The antediluvian apparatus and ancient legal system in Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” describes the current state of humanity in the colonial era. Through the use, along with the circumstances surrounding the machine, Kafka portrays slavery and colonialism in the world and the consequences of failing to abolish such ways.
The people of the colony are represented by “the Soldier”, “the Officer”, “the Explorer”, “the Condemned man”, and “the Commandant”. By giving them these names, Kafka has essentially dehumanized them much like those who have been condemned to working in penal colonies; they only have functions, not names. The harsh bureaucratic ways of the colony can be seen through the punishments handed out as told by the Officer who is:
much more interested in the technicalities of the execution than the niceties of legal procedure. The actual execution is to be carried out by a complex apparatus designed by the former Commandant of the penal colony and maintained by the Officer. The machine tortures the condemned man in a process that brutally mimics and transforms the sexual act. The condemned man is strapped naked onto something akin to a bed and the top part of the apparatus, a set of knife-like needles, automatically descends, piercing his body and excreting a fluid that inscribes the sentence upon his flesh. For the first six hours of the writing process, the condemned man “suffers only pain” (149) but as the needles pierce his internal organs more deeply, he achieves a form of enlightenment that culminates in death. (Kohn 5)
The way in which the punishment is filtered through the legal system of the penal colony is also rather questionable. The Officer says, “I have been appointed judge in this penal colony”(145) and uses his principle of:
Guilt is never to be doubted. Other courts cannot follow that principle, for they consist of several opinions and have higher courts to scrutinize them. That is not the case here, or at least, it was not the case in the former Commandant’s time.”(145)
to rule over his judgments. For the condemned man, he has no chance to defend himself and prove his innocence by virtue of the system in place. They are always going to be found guilty for the sake of being guilty so they can have an execution take place and bring some kind of grotesque excitement where, “hundreds of spectators—all of them standing on tiptoe”(153) could bear witness to them.
Aside from the archaic methods of criminal procedures, Kafka also presents the reliance on antiquated technology through this work in the presentation of execution machine to portray the costs associated with running a penal colony for slave labor during his time. We first get a glimpse of the harsh realities of the machine and the cost to upkeep it when the soldier breaks the wrist strap and the Officer says, “This is a very complex machine, it can’t be helped that things are breaking or giving way here and there; but one must not thereby allow oneself to be diverted in one’s general judgment”(151). He continues saying:
the resources for maintaining the machine are now very much reduced. Under the former Commandant I had free access to a sum of money set aside entirely for this purpose. There was a store, too, in which spare parts were kept for repairs of all kinds. (151)…Now he has taken charge of the machine money himself, and if I send for a new strap they ask for the broken old strap as evidence, and the new strap takes ten days to appear and then is of shoddy material and not much good. (151)
There was an entire store dedicated solely to maintaining the machine it much like penal colonies were such a hindrance on the economies of the nations that controlled and maintained them.
As the story progresses, we can see how the ways of the penal colony are being phased out when we hear the Officer tell the Explorer:
there’s no time to lose, an attack of some kind is impending on my function as judge; conferences are already being held in the Commandant’s office from which I am excluded; even your coming here today seems to me a significant move; they are cowards and use you as a screen, you, a stranger.(153)
The Officer views the Explorer with a great deal of clout believing he can restore the penal colony to the greatness that it once enjoyed. However, the Explorer knows the harsh realities of the colony and refuses to play along with Officer to help him bring the colony back to its previous state. Instead we see the Explorer as, “a kind of outsider,”(157) a change in attitudes throughout the world looking in on the colony. The Officer finally realizes that the Explorer is not there to help him restore what once was, and he submits himself to his own machine. As the machine is inscribing ‘be just’ into his body, it fails due to its complex nature and failing state, much like the failing state of the colony, and kills him.
Through close readings of “In the Penal Colony,” we gain an insight as to what Kafka was trying to accomplish with this work. His nation, Germany, as well as many others in the world at the time had undertaken colonialism and establishing penal colonies to better their nations. However, Kafka illustrates the failing nature of these establishments through their rudimentary justice systems and monetary reliance on the host nations economies. Instead of bettering society through what was being provided by the slave labor, the social order of the world was being torn apart keeping them afloat.
Kohn, Margaret. “Kafka’s Critique of Colonialism.” Theory & Event. 8.3 (2005): 5. Print.