Tyrannical Authority - "In the Penal Colony" - Short Story by Franz Kafka
In the Penal Colony
This is a short story of about twenty pages or so by Kafka which deals with a common theme in his works of authority and man's relation to the structures of society that exist from the past.
A Brief Overview of the Story
A traveler from Europe arrives at an island which is a penal colony. It is alleged that this traveler is a man who goes around evaluating different systems of government and justice, though it's not fully clear if that's true. In this particular penal colony there is a giant machine which is used for executions. It was created during the previous Commandant's tenure, though is not falling out of favor with the new commandant. The machine is essentially a large torture device which carves the person's punishment into their back with sets of needles for twelve hours, before casting their dead body into a pit. Apparently, during the old regime it was quite a popular sight to see an execution and people would come from across the camp to watch the process. There was full financial support of the machine.
Now, though, the machine is beginning to age and fall apart as there is no more funding under the new commandant. People also no longer gather to watch the executions, as it has fallen out of favor with them as well. There is one loyal and fanatical devotee to the machine and the Old Commandant, though. A man known as "the officer" was one of the people who helped set it up and operate the machine, and is a true believer in the machine and the system of justice that it represents. "'This process and execution, which you now have an opportunity to admire, have no more open supporters in our colony. I am its only defender, just as I am the single advocate for the legacy of the Old Commandant.'"
When the traveler is there, the officer is going to give him a demonstration of the machine by executing a condemned man. The man's crime was falling asleep on his assigned duty watch during the night. There is also a soldier who is in charge of handling the condemned man. The traveler learns that the man, as well as the whole system of penalty there, is devoid of justice. There is no trial. He doesn't exactly know his crime. Rather, based off the Officer's choice alone, he is proclaimed guilty. The traveler objects to this, of course, but remains quite docile. The office, though, is paranoid that the traveler's role in visiting is to spread a bad word about the machine so that the new commandant will have the excuse to get rid of it. So the officer pleads with the traveler to join him in a plan to rescue the machine, but the traveler rejects the plan.
The officer, quite at a loss knowing that the machine that means everything to him is going to be lost, chooses a radical response. He orders the condemned man be taken out of the machine and freed. He then strips himself, and places himself in the machine and starts the execution, killing himself. The machine malfunctions and simply impales him, stripping him of all the perceived glory of the process. The soldier and the condemned man chase after the traveler, who wants to leave the colony immediately, but the traveler fends them off and takes his own boat out of there.
The Individual Must Navigate Tradition and Change
My interpretation of this story, in relation to my knowledge of Kafka's other works, is that it is a story which probes the individual man's relation to society, tradition, and the structures of authority. Clearly, the officer represents a total dependence on tradition and submission to it in the tenure of the Old Commandant in the Penal Colony. The traditions have slowly decayed over time and become isolated from the rest of reality, like the island colony itself. They are barbaric and he claims that an outsider will not fully understand it all, though he does. "Someone who is not an initiate sees no external difference among the punishments." It is also clear that there’s no real justification or reason for execution, other than to keep the tradition alive. And so such a tradition is a clear perversion of what should be passed down from generation to generation. The judgment and penalty is not guided by reason, rather guilt is presumed and assured. To drive this point home, no one can read the machine guidance instructions but the officer.... a message which he claims says, "be just," though it seems the whole thing can't be further from that truth.
"'The matter stands like this. Here in the penal colony I have been appointed judge. In spite of my youth. For I stood at the side of our Old Commandant in all matters of punishment, and I also know the most about the apparatus. The basic principle I use for my decisions is this: Guilt is always beyond a doubt. Other courts could not follow this principle, for they are made up of many heads and, in addition, have even higher courts above them. but that is not the case here, or at least it was not that way with the previous Commandant.'"
With the officer's refusal to update and do away with the machine he embodies those pathological elements of society and tradition which are not guided by a meaningful rationale, but rather reflect someone's grasp for power or some kind of arbitrariness. In the strict duty to preserve such a thing the officer gives his own life to it, yet it doesn’t actually give the total adherent what he thinks it will or wants from it. He dies with “no transfiguration” on his face. And so there is a destruction of the present to preserve the past. In a way, the past is safe to the officer. It embodies his full identity. He can't conceive of himself without the Old Commandant or the machine which he is tied to. Authority must tell him what to do and who to be. "At this point, almost against his will, he looked at the face of the corpse. It was as it had been in his life. He could discover no sign of the promised transfiguration. What all others had found in the machine, the Officer had not. His lips were pressed firmly together, his eyes were open and look as they had when he was alive, his gaze was calm and convinced. The tip of a large iron needle had gone through his forehead."
Now, I am not bashing tradition or authority. These are absolutely necessary and sacred if we are to preserve the civilization that our fathers and mothers have sacrificed for and provided to us. Rather, I think this story represents how there has to be a balance between the old and the new, between order and chaos, between tradition and innovation. It is the individual, being born anew in each generation, which must navigate these two forces and try to keep them in balance with each other. If one or the other begins to take over, then society falls apart into tyranny, like in the Penal Colony, or into anarchy and individualism.
1 - Kafka, Franz. In The Penal Colony. http://www.arts.uwaterloo.ca/~raha/793CA_web/PenalColony.pdf