Though it is unclear where the central officer in “In the Penal Colony” is from, the explorer is clearly distinguished as a Westerner who is conditioned with European ways of thought. The explorer is the onlooker of a planned execution of a prisoner that he quickly learns is unaware of his crimes and did not receive a trial that included any sort of defense. The explorer is highly regarded by the residents of the penal colony, especially the new Commandant, and ultimately disapproves of the procedure. The actions and position of the explorer is one of a power imbalance between Western culture and a different culture. However, Kafka complicates this relationship throughout “In the Penal Colony” by showing that neither the explorer nor the residents of the culture of the island are totally willing to embrace universal values such as inhumanity or cruelty.
The explorer holds esteem in the other culture of the penal colony because he is explicitly denoted as Westerner. The officer notes that the explorer is described as a “famous explorer” who has been influenced by “European ways of thought” and as such will have influence over the new Commandant. That the explorer has more social capital than the officer suggests the superiority of the explorer’s position. As the prisoner reflects on the fate of the officer he believes that the “foreign explorer had given the order for it.” The prisoner is happy and satisfied at this result, and by ascribing the new change to the explorer he is also amplifying the explorer’s power from the position of the culture of the penal colony. Before the explorer leaves the teahouse, he passes out “a few coins” to the dockworkers who are described as “poor, humble creatures.” This again positions the explorer as an agent of higher status who confers value on the laborers and can afford to distribute wealth. All these details reinforce the status of the explorer and the position of Western culture as superior to the other culture of the penal colony.
The explorer balks at the apparatus, yet his sense of (decidedly Western) propriety—and his cowardice—stops him from interfering. Throughout the officer’s explanation of the apparatus, the explorer is uninterested and ultimately concludes that “The injustice of the procedure and the inhumanity of the execution were undeniable.” The explorer also believes that the officer will be incapable of understanding anything different than what he knows. These judgements show a strong sense of superiority that the explorer maintains over the officer and how this sense somewhat ironically prohibits him from even attempting to “better” the officer. As the explorer considers the apparatus disapprovingly, “with a frown,” he immediately justifies its use by explaining to himself that the penal colony use “extraordinary measures” that it is basically a necessary part of military discipline. By allowing himself to accept the procedure as necessary the explorer diminishes the cruelty of the practice for his own comfort. When the prisoner joins the officer and the explorer to get a closer view of the apparatus, the explorer’s impulse is to “drive him away” because the man’s close presence induces guilt that he is “probably culpable” in the execution. By showing his squeamishness in the face of guilt, the explorer is further demonstrating he cares more about himself and being polite than anything else. By the explorer’s reaction to the officer’s tour of the apparatus and his passive stance to the groundwork of the execution, it is clear that his main priority is to be comfortable and to be polite. Kafka thus subtly undermines assumptions of Western superiority and authority.
The explorer’s hesitancy to intervene in the use of the apparatus and the life of the culture of the penal colony is an indication that Western culture does not value human life universally. Even as the officer is disrobing, and it is clear to the explorer what is about to happen, he continues to believe that he has “no right to obstruct” what is happening and even goes so far as to explicitly state that the officer is doing “the right thing.” This is extreme apathy and complacency on the part of the explorer, whose own commitment to humanity is suspect based on his unwillingness to get involved. When explaining his position to the officer, the explorer says, “I fear the end of your tradition is at hand, even without any humble assistance from me.” This shows that the explorer is unwilling to participate in the change of the procedure on the island (one that he knows is undeniably unjust and inhumane) and that he shirks from using the power that is granted to him by this foreign culture. The story ends with the soldier and prisoner wanting to leave the island with the explorer. However, the explorer threatens them with “a heavy knotted rope” that keeps them from leaping into the boat. This is the only action taken by the explorer—to deny the soldier and the prisoner freedom. The explorer is unable to allow himself to help anyone except the dockworkers to whom he passes out a few coins. These points show that though Western culture may be deemed to be superior and more humane, in actual practice it lacks the conviction to affirm the value of human life and dignity.
The actions of the explorer and the high position of esteem that he carries in the penal colony point to privilege and enlightenment that is deservedly undermined by Kafka in the story. The explorer is incapable of saving the officer or helping the soldier and prisoner find a new life outside of the penal colony. Though the explorer has Western values that can identify inhumanity, cruelty, and injustice, this worldview does not assist the man in actually acting in service of these values. Kafka thus shows that the superiority of Western culture in the face of Otherness is an illusion; despite the cherished values that a person with power might espouse, if they do not use their power to act, they are complicit in perpetuating barbaric acts of violence.
Culture and Otherness ThemeTracker
Culture and Otherness Quotes in In the Penal Colony
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…”
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.
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.
[…] 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.
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!