In the Penal Colony

by

Franz Kafka

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on In the Penal Colony can help.
A man sentenced to death for failing to wake up and salute his captain’s door, an arbitrary and absurd conviction. The prisoner is described as a stupid and naïve individual, representative of the average person in the penal colony who lacks power. The prisoner is guarded by the soldier and sentenced to die by the officer. Before being put on the apparatus, the prisoner takes a keen interest in the officer’s explanation of the machine despite the fact that he does not understand the officer’s French. The prisoner delights in his freedom when the officer eventually sets him loose and chooses to sacrifice himself to the apparatus instead. As he sees the officer beginning to be tortured, the prisoner senses that change is coming to the penal colony and attributes this shift to the explorer. The prisoner also tries to escape from the penal colony with the soldier by running after the explorer, who nevertheless leaves the pair standing on the dock. The prisoner recognizes that the change he feels coming to the penal colony is not enough to want to make him stay, but he is unable to escape despite his newfound freedom. This suggests a certain insurmountable class or cultural hierarchy between the prisoner and explorer, who can come and go as he chooses.

The Prisoner Quotes in In the Penal Colony

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

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:
Get the entire In the Penal Colony LitChart as a printable PDF.
In the Penal Colony PDF

The Prisoner Character Timeline in In the Penal Colony

The timeline below shows where the character The Prisoner 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
...watch the execution “merely out of politeness.” Behind the pair, a soldier guards a lethargic prisoner who will be executed for disobedient and insulting behavior to a military superior. Despite being... (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Power and Justice Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
Culture and Otherness Theme Icon
...and hardly listening) and officer hold their conversation in French, though this doesn’t deter the prisoner from also taking an interest in the officer’s explanations with “a kind of drowsy persistence.” (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... (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Power and Justice Theme Icon
The officer continues to explain the exact nature of the prisoner’s crime: failing to wake up every hour to salute a captain’s door during the night.... (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Power and Justice Theme Icon
Culture and Otherness Theme Icon
...the explorer (who begins to feel more “culpable” in his role as an observer), the prisoner gets even closer to the apparatus. Not wanting the life of the prisoner to absorb... (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Beginning the work of the execution, the soldier haphazardly cuts off the clothing of the prisoner, leaving him surprised and naked as the soldier and the officer secure him to the... (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... (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Culture and Otherness Theme Icon
The prisoner vomits. this further infuriates the officer, who says that the new Commandant has a “mild... (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Power and Justice Theme Icon
Culture and Otherness Theme Icon
...explorer like an “old man” looks at a young, foolish child. The officer releases the prisoner, telling him that he is free. Unsure of the reason for his change in fate,... (full context)
Power and Justice Theme Icon
Admonishing the prisoner for being rough with the apparatus, the officer spells out his own sentence—"BE JUST!”—and shows... (full context)
Power and Justice Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Culture and Otherness Theme Icon
...is completely entranced before noticing the curious and rapt attention of the soldier and the prisoner. Seeing the men delighting in the execution makes the explorer disgusted. Finally using his authority,... (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Power and Justice Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
...from the bonds of the apparatus, the explorer receives help reluctantly from the soldier and prisoner. As they try to save the officer, the explorer gets a last glimpse of the... (full context)
Religion Theme Icon
The explorer, soldier, and prisoner return to the penal colony and visit a teahouse, which holds the grave of the... (full context)
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Power and Justice Theme Icon
Culture and Otherness Theme Icon
...the teahouse, showing he has no interest in talking with anyone. The soldier and the prisoner run after the explorer, attempting to “force him” to take them off the penal colony.... (full context)