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The Loss of Humanity and Understanding in Kafka’s Penal Colony Essay

Michel Foucault put forth a number of studies on the power of the mind. Such work can often be cross referenced against a host of literary works. When comparing Foucault’s work to that of Franz Kafka’s writing in “In the Penal Colony,” a unique perspective on Foucault’s writing becomes evident. The characters of this Kafka short story might maintain specific roles and purposes on the penal colony. However, their lives truly do lack meaning and purpose as this is evident in their automaton approach to life on the island.

In fact, the very essence of their existence on the island is completely lacking of deep meaning, identity, and understanding. How this is so will be explored in the following essay through a clear examination of the characters and the roles they play. As the title of the work infers, this is a dark tale set in a prison compound. While the notion of trying to survive on a penal colony is depressing enough, the fact that this narrative centers on a pending execution further adds to its dark misery. In the work, a torturous execution machine is employed to meet out final justice.

Ironically, the machine is also connected to an arbitrary sentencing process where the accused will be found guilty no matter what. In this very assessment, all of the characters of the work lose any and all meaning and deep understanding of their own individualism. It would seem that the machine takes over their lives and they seek solely to serve the machine. The symbolism here is somewhat obvious: human beings lose their identity to a machine society. There are only four characters in the work: The Traveler, The Soldier, The The Loss of Humanity and Understanding in Kafka’s Penal Colony – 2

Condemned, and The Explorer. By their generic names and descriptions, there is no humanity ascribed to them. Rather, they simply serve a role and a purpose within the penal colony. Similarly, the execution device has no actual name either. Rather, it is similarly dubbed a rather tired and boorish name – The Machine. In many ways, the inhabitants of the island serve no purpose other than either operate the machine or be ‘fed’ to it. All humanity and understanding of the individual is completely gone in the process. This will connect closely to the Foucault theory in many ways.

Foucault was known to put forth the notion that there are certain societal apparatuses in place that keep control of a particular social order. In other words, people will have clear and defined roles within society. In and of itself, this is not a necessarily bad thing. But, when the roles the person plays become what the person is primarily known for and all individualism is stripped, then the power of thought dissipates. As a result, humans become little more than machines serving the purposes of society as opposed to living their own lives.

This is exactly what happens to the characters that live on the penal colony. The roles of such characters become exclusively defined by the purpose that they serve. Their humanity and deeper understanding of the self becomes completely lost as a result. The Condemned becomes no different than The Explorer or The Soldier. The roles have been clearly defined and drawn and there is no deviation from such roles in any way. The description of the torture-execution device as “The Machine” then becomes symbolic of The Loss of Humanity and Understanding in Kafka’s Penal Colony – 3

the machine role all characters play in society. Of course, the penal colony itself is symbolic of society as a whole. While each and every individual in society may have his/her own unique role to play, there also comes the risk that one may completely lose his/her identity is society as a result. Each character becomes a mechanized being as opposed to a truly living one with a deep understanding of the self. In such a society, there really is no freedom. Freedom can be something of an illusion since society then becomes somewhat of a prison as a result.

Freedom is not always free when you are locked into a certain role. In many way’s, this is similar to the Foucault concept of the “prison hat. ” When you wear the hat of a prisoner and accept the role of prison discipline within the context of daily life, you become a prisoner to your societal role which can mirror the similarities of living in a prison. This destroys the deeper meaning of life and the search for one’s understanding of the self in a manner similar to the “Discipline and Punish” theory.

In the saddest form of irony, the convicted man is considered enlightened after he has been executed. Again, this is a very sad assessment because you could assume “enlightened” could be considered another form of liberation. When one is liberated, it becomes possible to be completely freed from the machine society. In this case, it is the use of a machine of death that frees the condemned prisoner from the role he is trapped. Enlightenment is also considered a form of deeper understanding.

As a result, it is possible to infer the only way to achieve deeper meaning and understanding by completely divorcing yourself from the machine society that the populace might be trapped within. The Loss of Humanity and Understanding in Kafka’s Penal Colony – 4 Deeper meaning, a greater understanding of the self, and the growth of individualism is impossible when one is locked into societal roles that are dehumanizing. Those that understand how this dehumanizing process works may be able to free themselves from the potential constraints they find themselves.

Yet, there are those that do not realize how their societal roles trap, imprison, and eventual destroy them. Such is the true tragedy at the symbolism of Kafka’s work. Resources Gutman, Les. “A Curtain Up Review – In the Penal Colony. ” Curtain Up. Available from http://www. curtainup. com/penalcolony. html. Internet; accessed 11 May 2010. O’Farrell, Clare. “Key Concepts. ” Michel Foucault. Available from http://www. michel- foucault. com/concepts/index. html. Internet; accessed 11 May 2010.


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