The Poor, Deranged Officer

The Officer from “In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka is so consumed by the influence of the now-dead First Commandant that he loses all sense of individuality as a character. Much of his discussion with the Traveler is centered on the First Commandant and how he used to run the penal colony in comparison with the new Commandant, as though Kafka only uses the Officer as a way to explain the penal colony’s history. Though the Officer is definitely much too excited about the death apparatus at the penal colony than anyone should be, he is neither good, nor bad. He is indeed a zealot, and his excitement for what he does (and how it affected the end of his life) makes him a very pitiable character.

The Officer talks about how “In front of hundreds of eyes—all the spectators stood on tip toe right up to the hills there—the condemned man was laid down under the Harrow by the Commandant himself.” It is almost sick how much enjoyment the Officer has in describing this depressing scene to the Traveler. His happiness makes it obvious that the Officer dislikes the new Commandant because he has expressed his distaste in the ways of the penal colony, while the First Commandant loved having a front seat at the executions, just like the Officer does.

The Officer, in his constant attempts to spark the same type of excitement he has for the penal colony in the Traveler, takes the appearance of a very delusional character. This is made evident from when the Traveler tries asking him about the justice system of the penal colony. Instead of trying to satisfy the curiosity of his guest, “the Officer recognized that he was in danger of having his explanation of the apparatus held up for a long time.” Talking about this apparatus whose fame is forever doomed to the depths of a dark history is what gives the Officer joy. He is simply a man obsessed, which isn’t a man at all.

At the end, after coming to some sort of conclusion that he had been wrong in his obsession all his life, the Officer not only released the Condemned Man from the apparatus, but he put himself in the machine to die with the words “Be just!” dug into his back. Instead, he suffered a horrible death. He wanted to die the way he had executed so many people, but he couldn’t even do that. What makes the Officer such a pitiable character is the fact that his obsession about the penal colony, execution, and this particular machine is what ruined his life and the way he wanted to die.


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