An officer is proudly showing an explorer a machine called the apparatus, which will be used for an execution on a penal colony situated on a tropical island. The explorer has agreed to 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 heavily chained, the prisoner looks “like a submissive dog” who could be set free and then “whistled for when the execution was due to begin.” The officer is, too, weighed down in the tropical heat by his uniform that the explorer notes is unfit for the tropical heat.
The story immediately makes plain the difference in power of the characters present. The prisoner is described like a dumb dog unaware of his fate, being executed by a superior officer for the purpose of reinforcing obedience to authority. The difference between the officer, soldier, and prisoner, and the explorer, who is a guest, establishes the cultural divide that persists throughout the story.
Proudly detailing the functions of the apparatus, the officer explains that he helped with the development of the delicate machine but credit for its invention goes to the old Commandant, a leader who structured the whole society on the penal colony. The officer is worshipful as he describes the old Commandant’s work as “flawless” and clearly shows disdain for the new Commandant by suggesting that the new leader couldn’t 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 doesn’t deter the prisoner from also taking an interest in the officer’s explanations with “a kind of drowsy persistence.”
The officer’s slavish reverence of the old Commandant reveals his near-religious devotion to the leader and his ways. The apparatus is an essential part of the fabric of the old Commandant’s system, and as such the officer’s devotion to this order is wrapped up in the machine. Holding their conversation in French, meanwhile, illustrates the difference in education and therefore power between the officer and his subordinates, the soldier and the prisoner. French also suggests that the explorer is related to Europe and European ways of thinking.
As the officer animatedly explains the 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 didn’t explain the procedure to the explorer in the way that the old Commandant always did for guests. Continuing to drone on, the officer explains the function of the apparatus is to write a prisoner’s sentence directly onto their body. The officer cuts his rant short and says that regardless, he is “certainly the best person to explain the procedure,” as he has the original drawings that the old Commandant made.
The difference between the old and new ways of the penal colony emerge with the officer’s evident scorn for the new Commandant. The officer’s attention to detail and enthusiasm for the apparatus also further develop his close relationship to its function in the penal colony. His easy delight in such a grisly sentence also underscores that the apparatus makes a cruel spectacle of punishment, and that the system of justice upheld by the officer is utterly unconcerned with humane treatment.
Learning of the prisoner’s sentence troubles the 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 that in his proceedings the officer assumes that “Guilt is never to be doubted.” However, this is a system that is beginning to be overturned by the new Commandant.
Describing the system of justice that the officer enforces begins to make clear that the ways of the old Commandant prioritize maintaining an established system of power over respect for the individual. Assuming guilt essentially makes the officer’s word the only truth in this world, robbing the accused of any autonomy or hope. The new Commandant is beginning to change this situation, suggesting the social shift in the penal colony away from such antiquated notions of justice.
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. After discovering the prisoner’s disobedience, the captain whipped him. Instead of begging for forgiveness, though, the captain claims that the prisoner had screamed wildly, “Throw that whip away or I’ll eat you alive.” The officer explains that this is evidence enough, but he adds that if there were any defense, it would have been totally constructed of the prisoner’s lies. The officer switches the subject back to the apparatus, more eager to explain its function than the rule of law, as the explorer begins to be agitated by the proceedings.
Learning of the exact nature of the crime makes the sentence even more absurd, and this revelation disturbs the explorer, which reinforces the difference between the officer and the explorer’s ways of thinking. By enforcing obedience to arbitrary rules, the officer is making it clear that upholding the system of power is more important than the nature of the crime being committed.
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 must be needed on a penal colony. However, he hopes that the new Commandant might intervene. Satisfied with his explanation of the judicial system, the officer enthusiastically returns to the “essentials” of the apparatus. The guilty sentence is written on a script that is in turn written onto the flesh by the Harrow that is made of needles that can be seen through glass. To the horror of 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 the interest of the explorer from the apparatus, the officer rouses the dozing soldier to pull the prisoner back onto his feet.
The explorer dislikes the officer’s way of dispensing justice yet doesn’t do anything to stop it; he refuses even to speak up at first, hiding cowardice behind a guise of cultural respect as he tries to justify the use of the apparatus to himself. Regardless of how inhumane he believes the apparatus to be, the explorer seems to value avoiding confrontation more than boldly defending human rights. Given that he is throughout the story treated as an emissary of QWestern civilization, this suggests a subtle jab at the supposed superiority of Western culture and social propriety in general.
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 can touch them, he lets the explorer look but the visitor cannot make out any words on the page. The officer explains that the sentence has to have lots of “embellishments” along with the script of the sentencing because the apparatus keeps a man alive for at least twelve hours, turning him over, staunching his blood, and feeding him to ensure he lives until the punishment is over.
