The Machine is Obsolete

Tradition can be unifying, sentimental and comfortable, but for Kafka’s “In The Penal Colony”, it is presented to be unreasonable, morose, and outdated. The apparatus of the colony is a symbol for tradition, and its destruction embodies the decrepit and catastrophic nature if not reviewed.

In the beginning of the story, The Officer of the colony, who was also the late Commandant’s assistant, zealously explains the logistics of this punishment machine that his Commandant invented. “Here in the penal colony I have been appointed judge. In spite of my youth. For I stood at the side of our previous Commandant in all matters of punishment, and I also know the most about the apparatus” (Kafka). This indicates that The Officer was appointed judge because he was trusted to uphold the values of his former Commandant, the founder of the colony. The late Commandant symbolizes the instability and dispensability of tradition. He is dead and buried, and even mocked by some. The former Commandant’s death exemplifies how feeble tradition can be and how irrelevant his ideals are to the contemporary society he is no longer a part of.

The apparatus itself is portentously complex, reminiscent of medieval torture, and boarding on ornate for such a gross function. Even more undermining is the cryptic framework of the machine, which the explorer finds completely illegible. The ramifications of the excessive materials and the archaic design indicates how esoteric and unreasonable this tradition is. What is keeping the late Commandant’s outdated machine going is the blind loyalty of the officer to tradition. The machine’s crumble elicits how unstable and detrimental upholding archaic tradition can be. The Officer’s decision to fallaciously embrace this unreasonable tradition by placing himself in, triggers the destruction, and asserts Kafka’s petition for social progress.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “The Machine is Obsolete

  1. Sophi

    I agree with your point about the Officer being obsessed and borderline-mad. The quote you used to show how zealous the Officer is has something really interesting about it.
    The Officer said to the Traveler “In spite of my youth.” Was he really so young at the time of his appointment that age was an issue? It’s possible that, since he was so young and impressionable, the First Commandant appointed him to be an Officer because he was at the perfect age for some sort of “brainwashing” to believe in the practices of the penal colony. It’s also possible that he was one of the few who actually believed in the First Commandant, and that was also why the First Commandment chose him to be his representative.
    Just because crowds of people showed up to the executions doesn’t mean they agreed with it. Perhaps they were just curious, like in The Hunger Artist. People in the crowd were appalled at the sight of the stick-thin man, but they showed up anyway out of curiosity — simply to witness the event.

    • Sophi

      Correction to first sentence of my response: I agree with your point about the Officer being zealous as well as trusted by the First Commandant to uphold his values.

  2. vrosengrant20

    This argument is further proven by the intricacies of the writing that is carved into the bodies of the condemned. The writing is so ornate, that the Traveler insisted that he could not read it, even when prompted by the Officer. This represents how those of the new law and society do not understand the reasons for the old traditions, that these traditions have become something alien. It also shows how these old traditions have no place in the new society since it is so foreign to them and impossible to use. The writing reflects just how useless the old traditions have become by serving no purpose but to harm a man, since that man cannot learn what he did from the writing since it is so alien, and is only seen as useful by the delusional Officer.

  3. I did not think about the machine being a symbol of tradition for the colony before reading your post, but I certainly agree with you!

    For the officer to be appointed judge, even in his young age makes sense. If some government would want to have the same type rule for years to come, they would certainly have somebody with the same ideals, (especially if that person worked with the former commandant) be elected into the new position. When learning that the rest of the colony did not support the machine, and in turn the ideas that the officer had, I thought Kafka was certainly describing how outdated the rule of the colony was getting, and that change was going to occur soon.

    My first reaction with the machine was how horrifying, tortuous, and very complex it seemed, even for an instrument of death. The fact that the explorer could not read the writing of the machine is just one example of how outdated the machine and the ideals that came along with it was getting.

  4. I agree with your post. The apparatus can be seen as a symbol of tradition that the Officer is trying to hold on to. The townspeople and other people working in the colony are looking to seek change by getting rid of it. Yet, we see the Officer not wanting change and instead holding on to the apparatus as a tradition. The machine is indeed obsolete. No one (other than the Officer) believes the apparatus is useful. It purpose is meaningless and once the decision comes that the apparatus will be taken away, the Officer can not bear it. Instead, in a sudden plunge, he jumps into the machine, and takes his life at the hands of his own “tradition”.

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