In Kafka’s In the Penal Colony , I found it undeniable that the Officer is the “villain” of the story. However, he is the kind of villain that is the most frightening to me: a deranged zealot who does not accept his own nature.
In the beginning of the short story, as the apparatus was only starting to be described, I was forcibly reminded of The Machine from The Princess Bride, a somewhat cartoonish “pain machine” built and revered by a power-hungry count. I prepared myself for a similar mustache-twirling villain in the Officer, but upon reading I found myself continuously overtaken by the sheer horror of the apparatus as well as the love the Officer has for it. The Officer’s repeated “Do you know about the previous Commandant?” and his relentless chattering about the apparatus reminded me of a member of my family who sadly became such a zealot of his religion that he cut off all ties with anyone who ever loved him. He of course does not have a machine that is capable of such torture, but the similarities to the Officer are chilling. They both blindly cling to something against which the popular opinion has turned. They both obsess about their object of worship and humble themselves before him.
The Officer’s obsession with the apparatus is tied to his worship of the previous Commandant – it is the last tangible evidence of a time in which the Officer enjoyed his life. His obsession acts as blinders for him. All he sees is the “beauty” of the apparatus, that what he is doing is actually just and right, and that everyone else is wrong. I find him pitiable in that this is what he built his life around; however, my pity stops to a point because I think it’s clear that he could have been rehabilitated and had a good life under the new Commandant. Those who do not want help because they see nothing wrong with their dangerous actions – those are the most frightening antagonists to me.
This here is a short film based of Kafka’s “In The Penal Colony” that visualizes the effect that such harsh torture would have on the Condemned persons in the short story. The short film even directly quotes the story: “For the first six hours the condemned man goes on living almost as before.” (Kafka 8) The short film adds: “Except for the pain.” (The Condemned) Here we see how inhumane the torture that the machine brings really is. The escaped prisoner in the short film has many underlying psychological issues due to the torture that was experienced. She is constantly seeing the Officer in the woods with her and has many hallucinations of the torture that she experienced. Basically, she is suffering from a severe case of post traumatic stress syndrome.
We don’t see the effects that the torture has on the condemned man in the story, however, we see how being blind to what their punishment is effects the condemned: “One could see how with a confused gaze he was also looking for what the two gentlemen had just observed, but he didn’t succeed because he lacked explanation. He leaned forward this way and that. He kept running his eyes over the glass again and again” (Kafka 7) Being chained up and having no idea what is going on is already having a traumatizing effect on the condemned man. This short film based off of the story shows that torture is in fact very inhumane for more than one reason. It is not just the physical pain that torture has on a person that makes it so terrible, but it is also the psychological effects that it has on individuals that makes it such an atrocious act.
The Officer in the story is neither the good guy or bad guy. He may be doing inhumane things such as torturing prisoners, but he honestly believes he is doing the right thing. We see this in many instances when he is explaining the apparatus to the traveler: “The basic principle I use for my decisions is this: Guilt is always beyond a doubt.” (Kafka 4) He does not give the accused a chance to defend themselves because he does not believe that is the right thing to do. From his experience in working with the Old Commandant, he has learned that the accused will always lie. We see this in the text when the Officer says: “He would have lied, and if I had been successful in refuting his lies, he would have replaced them with new lies, and so forth.” (Kafka 5) Simply put, he sees this as the proper way to judge the accused and in a sense he is reflecting a statement of truth. If humans are accused of something, they will often try to lie their way out of it due to fear. This is typical human nature.
Also, the Officer, unlike everyone else, has stuck to what the Old Commandant has taught him. Since he worked so closely with the Old Commandant it was probably very difficult for him to turn away from the morals that had been instilled in him for so long. The Machine and punishing the Condemned seems like the normal and proper thing to do in the Officer’s mind. Therefore, you cannot really say he is a bad man. He is doing terrible things with the best of intentions, and intentions say a lot about a person. Therefore since he is neither the bad guy or the good guy, but simply a man led astray by a bad leader.
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.