The precious plans are another instance of the officer’s complete devotion to the apparatus. The “embellishments” to the script, too, are a way of prolonging the work of the apparatus and show its cruel enforcement of justice.
Going into excruciating detail, the officer notes the tortured men are fed warm rice pap but lose the desire to eat in the sixth hour—the same time at which they achieve enlightenment. Breathlessly careening through his explanation, the officer continues explaining that ultimately a prisoner “deciphers” his sentence with his “wounds,” which he admits to the still silent explorer, is very hard work.
Once again, the more that is revealed about the apparatus the clearer it becomes that the machine was built for exacting torture rather than ensuring justice. Not even mentioning a prisoner’s sentence to them, and expecting they will learn as they die, also shows the system of the old Commandant does not even consider rehabilitation to be an option.
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 apparatus. As a strap on the machine breaks, the officer complains about the lack of funds to keep the apparatus operating smoothly. Nostalgically pointing out that under the old Commandant there was “free access” to money when it came to maintaining the apparatus, the officer bitterly notes that the new Commandant is “attacking” the old ways of doing things by distributing inferior parts for the apparatus and always with great delays.
By withholding resources to the officer and allowing the apparatus to deteriorate, the new Commandant shows that he is a different leader than the old Commandant. The breaking of the apparatus also suggests the breaking of the officer’s system of justice.
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 other people’s affairs” and imagines that if he objects his opinion will be dismissed because he is a foreigner. Yet, the explorer is “strongly tempted” to act because of the “undeniable” cruelty and injustice of the apparatus.
It is clear to the explorer that the apparatus and the system it represents are inhumane, yet his sense of propriety and fear of being culturally insensitive prevent him from speaking up. In this way, the story again condemns the explorer for failing to enact the supposed virtues of the Western culture he represents. He is ultimately ineffective at protecting the dignity of human life, and his behavior contrasts with the fervent belief of the officer.
The prisoner vomits. this further infuriates the officer, who says that the new Commandant has a “mild doctrine” because he does not starve the prisoners before the execution. As the soldier futilely tries to clean the apparatus, the officer reveals that he is the “sole advocate” to the old Commandant’s ways in the penal colony. Others that used to follow the old Commandant no longer continue to advocate for the apparatus because they have lost all interest, which makes them useless to the officer.
The officer’s language and the way he describes the members of the penal colony he dismisses are strongly related to religion and show that the officer is the only one who truly has faith. Being on his own also means that the officer’s system is dying out, further showing the change at work in the penal colony.
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 be “hundreds of spectators” in attendance. The silent, glittering apparatus would do its work and the people would see that it was the work of “Justice.” The all-important sixth hour brought the spectators so close that there had to be spots reserved, sometimes only for children, to look at the “transfiguration” on the face of the man being tortured. The officer’s memory is so sweet and absorbing that he forgets who he’s talking to.
Again, the language the officer uses to describe the fate of the prisoners in the sixth hour has religious significance as he describes a change that could also be used to describe a person’s soul. The officer’s total rapture in the story also develop his position as the most faithful follower of the old Commandant.
Embarrassed by the officer’s passion, the explorer remains quiet. Realizing it is quite hard to believe, the officer nonetheless argues that the current state of affairs—namely the emptiness of the valley and the decrepit apparatus—is shameful. The officer suspects that the new Commandant will use the authority and opinion of the explorer, a famous guest “conditioned by European ways of thought,” to finally put an end to executions using the apparatus.
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 officer cautions the explorer, saying the new Commandant will twist anything the explorer says into a pretext to discontinuing the apparatus. Gleeful, the explorer explains that he indeed does disapprove of the apparatus but downplays his authority, saying his opinion would be “private” and if the new Commandant wants to end the use of the apparatus he already has the power to do so.
Ironically, the officer is aware enough to recognize that methods of torture used in the Middle Ages were cruel but cannot make this connection with the apparatus. It’s clear that the explorer, not wanting to risk action, is happy because he doesn’t have to be the one to interfere with this other culture to uphold his values. The officer’s suspicions about the new Commandant show that, once again, there are social changes at work in the penal colony.
The explorer’s resistance causes the officer to become even more fervent about the importance of preserving the apparatus. He bluntly pleads for the explorer to help him. When the explorer rebuffs saying he cannot help or “hinder” the officer, the latter gets even more insistent, encouraging the explorer to believe in himself and his authority. The officer lays out his plan: the explorer will make an eloquent speech when the new Commandant holds one of his conferences that are “public spectacles” open to the anyone. At the end of this rousing defense of the apparatus, or even a mild, subdued, defense, the new Commandant will see the error of his ways and humble himself before the system of the old Commandant.
The new Commandant’s public meetings suggest a more liberal, progressive environment that contrasts sharply with the public spectacle of executions under the old Commandant. The officer truly believes that the explorer has the power to shift the views on the penal colony and create a change, which suggests that the explorer does have authority as a visitor from the West and outsider to the culture.
