“In the Penal Colony” explores what constitutes due and fair process in society. Kafka centers the plot on the planned execution of a prisoner who, instead of receiving a trial, has been sentenced to death by a high-ranking officer who automatically assumes that every man who is charged with a crime is guilty. The crime of the prisoner is one of disrespecting authority, further centering the importance of power structures in this world. What’s more, the prisoner doesn’t even know what he’s been accused of, underscoring the fact that the penal colony’s justice system is unconcerned with protecting or rehabilitating individuals. Kafka’s story ultimately argues that “justice” used only to maintain power and punish transgressors isn’t really justice at all.
The descriptions of the prisoner, the most powerless character in the story, illustrate the disparity of power in the penal colony. He is described as “stupid-looking” and compared to a “submissive dog” that would not try to escape his punishment even if he weren’t tied up. Such a description suggests the dehumanization of the powerless in this society, who are so robbed of dignity and autonomy that they passively accept the orders of their superiors. To the “horror” of the explorer, the prisoner joins their tour of the apparatus examining the machine with “uncertain eyes” without being able to understand the object of conversation. Later, after being released, he begins to play with the soldier and their end of wrestling “in jest.” These depictions reinforce a view of the prisoner as childlike—at least in the eyes of his superiors—and create the picture of a naïve individual who has no capacity for directing his own behavior and needs to be ruled by those in power. The prisoner’s crime is also notably one of disrespecting authority. As a servant for a captain in the colony, the prisoner had been ordered to sleep outside the captain’s door and wake to salute that door every hour to prove his alertness. The prisoner, rather understandably, slept through the 2:00 A.M. salute. The order had been an absurd show of power in the first place, and the prisoner’s sentence—to have “HONOR THY SUPERIORS!” etched into his skin by the apparatus until he dies—is an equally absurd and cruel punishment. A society built on deference to authority above all else, Kafka suggests, is inherently at odds with the nuance and reason required of genuine justice.
The officer is wholly unconcerned with the idea that the prisoner should learn of his punishment beforehand or have any hope of defending himself, which reflects a single concentration of power that intends on keeping individuals in line rather than allowing them a chance to learn and mend their ways. The officer explains the prisoner does not even know of his offense, saying, “There would be no point in telling him. He'll learn it on his body.” The officer’s opinion that divulging the sentence would be pointless shows the punishment is not about rehabilitation. Instead, the man is used as an example to maintain the social order. The officer explains that his one principle is that “Guilt is never to be doubted,” and shares with the explorer that any differing opinions are merely interferences with justice. The prisoner’s guilt is a predetermined condition based on the charges of a superior officer. The foregone conclusion of guilt shows that the only truth in a brutal hierarchy is the truth that is decided by those in authority. When explaining the justice system, the officer says the prisoner would “have told lies” were he given a chance to defend himself and that a trial would have been a “confused tangle.” Even explaining this point is a waste of time for the officer, who is more intent on impressing the explorer with the intricacies of the apparatus itself than the intricacies of why the apparatus is being used in the first place. If justice is a means to deter future crime, then Kafka’s story would suggest that there can be no justice without an understanding of that crime in the first place. As such, justice cannot exist in a society in which the punishment is meant solely as a display of power and is more important than the crime or, indeed, than an individual’s life at all.
The officer’s sentence and death, in turn, solidifies this idea that any system of justice within the matrix of such strict hierarchical power is faulty. The officer shows the explorer that his own sentence, which will be written on his body, is to “BE JUST!” This shows that the officer, by letting the prisoner go, believes that he is violating his code of justice. Ironically, however, it is only through this final act of letting the prisoner, likely an innocent man, go—a direct inversion of power structures—that the officer does something that approaches justice. The explorer, for his part, cannot “decipher” the officer’s sentence for the prisoner and for the officer himself, try as he might. This shows that the officer’s idea of justice is only relevant to the elite who hold power and does not have broader meaning to those who do not participate in that type of society. Right before his death, the officer doesn’t receive the “promised redemption” that others had found after the brutal inscription of their sentence. This suggests that in fact the officer did not commit a crime by letting the prisoner go free and that ultimately his view of justice is faulty.
Even as the prisoner is freed from death by the apparatus, he notably is still stuck in the penal colony—that is, a place where criminals are sent to be separated from “just” society. Both the prisoner and the soldier who’d been charged with guarding him follow the explorer as the latter leaves the colony via boat, with the implication that they, too, would like to escape from what is essentially a giant prison. Given that absurd display of crime and punishment within the story, the question arises as to whether any of the prisoners in the penal colony deserve to be there in the first place, or if they, too, were victims of a system designed to maintain power at whatever cost; perhaps their own transgressions back home were just as arbitrary as the prisoner’s “crime” of falling asleep on the job. Kafka thus broadens his critique to condemn purely punitive justice at large and encourage consideration of the purpose of any justice system itself.
Power and Justice ThemeTracker
Power and Justice Quotes in In the Penal Colony
“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.”
“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.
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.”
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.