In the story, the apparatus is a machine used to represent the cruel and exacting torture of a system of justice that is more concerned with upholding power than it is with the dignity of human life. The apparatus, which the old Commandant invented, is a grueling piece of machinery. It takes twelve hours to finish an execution by repeatedly etching the prisoner’s sentence into his flesh. Giving a detailed explanation of his beloved machine (which he helped create), the officer explains that the apparatus keeps prisoners alive by feeding them and staunching their blood therefore painfully prolonging their death. Eventually the prisoner learns the nature of his crime, usually after the sixth hour of being tortured. The apparatus has three main components—the Bed, the Designer, and the Harrow—and it is clear from the officer’s long, technical descriptions of the machine’s inner-workings that he is more interested in the mechanism’s performance than he is with the prisoners’ quality of life. The methods the apparatus employs reinforce the extreme nature and absurdity of capital punishment in a system that does not even tell the accused of their sentence or regard their life as having any value. Ultimately unable to maintain the old Commandant’s legacy in the face of the new Commandant, the officer disrobes and sacrifices himself to the machine. However, the apparatus instantly falls apart, suggesting that the system of justice that the officer and the apparatus represent is broken and defunct.
The Apparatus Quotes in In the Penal Colony
“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.”
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.
“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…”
[…] 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.