officer blames it on the New Commandment because the Commandant’s women feed the Condemned Man a lot of food when he shouldn’t be fed the day before his execution. The Officer than goes on to tell the Traveller about how in the old times, when the apparatus was used, the colony would practically through a party. They’d get so excited that everyone would want to get as close to the apparatus as possible. They would always let the kids get the closest, because well, they were children. It was a form of entertainment. Now, the people who still feel this way hide out and pretend that they don’t feel this way. He then says that the Traveller didn’t understand how things were once run. He says that if the Traveller just says something little that corresponds with the Commandant’s beliefs, all of the work the Officer and the Old Commandants work will be lost. The Traveller admits that this was his intention, even if the Officer is exaggerating a little bit. He says that his opinion actually isn’t all that important, but the Officer disagrees. The Officer then asks for the Traveller’s help with the Commandant. The Officer than goes to tell him that he can help by not giving an opinion, and if he must, to do so vaguely. The Officer’s plan is based on the Commandant’s misinterpretation of the Traveller’s vague, yet bitter information. The Officer believes that if the Traveller follows through with this, he will be invited to the important meeting hosted by the Commandant, and the Officer will attend the meeting with him. Then the Traveller would speak the truth about how he felt about the situation, and the Officer would take over from there. The Traveller says no because he doesn’t agree with anything that has gone down with the execution. The Officer appears to stop listening to him, then tells the Condemned Man that he is free. As the Soldier frees the Condemned Man, the Officer gives the Traveller the diagrams to read that say “Be Just”. The Officer begins to work on the apparatus while the Condemned Man and the Soldier, who have become friends by this point, joke around and play with each other. The Officer then begins undressing quickly, but folds his clothes with care, before throwing them into the hole. When the Condemned Man see’s the Officer standing there completely nude, he begins to laugh. The Officer lies on the bed, but doesn’t strap himself in because he feels it isn’t necessary. The Condemned Man and the Soldier still strap him in, but when the Condemned Man has a morbid fascination with how the machine works, the Traveller orders them to go home. As he does so, he hears a noise and watches as the machine begins to fall apart. The Inscriber isn’t working right and instead of inscribing, it is stabbing the Officer repeatedly and the Bed is lifting the Officer up closer to the spikes. The Officer didn’t want to be tortured, but murdered. The Traveller asks for help but the Condemned Man doesn’t want to help, so the Traveller forces him to. When they get to him, the Officer looks bright, alive, and calm, and he has a giant needed through his forehead. The Traveller, the Soldier, and the Condemned man go to visit the grave of an old man, who we are soon told was the Old Commandant, and on his grave it says that “there exists a prophecy that the Commandant will rise again after a certain number of years and from this house will lead his followers to a re-conquest of the colony.” The Traveller then leaves, and brings nothing and no one with him as he does so.

Acute Tension: The Officer is about to execute the Condemned Man, and wants the Traveller to help him prove to the New Commandant that the execution process and the apparatus should continue on.

Chronic Tension: The Officer’s relationship with the Old Commandant.

What makes this piece interesting is that it appears to be the opposite of a dystopian society. It was once practically dysfunctional in the fact that execution was like, their highlight of the week and such. And now that the New Commandant is attempting to take over, it’s interesting to see that “good” is winning over “bad” traditions. In stories, I feel that there is usually this one group of people who are trying to save society from its terrible ways, and in this story, the same is happening, but society is prospering and the Officer wants it to go back to the way it was, which is something that we don’t see too often.

The story uses images to develop the theme, which in this case I suppose could be abandonment, possibly failed resurrection, through the machine and the fact that the apparatus represents everything that the Officer wants in his society and how he wants it to revert back to the old days. But when he finally gives up on that dream, the machine malfunctions, falls apart, and murders him.

The techniques I chose to follow was every time confinement was mentioned, every time the changes or the mentions of the old and new society are brought up, and every time parts of the machine are brought up. I chose these because I thought that yes, there is a physical sense of entrapment by using the chains and straps, but also, the Officer seems trapped by his dream of the colony reverting to how it was, because that’s all he can think about, well that and the machine. But the fact that his dream doesn’t pan out causes him to feel trapped to the point where he kills himself using said dream.

I also tracked the parts of the machine and the changes in society are brought up, because in the beginning, he barely mentions how he wants society to change because he is too busy describing in depth how the machine works. But when he goes on that long tangent about how society isn’t how it once was and his plan to get it back to that point, he is almost manic, and he forgets about the device that basically made the colony the way it was back in the day. I thought it was interesting how those two went together. And towards the end, when the Officer was setting up the machine for him to go in, there was no mention for his hopes anymore, just the machine and how it would eventually become his demise.

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