In The Penal Colony

Essay by PaperNerd ContributorCollege, Undergraduate November 2001

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Many times people underestimate the power of language. Its absurdity can disturb and pervert our minds. Its purity can make us smile, and touch our soul. Its words spin through our minds creating pictures of horror and beauty. Language makes us laugh and cry, it breaks our hearts and fills them with joy, yet it is such a basic part of our society. However basic though, its intricacies are infinite. We've discussed in class how language has 2 dimensions: descriptive and informative. However sometimes it possesses a third dimension, a performative one. The first two of these dimensions are basic. Language informs us of what's going on and what to do. It describes a fire red sky at dawn, or eyes as blue as the ocean. It is the combination of all three dimensions that changes language from a way of communicating into an art form. It gives language the power to change us in a way that we will never be the same.

Kafka's "In the Penal Colony" has all three of these dimensions, and its mastery of the utilization of them makes this work beautifully horrific.

Kafka is a master of the art of writing "In the Penal Colony" demonstrates his ability to beautifully describe things. He provides the reader with vivid images of his fictional world, the penal colony, a detailed picture of the apparatus and an even more vivid image of the feat it performs. He describes in detail the twelve-hour sentence that the apparatus executes, and the slow and painful realization of the crime that the condemned comes to after six hours. "In the Penal Colony" also demonstrates Kafka's extraordinary ability to inform the reader of the on goings of the story. The reader is always aware of the passing events, and the manor in which the events happened. The reader is kept well informed of what is happening throughout the entire story.

These two dimensions, informative and descriptive, make this story good, yet it is the addition of the third, peformative dimension, that makes it great. "In the Penal Colony" presents images that darken our souls, and themes that we struggle with well after we finish reading the text. Good and evil, hierarchy of class, jurisprudence, and even religious sacrifice play important thematic roles in this story. These themes are what keep us up at night, they stick in our minds and lead us to question ourselves, and the principles we live by. They affect us in a different way; rather that creating an image, or keeping us informed, these themes make us actively think about the way in which we live.

Upon its most basic examination this story presents a parody of justice. The system of justice in the penal colony is the opposite of what we consider justice, it is contrary to what the explorer expects upon his visit as well. The condemned man does not know his sentence, or what crime he committed (at least until well into his execution), he hadn't even a chance to defend himself. On top of that the officer not only acts as the executioner, he also acts as the judge and jury but only hears one side of the story. In other words the penal colony completely lacks a system of checks and balances. Even when asked about the condemned's side of the story, the Officer replies, "If I had first called the man before me"¦ things would have got into a confused tangle. He would have told lies"¦" (p.146) Kafka also seems to give a strange and surreal parody of justice in the end of the story. It seems fitting that such an evil machine should kill the man who holds it in the most high esteem. Kafka seems to imply throughout that authority is untrustworthy, and always to be questioned.

Another theme of "In the Penal Colony" is good and evil, and how something can be both at the same time depending on your view. The apparatus for instance is horrific to the explorer, and at the same time the officer is explaining the beautiful and intricate way it works. The apparatus also works in the same manner, it slowly and painfully mutilates a human body, yet at the same time it creates an immaculate inscription on the body as it does so. Kafka presents us with many scenes of beautiful horror, he challenges the reader to reach a capacity to understand both happening at the same time.

A third theme that arises is religious sacrifice. Kafka suggests that the executions used to provide some sort of spiritual enlightenment. On page 154 the officer describes the glory of an execution under the regime of the old commandant. "How different an execution was in the old days! A whole day before the ceremony the valley was packed with people; they all came only to look on"¦ How we all absorbed the look of transfiguration on the face of the sufferer, how we bathed our cheeks in the radiance of that justice." Kafka suggests that the whole colony was brought together by an execution, and watched on with awe as if they were watching a sacrifice upon an altar. However, with the passing of the old commandant the colony begins to lead to abandon the "religion" of the apparatus. With their turn away from the machine under the regime of the new commandant, the colony seems to indicate that the apparatus has lost its religious significance. At the end when the machine brutally kills its last supporter as it falls apart the "religion," and the sacrifice that brought the colony together dies with the officer.

The last theme that permeates the story is a distinct bureaucracy, a hierarchy of class, specifically the mistreatment of a lower class, specifically the soldier and the condemned man. Firstly the officer and the explorer speak French when discussing the machine. French is looked at as a language of elegance and aristocracy, lower class people can't speak it. The soldier and condemned man don't understand the words that the officer is saying but the condemned man seems still to take an intense interest in what the officer is showing and saying to the explorer. He moves closer to the machine and examines it as a dog would, without saying a word and a certain amount of ignorance, a silent curiosity. The condemned man is even referred to as a dog on page 140, "The condemned man looked so like a submissive dog that one might have thought that he could be left to run free"¦ and would only need to be whistled for when the execution was due to begin." It also seems as though the officer cares more for his beloved machine then he does the human life that it is about to take. The life of the condemned man is insignificant to him, however he must go over and over the machine to make sure that it is clean and perfect before the execution takes place. Perhaps that is the equivalent of the last wish for that machine, something which the condemned was never given. The condemned never even had the chance to speak on his behalf, he was judged and sentenced within a single day because the charge came from a superior, he never had a chance. Even the rice pap that is given to the condemned as he lay dying is like a tease to the dying man, it is said that "the man rarely swallows his last mouthful, he only rolls it around in his mouth and spits it into the pit." (p. 140) At the end of the story the officer gently helps the man out from under the harrow it seems to be a nice gesture, perhaps a change has taken place in the officer, however it is soon realized that this is done only so that the straps are not broken. The officer "hardly paid attention to him" (p. 161) after this was done. After the death of the officer, the bureaucracy is hardly changed. The soldier and the condemned man seem to become submissive to the explorer in the same way that a slave is to their master. Using this theme Kafka seems to suggest that their will always be positions of power in this world, and no matter what passes as a generation ends those in such authoritative positions will still show no greater interest in those below them.

Throughout this piece Kafka's use of language's dimensions shapes the story. He describes beautifully the penal colony, and the people inside it. He lets us know what is going on inside the penal colony, both at that very time and in the past. However it is the themes of this text: justice, good versus evil, religious sacrifice, and mistreatment of a lower class, which make our minds spin. They are the performative aspect of his writing, the part that makes us think quietly to ourselves. It makes us question our faith and dependence on authority. It makes us find the thin line between good and evil, beautiful and horrific, and then after we find it we question which side we're on. It helps us learn about ourselves and changes our hearts towards the less fortunate. Due to this Kafka's writing is beautiful artwork that touches us in an everlasting way.