The Symbolic Death

I believe the breaking down of the machine at the end in the story “In the Penal Colony” is paralleling the break-down of the system the Old Commandant had established. The machine, as it was designed and built by the Old Commandant, is the symbol of his rule. When he was in power, punishments meted out using the machine were a public spectacle: “The entire valley was overflowing with people, even a day before the execution. They all came merely to watch. […] Fanfares woke up the entire campsite. […] 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 was impossible to grant all the requests people made to be allowed to watch from up close.” (Kafka). In these days, the Old Commandant was popular, as were his rules. This machine represents this popularity in that it “was freshly cleaned and glowed” (Kafka). There were always replacement parts for it, with funds designated especially for its function. It was a source of pride for the Commandant, his rule and his power objectified in the machine.

But the Commandant dies and another takes his place. The new Commandant does not share many of the views of the old, and indeed seeks to radically change the system. Supporters of the Old Commandant and his ideas fade, and with it, the machine. No longer is it shining and well-maintained: a wheel squeaks, straps are broken, and the felt used to muffle the men’s’ cries is old and needing replacement. The machine does not even perform to its older standards, according to the Officer: “These days the machine no longer manages to squeeze out of the condemned man a groan stronger than the felt is capable of smothering” (Kafka). Support for the continued use of the machine is low and quiet. The Officer sees much of the practices of the glory days, those of the Old Commander, dissolving, forgotten.

And so, when the Officer straps himself to the machine, he straps himself to the old ways to which he so desperately clings. He does not care for life under the new system, and so chooses death in the comfort of the old. With his death dies the last defender of the machine and the old way. The machine falls apart symbolically, losing pieces rapidly one by one, as the supporters and the old customs were lost. And just as the new Commandant transformed the public view of the old to something far more horrible, the broken machine loses its finesse in the careful death, transforming into a simple and cruel murder machine.


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