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Understanding "In The Penal Colony"

Most people, when they hear the name “Kafka”, think of The Metamorphosis. Instead, they should think about “In The Penal Colony”. This is, understandably, an odd thing to argue; who really cares which story is better?

Except that The Metamorphosis, Kafka’s (in)famous story about a man who wakes up one morning to find he has transformed into a cockroach, is infinitely more famous. Using the understandably odd metric of Wikipedia’s word count, The Metamorphosis rates 3,600 words. “In The Penal Colony” rates less than a thousand. Artists have created multiple films, stories and stage versions of The Metamorphosis; “In The Penal Colony” rates a song by Joy Division.

Sigh. This is a shame. “In The Penal Colony” isn’t just as good as The Metamorphosis; it’s better.

Why is The Metamorphosis more beloved? Theme, probably. As an allegory of modern life and alienation, all of us feel, at some point, that we are Gregor Samsa, alienated from our bosses and family and urban life. Modern readers can effortlessly relate to Kafka’s spare novella.

“In The Penal Colony” is something else entirely. It’s an allegory, but of what I’m not exactly sure. Pride, vengeance, punishment, violence, God’s relationship to man; it’s all in there to some degree.

For those who haven’t read it, a quick synopsis: The Officer takes an Explorer, a Guard, and a condemned Prisoner to see a demonstration of a punishment device, an intensely elaborate machine designed to punish prisoners with a marvelous (and horrific) torture: cutting the description of a “crime” into the backs of criminals. However, since a new Commander has taken over the penal colony, the machine has gone into dis-use, breaking down as the years go by, unrepaired and forgotten. After the explanation, the Officer reveals that he doesn’t intend to use the machine on the condemned Prisoner, but on himself. He enters the machine, and dies a brutal death.

The Explorer returns to the main city in the penal colony. He finds the old Commander’s grave, and reads an inscription about how, someday, the old Commander will return from death to the penal colony. The Explorer makes his way to a boat leaving the island. (Do yourself a favor and read the story here. It’s not too long.)

It’s a brutal story, haunting in its simplicity and terror. I love it because I can’t figure it out. (Which is another reason this story isn’t popular. People can figure out The Metamorphisis; No one can figure out “In The Penal Colony”.)

Some critics think it is an allegory of religion, that the Old Commander is God and the machine is man’s corruption of God’s word through religion. As a religious allegory, I think a better comparison is the battle between the God of the Old Testament--a God of vengeance and punishment, represented by the Old Commander and the punishment machine--and the God of the New Testament, represented by the New Commander, who refuses to use the machine--forgive your enemies of their trespasses.

But it can be read any way you want. You could look at it as a fable about pride. The self-righteous Officer, realizing his vanity (in the Ecclesiastian sense), throws himself into the machine because he failed to “Be Just”.

Or it’s a prescient fable about violence, my favorite theory and the reason I’m sharing it with On Violence readers today. The old morals and virtues--survival of the fittest, meted out through violence--are dying out. As society replaces prisons with correctional facilities and total war with population-centric counter-insurgency, as violence decreases over time, as civilization steadily replaces barbarism, the violent have no choice but to throw themselves into the machine. The Explorer, a European dignitary, despises the machine and its horrid philosophy, as most people view violence now. As Michael C wrote a few weeks ago, “war is war” is politically unfeasible.

Again, this is how I choose to read the story. Since it was written during World War I, I doubt this is what Kafka intended, but that’s not really the point. The point is: go read this story, come back, let’s debate.

One comment

I disagree with Eric’s thesis. “War is War”-iors can’t die, merely be eradicated through culture and upbringing. There are those (a commenter named Paul for whom war removed the blinders from his eyes) who can get converted, but more is going the other way. Now, maybe there is a metaphorical machine destroying barbarism, but I don’t think that is what he means.