In the Penal Colony

by

Franz Kafka

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The Officer Character Analysis

The story’s antagonist, the officer acts as judge, jury, and executioner in the penal colony and is the last person who adheres to the rule of law created by the old Commandant. The officer is obsessed with the apparatus, a machine created by the old Commandant to torture and kill prisoners. The officer also took part in the early development of the apparatus and demonstrates this fondness for the device through his loving attention to every detail of the machine, which literally etches a sentence onto the body of the condemned and as it slowly kills them over the course of twelve hours. In an effort to continue the way of life he’s known (and fiercely believes in), the officer gives a detailed explanation of the apparatus to the explorer, who he believes can convince the new Commandant to reinvest in apparatus and all it represents. The officer reflects an older, authoritarian society in which the few elite rule over the masses and use their authority to maintain power while cruelly inflicting punishment on anyone who breaks their rules. He does not give prisoners any chances to defend themselves, believing that anyone accused of a crime is guilty and that entertaining any counterarguments is a tedious and unnecessary part of a system of justice. At the end of the story, the officer maintains his allegiance to the old Commandant by sacrificially offering himself on the apparatus and sentencing himself to the crime of being unjust. This suggests a biblical parallel with Christ’s crucifixion, underscoring the fanaticism of the officer’s beliefs. In its final execution, however, the apparatus begins to break down, ultimately killing the officer by driving a spike through his head. The parallel fates of the officer and the machine demonstrate the finality of his system of justice.

The Officer Quotes in In the Penal Colony

The In the Penal Colony quotes below are all either spoken by The Officer or refer to The Officer. 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

“For I was the former Commandant's assistant in all-penal matters and know more about the apparatus than anyone. My guiding principle is this: Guilt is never to be doubted. Other courts cannot follow that principle, for they consist of several opinions and have higher courts to scrutinize them.”

Related Characters: The Officer (speaker), The Prisoner, The Old Commandant
Page Number: 145
Explanation and Analysis:

“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:
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The Officer Character Timeline in In the Penal Colony

The timeline below shows where the character The Officer 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... (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Power and Justice Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
Culture and Otherness Theme Icon
Proudly detailing the functions of the apparatus, the officer explains that he helped with the development of the delicate machine but credit for its... (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
As the officer animatedly explains the various parts of the apparatus, its three different components—the Bed, the Designer,... (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Power and Justice Theme Icon
...explorer, who becomes curious about the exact system of justice in the penal colony. The officer explains that he is both judge and executioner, that the prisoner had no defense, and... (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
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The officer continues to explain the exact nature of the prisoner’s crime: failing to wake up every... (full context)
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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 himself as “extraordinary measures” that... (full context)
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Showing the explorer the “most important” part of the execution, the officer carefully reveals the guiding plans of the apparatus. So precious that only the officer himself... (full context)
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Going into excruciating detail, the officer notes the tortured men are fed warm rice pap but lose the desire to eat... (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
...the clothing of the prisoner, leaving him surprised and naked as the soldier and the officer secure him to the apparatus. As a strap on the machine breaks, the officer complains... (full context)
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Culture and Otherness Theme Icon
As the officer and the soldier busy themselves with preparing the prisoner for execution, the explorer struggles with... (full context)
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The prisoner vomits. this further infuriates the officer, who says that the new Commandant has a “mild doctrine” because he does not starve... (full context)
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Whisking the explorer back to a better time, the officer describes the days of executions during the time of the old Commandant when there would... (full context)
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Embarrassed by the officer’s passion, the explorer remains quiet. Realizing it is quite hard to believe, the officer nonetheless... (full context)
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The officer continues to rant, pointing out that the explorer is probably thinking that in Europe they... (full context)
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The explorer’s resistance causes the officer to become even more fervent about the importance of preserving the apparatus. He bluntly pleads... (full context)
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...steadfast in his convictions, the explorer says he is “touched” by the conviction of the officer but refuses to help him maintain the apparatus and the system it represents. The officer... (full context)
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Admonishing the prisoner for being rough with the apparatus, the officer spells out his own sentence—"BE JUST!”—and shows it to the explorer. As with the previous... (full context)
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The officer quickly and stoically strips naked, breaks his sword, and climbs onto the apparatus. The explorer... (full context)
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Culture and Otherness Theme Icon
After a brief bit of wrestling with the soldier, the prisoner, upon seeing the officer naked, realizes a change is at hand and “grins” at the revenge about to take... (full context)
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Religion Theme Icon
The explorer finally decides to act once he realizes the officer’s death will be “plain murder” rather than “exquisite torture.” Attempting in vain to free the... (full context)