Patronizing and 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 realizes that the explorer will not change his mind and that his “procedure” was not convincing. Dazed, he looks at the 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, the prisoner is excited nonetheless and struggles on his own to break the straps of the apparatus.
By making it plainly clear that he will not help the officer, the explorer—who was the officer’s last hope— effectively declares the end of the apparatus. The officer looking like an “old man” connects him to an antiquated tradition that has no place in the new social of the penal colony. The officer exercises his power one last time by letting the prisoner go, suggesting the arbitrary nature of the man’s selection for punishment in the first place; he’d been chosen largely to put on a show for the explorer, rather than to pay for any real crime.
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 script, the explorer cannot read the words, but the officer is at least “partly satisfied” with the explorer’s efforts as he mounts the apparatus to input the new sentence.
The 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 himself is “the right thing” because it demonstrates his unflinching dedication to his judicial system.
It’s clear that the officer is going to sacrifice himself in the place of the prisoner in the name of his beliefs, which suggests a twisted parallel with Jesus Christ sacrificing himself on the cross. The unwavering, religious dedication to the judicial system impresses the explorer, who again chooses not to interfere.
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 place, attributing this change to the explorer’s intervention. With grace and an adept hand, the officer turns on the apparatus and demonstrates his working understanding and intimacy with the machine. So dedicated is the officer that he doesn’t need to be strapped down; the prisoner and soldier eagerly decide to do it anyway because it seems like the execution would be “incomplete” otherwise.
The prisoner is happy to see an inversion of the former order of power—so much so that he enlists the soldier to help ensure there is no way for the officer to escape from the apparatus. That he and the soldier team up so quickly suggests the arbitrary nature of the power hierarchy under the Old commandant. Further, the fact that the prisoner attributes this change to the explorer’s doing further props up the power of the Western individual in this context.
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 the prisoner. Seeing the men delighting in the execution makes the explorer disgusted. Finally using his authority, the explorer orders the two men to go home, but the prisoner begs to stay. Before his annoyance turns to violence, the explorer is distracted by the apparatus, which is no longer silent but quite loudly falling to pieces.
Once again, the explorer has disdain for the members of the penal colony. Ironically, though, when he finally tries to use his authority it is meant as a show of respect for apparatus and the officer—perhaps suggesting his own sense of social superiority to lower class men like the prisoner and soldier, despite his ostensibly more democratic Western beliefs. The state of the apparatus further shows that the system it represents is crumbling and mirrors the dying officer who is also the last proponent of that system.
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 officer 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 officer’s face, which is absent of the “promised redemption” the man had suggested that prisoners attained on the apparatus. Despite this, the officer continues to look “calm and convinced” as the apparatus drives a spike through his head. The officer dies, and the apparatus finally stops working.
In the climax of the story, the officer dies without receiving redemption. This might suggests that he was not actually guilty of the crime he committed—by letting the prisoner go and sacrificing himself, he was in fact being just for once. However, this moment could just as easily be read as evidence that the entire system of “justice” the officer represented was fundamentally flawed, and that no prisoners ever actually achieved “enlightenment.” The explorer acts too slowly to save the officer and his description of the apparatus shows the machine for its true purpose—murder. That the officer is ultimately killed by a spike is another connection to Jesus Christ, who was stabbed by a spear when he hung on the cross.
The explorer, soldier, and prisoner return to the penal colony and visit a teahouse, which holds the grave of the old Commandant. Speaking for the first time, the soldier tells the explorer that the “priest wouldn’t let him lie in the graveyard.” The explorer reads the old Commandant’s headstone, which is actually a prophecy that the leader will someday rise again and tells the adherents to “Have faith and wait!”
The old Commandant’s grave is a clear indication of his religious significance, even as the priest’s instructions suggest that the old Commandant was an aberration of the priest’s God. The instructions to followers to “Have faith and wait!” is a messianic expectation that is common in both Christianity and Judaism.
Before leaving the teahouse, the explorer distributes some coins to the dockworkers, a quiet, homely group of men who are just hanging out without any real purpose. The explorer quickly exits 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. The explorer has no interest in saving the men, however. Instead, he threatens them with a rope as the boat leaves the dock, and the two men, perhaps scared or intimidated, don't try to follow him any further.
The explorer’s wealth is further evidence of his power as a foreigner. He would rather hand out money than talk to anyone at the teahouse in the same way he would rather think about his ideas of justice and the right of human dignity without actually enacting them in the penal colony. The soldier and prisoner’s mad dash suggest that despite the disappearance of the apparatus, life in the penal colony is still undesirable. The explorer’s reaction to the men shows that though Western minds may value justice, he is hesitant to actually help those in need and considers himself innately superior to men like the prisoner and soldier.