The apparatus from “The Penal Colony” is a symbol of an old way of life that is not only obsolete, but is now despised by the community who wishes to forget the past. The Commandment has cut off funding to the upkeep of the machine and the people have abandoned the executions. The Officer looks upon the abandonment as a sign that the old supporters have gone into hiding, as opposed to them moving on. He emphasizes this with the line “There are still a lot of them, but no one admits to it” which shows a sense of denial that comes with watching so many people move on to a different life. The short and simple structure furthers the notion that the Officer is primitive and simple in his beliefs while the rest of the community has evolved. With the people moving on, the apparatus, with its medieval cruelty and twisted sense of justice, becomes disused and a source of shame, as evidenced by the presence of the Traveler as they yearn for his opinion. The apparatus can only continue to work with the support of multiple people behind it, as the support dwindled to a single person it started acting up with its squeaks and noises, though it is possible to chalk that up to a need of replacement parts. Yet, the greatest evidence would be when the Officer subjects himself to the machine; the apparatus loses its last supporter and subsequently starts breaking down. The apparatus is not just a physical machine, but an idea and way of life that needs the support of the populace in order to function.
When reading Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, the officer carrying out the death sentences on the apparatus appeared to me to be victimized by a dictator, the previous commandant. This is reflected in three notions in the story. First of all, the officer states the authority of the commandant by mentioning that ”the organization of the entire penal colony is [the commandant’s] work”(par. 4. And nobody would “be able to alter the old plan” (par. 4). In these words the reader senses how the officer had put the previous commandant on a pedestal. At the end of the story this is underlined by the fact that they buried the previous commandant and erected a stone for him. Second, the officer has adopted the idea that decision should be made by the individual rather than by the collective. It says: “Guilt is always beyond doubt. Other courts could not follow this principle, for they are made up of many heads” (par. 12). Here it becomes clear that the ability to judge is individualized rather than spread among a group of people. This is typical to a dictatorial society in which one person only is able to judge. The third notion that points towards a victimization of the officer is the way he speaks about the apparatus. At a certain moment the officer describes the working of the harrow as “artistic” (par.5). The fact that he uses such idioms for a machine that is supposed to kill somebody, to me shows that the officer does not know what he is doing. He has learned to admire the ingenious working of the apparatus and the ingeniousness of the inventor. He seems to be brainwashed.
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.
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.