“In the Penal Colony” is a story of the planned demonstration of an execution using a machine called the apparatus by the military officer of a penal colony on a foreign island. The officer, well acquainted with the apparatus, sets up the machine and explains its use to a foreign guest, the explorer, all the while detailing how the machine has fallen out of favor with the new Commandant and the residents of the island. In a bid to continue the old way of life, the officer tries to convince the explorer to make a case for using the apparatus to the new Commandant. Kafka’s tale shows a shift in society from highly concentrated hierarchal authority represented by the officer to a more liberal, modern society represented by the explorer. In condemning the officer’s stubborn devotion to decaying machinery and the backwards “justice” it represents, Kafka’s story suggests the futility of clinging to outdated tradition in the face of forward progress.
The irrelevancy of the apparatus is reflected in its physically dilapidated state. The officer repeatedly points out how the device used to be a marvel of engineering elegance and ingenuity. Now, however, it is loud and often breaks. The officer further lacks the necessary spare parts to repair the apparatus, as the new Commandant—“always looking for an excuse to attack [the] old way of doing things”—withholds the necessary funds and sends along only “shoddy material.” New laws also prohibit the officer from using acid to increase prisoners’ pain, leading him to lament that the apparatus can “no longer wring from anyone a sigh louder than the felt gag can stifle.” And where large crowds once gathered to gawk at the proceedings, now “the execution has no support from the public, a shabby ceremony-carried out with a machine already somewhat old and worn.” Together these details present a physical manifestation of the fact that the apparatus—and the entire system of “justice” it represents—is in a state of continual decay and no longer has a place in society.
The officer is aware that his way of administering justice is changing. Nevertheless, he upholds slavish devotion to the apparatus, wistfully dreaming of returning it to its former glory—a desire that is clearly futile in the face of the progress suggested by the explorer. The explorer quickly notes that the officer’s uniform is “far too heavy for the tropics,” and that the latter is also “amply befrogged and weighed down by epaulettes.” The uniform is a direct link to the officer’s home country and the tradition therein, and the fact that it is wholly out of place in the colony reflects the officer’s failure to adapt to his changing circumstances; he is literally “weighed down” by tradition. The officer further worries that the explorer will liken his methods to torture in the Middle Ages yet fails to internalize the antiquated nature of the justice he upholds. Indeed, the explorer muses that the new Commandant is going to bring in “a new kind of procedure which the officer's narrow mind was incapable of understanding.” By bringing in a new way of dealing with offences, the new Commandant shifts away from the painful and absurd punishment of the old Commandant, creator of the apparatus, and his sole remaining devotee: the officer. The officer also says the new Commandant holds his conferences in public with a gallery that is “packed with spectators.” This contrasts with the public who, during the time of the old Commandant, would gather to watch the apparatus work. This comparison suggests that the public is participating in the way the society is run rather than being entertained and kept in line by grotesque displays of execution. The entire world around the officer is progressing, then, and he clings to the past at his peril.
The officer’s death and the destruction of the apparatus make it clear that the ways of the new Commandant and the explorer are significant social changes that cannot be reversed. The officer abandons the sentencing of the prisoner telling him that he is free to go, all the while looking like an “old man.” Comparing the officer to an old man underscores the age of his opinions and procedures and that by letting the prisoner go, the officer is allowing the traditional structure he supported collapse. After observing the officer strip naked, the prisoner senses that “some great change was impending.” This clearly demonstrates that the officer, naked and deprived of any weapon, lacks his former authority in this new, modern society. As the apparatus breaks down, it changes from a machine that is delicate and has an exquisite way of administering torture to a machine that only murders. The true purpose of the machine is laid bare as its wheels start to fly out and its structures collapse: to maim and murder, rather than to truly assist in the process of justice. The officer does not experience the redemption he suggests other men found before they died but continues to look “calm and convinced.” The apparatus gave insight and redemption to past prisoners, according to the officer, but his argument turns out to be a lie. This is an argument in the story for the failing of such hierarchical forms of authority even if the adherents, like the officer himself, cannot admit to its failings.
The officer dies at the hands of the machine he knows better than anyone, and the social order in the penal colony is forever changed. No more adherents to the old way of dealing out justice remain, and the new Commandant is a leader who does not appeal to such absurd and brutal methods. Even still, the flight of the prisoner and the soldier show that no penal colony is appealing; however, the explorer’s approval of the change suggest that the shift at work is a movement toward a liberal, democratic society.
Tradition vs. Progress ThemeTracker
Tradition vs. Progress 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.”
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…”
“Of course the Commandant is the kind of man to have turned these conferences into public spectacles. He has had a gallery built that is always packed with spectators. I am compelled to take part in the conferences, but they make me sick with disgust.”
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.