In the Penal Colony

by

Franz Kafka

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The Explorer Character Analysis

A protagonist with an ambiguous moral compass, the explorer is a distinguished visitor to the penal colony implied to have a European background. As the explorer witnesses the officer’s dying way of life, he comes to represents a Western, liberal mindset. Invited to attend the execution by the new Commandant,the explorer is initially bored with the officer’s explanation of the apparatus and its specific method of execution. However, his indifference soon shifts to horror as he learns the exact nature of the punitive system in the penal colony and the inhumane methods used to dispense the officer’s idea of justice. Nevertheless, throughout the story the explorer downplays his authority and does not intervene in the execution of the prisoner despite his private misgivings. The explorer couches his lack of action as deference to cultural difference in order to absolve himself of culpability. When the officer pushes the explorer to speak up about preserving the use of the apparatus, however, the explorer tells him he will not support the officer, pointing out that because the new Commandant does not support the officer, his way of life is likely over anyway. When the officer then straps himself to the apparatus, the explorer seems to believe that the officer is doing the right thing—dying for his convictions. Ultimately, the explorer’s conscience does get the best of him as he tries in vain to save the officer before his death. As he leaves the island, the explorer notably prevents the soldier and prisoner from coming with him—thereby further distancing himself from any connection with life on the penal colony. Though he condemns the officer’s version of justice, the explorer’s cowardly, self-serving actions also suggest that the West is not immune to inhumanity and cruelty.

The Explorer Quotes in In the Penal Colony

The In the Penal Colony quotes below are all either spoken by The Explorer or refer to The Explorer . For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Schocken Books edition of In the Penal Colony published in 1995.
In the Penal Colony Quotes

“Enlightenment comes to the most dull-witted. It begins around the eyes. From there it radiates. A moment that might tempt one to get under the Harrow oneself. Nothing more happens than that the man begins to understand the inscription, he purses his mouth as if he were listening. You have seen how difficult it is to decipher the script with one's eyes; but our man deciphers it with his wounds.”

Related Characters: The Officer (speaker), The Explorer , The Prisoner
Related Symbols: The Apparatus
Page Number: 150
Explanation and Analysis:

You are a foreigner, mind your own business. He could make no answer to that, unless he were to add that he was amazed at himself in this connection, for he traveled only as an observer, with no intention at all of altering other people's methods of administering justice. Yet here he found himself strongly tempted. The injustice of the procedure and the inhumanity of the execution were undeniable.

Related Characters: The Explorer , The Officer, The Prisoner
Related Symbols: The Apparatus
Page Number: 151
Explanation and Analysis:

“He has calculated it carefully: this is your second day on the island, you did not know the old Commandant and his ways, you are conditioned by European ways of thought, perhaps you object on principle to capital punishment in general and to such mechanical instruments of death in particular…”

Related Symbols: The Apparatus
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:

“Of course the Commandant is the kind of man to have turned these conferences into public spectacles. He has had a gallery built that is always packed with spectators. I am compelled to take part in the conferences, but they make me sick with disgust.”

Related Characters: The Officer (speaker), The Explorer , The New Commandant
Page Number: 158
Explanation and Analysis:

Now the officer began to spell it, letter by letter, and then read out the words. “‘BE JUST!’ is what is written there,” he said, “surely you can read it now.”

Related Characters: The Officer (speaker), The Explorer
Page Number: 160
Explanation and Analysis:

The explorer bit his lips and said nothing. He knew very well what was going to happen, but he had no right to obstruct the officer in anything. If the judicial procedure which the officer cherished were really so near its end—possibly as a result of his own intervention, as to which he felt himself pledged—then the officer was doing the right thing; in his place the explorer would not have acted otherwise.

Related Characters: The Explorer , The Officer
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

The condemned man especially seemed struck with the notion that some great change was impending. What had happened to him was now going to happen to the officer. Perhaps even to the very end. Apparently the foreign explorer had given the order for it. So this was revenge. Although he himself had not suffered to the end, he was to be revenged to the end. A broad, silent grin now appeared on his face and stayed there all the rest of the time.

Related Characters: The Explorer , The Officer, The Prisoner
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

[…] no sign was visible of the promised redemption; what the others had found in the machine the officer had not found; the lips were firmly pressed together, the eyes were open with the same expression as in life, the look was calm and convinced, through the forehead went the point of the great iron spike.

