Religious fervor is an explicit undercurrent throughout “In the Penal Colony.” The old Commandant, who used to run the penal colony and is rumored to someday return, is reminiscent of an authoritarian god, while the officer acts as his lone remaining disciple. So devoted is the officer to the way of life embodied by the old Commandant that he follows his savior into death, sacrificing himself to his beloved apparatus in a sort of perversion of Jesus Christ’s Crucifixion. The foreign explorer views the officer’s dated and brutal beliefs with repulsion befitting his status as a more modern and worldly citizen. At the same time, however, the explorer—and, really, all those who have turned towards a society based on reason rather than blind faith—equivocates in his condemnation, lacking the officer’s conviction when it comes to his own vision of morality. As such, Kafka’s story grapples with how the modern turn away from religion is in many ways a step towards progress, yet also leaves human beings without the clear, guiding conviction they once enjoyed.
The officer’s description of the old Commandant and the rules of the penal colony allude to the symbolic and allegorical connection to religious belief. The officer tells the explorer about the old Commandant and his “perfect” design of the penal colony. Further, the officer explains that the rules that must be followed are “doctrines” and the sentences inscribed on prisoners are similar to the biblical language of the Ten Commandants. These details suggest that the system of authority that the officer follows has a deep religious emphasis. The officer says that the “prophecy” that the new Commandant cannot alter any of the old designs has come true. This points to his unquestioning belief in the ways of the old Commandant that is guided by a prophecy, which is an explicit connection to ways that religions operate. The officer’s fervor for his way of life is clearly demonstrated when he strips off all his clothes before getting onto the apparatus himself. The explorer observes that this is due to the deterioration of the “judicial procedure” that the officer believes in so strongly and believes that he would do the same under similar circumstances, thus justifying the action in the officer’s context. These details reinforce the allusion to the officer’s devotion as religious belief to the system of order created in the penal colony by his “god,” the old Commandant.
The explorer and other residents of the penal colony lack the same disciplined zeal that the officer possesses, further reinforcing religion’s ability to imbue life with order and motivation—for better or for worse. The officer explains that the adherents to the old Commandant’s ways have “skulked out of sight” because the colony’s new leader does not have an “atom” of the old Commandant’s power. This shows that the people were principally motivated by the force of the old Commandant rather than meaningful consideration of the system of justice he created and enforced; without a leader who inspires such blind devotion, they are no longer motivated. The new Commandant notably has not outlawed the use of the apparatus despite his discomfort with it. Rather, he gives “shoddy material” to the officer to use the apparatus and takes control of the money for the machine. These are slow changes that do not reflect the sweeping use of power by the old Commandant. The explorer is also hesitant to openly express his disdain for the apparatus, his aversion to conflict proving stronger than his belief that such a tool and the justice it represents is morally wrong. All these details suggest that the new order, the new Commandant, the explorer, and the residents of the penal colony that no longer attend the executions are not motivated by any guiding frameworks that make them act with force or conviction.
Nevertheless, the fate of the officer and the old Commandant suggests that the way of life they enforce is doomed. The officer places himself on the apparatus instead of the prisoner, making himself a martyr to his system of justice. The officer’s dies by the sentence “‘BE JUST!’” and hopes to find the same sense of enlightened redemption he believes he witnessed in other prisoners’ eyes in his last hours. However, he is not redeemed and is instead finally killed by a piercing blow from a “great iron spike.” The death parallels that of Jesus Christ, who offered himself up for humankind and was ultimately killed with a spear—further supporting the connection between the officer and old Commandant’s system of justice and religion, and perhaps suggesting that both have no place in modern society. The old Commandant’s gravestone suggests that he will “rise again” in order to lead his adherents. This messianic promise shows that the old Commandant and his system fall squarely within the same structures that dictate religious belief, one that is—rather ironically—rejected by the priests in the penal colony who will not let the old Commandant be buried in the local cemetery.
In the absence of an authoritarian god, all the characters, particularly the people of the penal colony, lack the motivation to take specific action. They attend forums that the new Commandant holds rather than executions, and there is indeed more nuance to this existence. Yet there is clearly little industry or motivation to live or work within the society; these men may have comparative freedom, but it is unclear if they have any purpose. The benefit of this existence is complicated by the end of the story as the soldier and prisoner try to flee the colony with the explorer: the absence of a strict god may lead to freedom, but with that comes the burden of finding meaning for oneself.