Some of the most common themes in Joseph Kafka's literature deal with justice and punishment. "In the Penal Colony" is a narrative which takes a critical look at totalitarian punishment and its faults. As the title suggests, it is set in a penal colony, on a small island where discipline and punishment are all-important.
The story is told from the perspective of an explorer who, much like the reader, is an outsider of the penal colony, Western educated and liberal. He has come to evaluate the effectiveness of this machine, a device of punishment, torture, and execution. Of course, the explorer is totally biased against the whole thing from the start.
A great deal of the narrative is the officer describing to the explorer in detail the specific functions of the machine. A system of needles slowly inscribes the punishment, which is as simple as a single phrase ("honor thy superiors!"), on the body of the condemned man.
The needles carve deeper and deeper, until finally after 12 hours, the victim is impaled through the head, killing him instantly. What made the torture so effective was how the people could watch the transformation take place on the victim's face as he realized the message that was being cut into his body. The officer reminisces, "How we all drank in the transfigured look on the tortured face, how we bathed our cheeks in the glow of this justice, finally achieved and soon fading!" This enlightenment, the realization and utter acceptance of ultimate justice was what the machine's purpose was to extract from the guilty man. It was made into a spectacle for all the people in the penal colony to see, so that nobody else would ever dare question the law again.
The narrative raises...