Related Characters: The Explorer , The Officer
Related Symbols: The Apparatus
Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:

Here rests the old Commandant. His adherents, who now must be nameless, have dug this grave and set up this stone. There is a prophecy that after a certain number of years the commandant will rise again and lead his adherents from this house to recover the colony. Have faith and wait!

Related Characters: The Explorer , The Old Commandant
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Explorer Character Timeline in In the Penal Colony

The timeline below shows where the character The Explorer appears in In the Penal Colony. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
In the Penal Colony
Power and Justice Theme Icon
Culture and Otherness Theme Icon
An officer is proudly showing an explorer a machine called the apparatus, which will be used for an execution on a penal... (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Power and Justice Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
Culture and Otherness Theme Icon
...come up with any better ideas even if he had “a thousand new schemes.” The explorer (who is disinterested and hardly listening) and officer hold their conversation in French, though this... (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
...various parts of the apparatus, its three different components—the Bed, the Designer, and the Harrow—the explorer becomes more interested in the machine. The officer shows contempt toward the new Commandant, who... (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Power and Justice Theme Icon
Learning of the prisoner’s sentence troubles the explorer, who becomes curious about the exact system of justice in the penal colony. The officer... (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Power and Justice Theme Icon
...the apparatus, more eager to explain its function than the rule of law, as the explorer begins to be agitated by the proceedings. (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Power and Justice Theme Icon
Culture and Otherness Theme Icon
Ready to be finished with the tour, the explorer exudes distaste for the officer and his system by rationalizes the methods of execution to... (full context)
Power and Justice Theme Icon
Showing the explorer the “most important” part of the execution, the officer carefully reveals the guiding plans of... (full context)
Power and Justice Theme Icon
...a prisoner “deciphers” his sentence with his “wounds,” which he admits to the still silent explorer, is very hard work. (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Power and Justice Theme Icon
Culture and Otherness Theme Icon
As the officer and the soldier busy themselves with preparing the prisoner for execution, the explorer struggles with his role in the situation. He notes that it’s “ticklish to intervene in... (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
Whisking the explorer back to a better time, the officer describes the days of executions during the time... (full context)
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Culture and Otherness Theme Icon
Embarrassed by the officer’s passion, the explorer remains quiet. Realizing it is quite hard to believe, the officer nonetheless argues that the... (full context)
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Power and Justice Theme Icon
Culture and Otherness Theme Icon
The officer continues to rant, pointing out that the explorer is probably thinking that in Europe they haven’t used torture since “the Middle Ages.” The... (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Culture and Otherness Theme Icon
The explorer’s resistance causes the officer to become even more fervent about the importance of preserving the... (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Power and Justice Theme Icon
Culture and Otherness Theme Icon
Patronizing and steadfast in his convictions, the explorer says he is “touched” by the conviction of the officer but refuses to help him... (full context)
Power and Justice Theme Icon
...with the apparatus, the officer spells out his own sentence—"BE JUST!”—and shows it to the explorer. As with the previous script, the explorer cannot read the words, but the officer is... (full context)
Culture and Otherness Theme Icon
...officer quickly and stoically strips naked, breaks his sword, and climbs onto the apparatus. The explorer is uncomfortable with the officer’s behavior but ultimately believes that the officer’s decision to execute... (full context)
Power and Justice Theme Icon
Culture and Otherness Theme Icon
...hand and “grins” at the revenge about to take place, attributing this change to the explorer’s intervention. With grace and an adept hand, the officer turns on the apparatus and demonstrates... (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Culture and Otherness Theme Icon
Starting of its own accord, the apparatus does its work, at first silently to the explorer, who is completely entranced before noticing the curious and rapt attention of the soldier and... (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Power and Justice Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
The explorer finally decides to act once he realizes the officer’s death will be “plain murder” rather... (full context)
Religion Theme Icon
The explorer, soldier, and prisoner return to the penal colony and visit a teahouse, which holds the... (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Power and Justice Theme Icon
Culture and Otherness Theme Icon
Before leaving the teahouse, the explorer distributes some coins to the dockworkers, a quiet, homely group of men who are just... (full context)