The Officer in “The Penal Colony” was a sadist, in love with the apparatus; and when he realized he was going to lose it, he decided he would rather die by its hand than live without it.
It was he who knew “the most about the apparatus.” (p. 7) and who had taken charge of it after the death of the Old Commandant. He was obsessed with it: knowing every last cog and wheel of its mechanisms, knowing just exactly what it needed when something broke down, and pretending those “diagrams” actually contained some coherent script. He could explain in absolute, minute detail the process the apparatus took as well as the effect the apparatus had on a man’s body–emotionally as well as physically. He really obtained great pleasure from watching men suffer from the harrower’s inscription process, always “standing close by” to witness their “transfiguration.” (p. 16)
The very nature of the apparatus was sadistic: it was a death instrument, yes, but the nature of the death was a prolonged experience brought about by excruciating torture. The Officer loved this. He loved his machine and referred to it as “my machine” (p. 14), and describing the executions as “performances” (p.8), and the work of the Harrow as “embellishment” and “decoration” (p.10) as if it was embroidering cloth and not a human body. He did not care about justice at all but just wanted to see someone suffer gruesomely. This is made very plain in his description of justice to the Traveler on p. 7-8. The Condemned Man’s case was a weak one to begin with, and the Officer didn’t care about both sides of the story: he was quick to assign guilt to get another victim in the apparatus and witness a bloody torture.
By the time the Traveler comes to see what’s going on, the Officer is still considered young because he says “Here in the penal colony I have been appointed judge. In spite of my youth.” It is my opinion that the Officer, in his impressionable youth, began to observe the executions under the guardianship of the Old Commandant; and while at first he may have had to convince himself that these condemned men were really getting their due punishment, any nagging feeling of guilt quickly turned into a sick pleasure. The Old Commandant seemed to have it out for the young ones, not only by warping the Officer’s perception of justice and violence, but also by insuring other children had front row seats to the executions. (p. 16)
In the end of the story, the Officer realizes that the apparatus is going to go away once the Traveler gives his statement to the New Commandant. So, what does he do? In a masochistic move, he put himself in the machine to die by its hand. His little setup is going to disappear forever and he cannot bear it. He would rather die. If he cared about justice, there are other ways of meting it out. But, it wasn’t justice he cared about, it was rather watching people suffer.
The apparatus in Franz Kafka’s story, “In the Penal Colony,” seems to face its collapse because of the effect of time and old parts. However, its failure can also be considered symbolic of the apparatuses’ failure to actually create justice and also because the story is representative of the Gothic genre.
There is a point in the story when the officer is telling the traveler that he is the appointed judge for the penal colony. Then ironically, the officer goes on to say, “The basic principle I use for my decisions is this: guilt is always beyond a doubt” (Kafka). How is the officer an accurate judge if he always pronounces someone who has been accused of a crime, guilty? Also, it seems that the punishment that the apparatus inflicts is far too harsh especially in the case of the condemned man in the story. He was supposed to salute the captain’s door every hour but fell asleep on the job. His commanding officer “found him curled up asleep. He got his horsewhip and hit him across the face… [the condemned man] cried out ‘throw away that whip or I’ll eat you up’”(Kafka). This small offence does not seem worthy of the torture brought on by the apparatus. It seems, even, that being hit in the face with a whip was too harsh a penalty for falling asleep. Perhaps this is why the apparatus falls apart, because it is supposed to bring justice, however fails to do so because the punishment is far too horrific and because the man could easily be innocent.
“In the Penal Colony” seems to conform to many aspects of the Gothic genre. There are countless instances of descriptive violence in the story. Another characteristic of the Gothic genre is the feature of the degeneration of the old commandment’s justice system. When the apparatus falls apart at the end, it seems to symbolize the collapse of this awful system. Kafka’s employment of degeneration when the apparatus collapses seems to support the terror and collapse of human design that the Gothic genre evokes.
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.