Tag Archives: Kafka

Stigmas Associated with Women and Eating Disorders

In “The Hunger Artist” by Kafka, the willing starvation of a man is viewed by outside persons as a noble form of entertainment. Instead of voicing concern at the emaciation of a man making his livelihood by abusing his body, the crowds observe and even mock him, implying that his fasting is an acceptable behavior and even one to be rejoiced rather than condemned. Had the character of the hunger artist been a woman, the story would have read differently to a modern-day audience, particularly with the emphasis placed upon women and eating disorders in modern society.

On principle and as a reader, I would have displayed a greater internal outrage had the character been a woman. Not only because of the differing views the crowds would undoubtedly portray, but also because of the prevalence and publicized incidences of eating disorders amongst women. The control that the hunger artist attempts to inflict upon his life by restricting his food intake is one that would be much more disturbing had he been a woman due to my bias as a reader. Because female anorexia permeates the media, as a reader, I would have been more likely to view the hunger artist’s “craft” as a form of eating disorder rather than an art of self-control. As Kafka illustrates, one of the main drives of the hunger artist’s behavior is to prove to the spectators that what he is doing is right in every sense of the word; he becomes irritated when he assumes that they believe that he is sneaking food and later even apologizes for his emphasis upon his desire for the crowds to admire him for his masochistic actions, ” “I always wanted you to admire my fasting.” Additionally, the way his death was treated, although horrendous regardless of his sex, would have been much more profound had he been a women. The victimization of the hunger artist, significant as it was, would have been heightened had he been a woman.

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The Apparatus as a Symbol

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.

 

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A Dictator’s Victim

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.

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Gender Roles in A Hunger Artist

Treatment based on gender in society can ultimately lead to the unequal treatment and discrimination on a certain gender. In Kafka’s A Hunger Artist, the hunger artist is portrayed as a male with rather disturbing physical features and the unbelievable willpower to continue to fast. When reading the story, I think it’s interesting to note how the hunger artist is treated as merely an object for entertainment purposes, whereas if the hunger artist was a female, the situational contempt for the entertainer may be exchanged to that of pity.

The hunger artist claims that he “captured the attention of the entire city” (Kafka). People view him as a form of presentation or rather a production of fasting at its worst. He’s described as “looking pale” (Kafka) with “his ribs sticking out prominently” (Kafka); however, if the hunger artist was female, I feel that the audience would express sorrow for her current situation. The hunger artist is viewed as a spectacle, yet the observers still aren’t entirely shocked by his physical state. It’s also mentioned that adults view him as merely a joke. When analyzing this statement, it is interesting to see how Kafka shows the hunger artist as being belittled although he is the one that is committed and affixed to a goal that he refuses to break. The observers are convinced he has cheated by eating, yet he states that he could fast far more than forty days if allowed. The treatment of the observers to the hunger artist would be different if he was depicted as women in that the observers would feel compassion for a female figure, whereas the male figure is treated as simply a joke.

In relating back to gender role stereotypes, males are viewed as being able to take care of themselves and be independent, yet women are depicted in contrasting ideals. Due to this nature, I believe that if the hunger artist was depicted as a woman, she would be viewed with sorrow and sympathy due to the fact that women are apparently helpless.

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The Poor, Corrupt Officer

When I was reading In the Penal Colony, I had two different opinions about the officer.  One of these opinions was formulated at the very beginning of the story, and the second was changed at the conclusion.

 

Starting from the beginning of In the Penal Colony, I was not fond of the officer.  I certainly thought he was the “bad guy” in this story.  Some specific things the officer said, especially near the beginning of the story convinced me of this.  One of these instances is:  “…Here in the penal colony I have been appointed judge…  Guilt is always beyond a doubt…” (Kafka).

A rough definition of a penal colony is a place that is far removed from society (lots of times it is an island) where prisoners are kept until their punishment/sentence is given to them.  Usually, a single person is given total control over what goes on in the penal colony, including sentencing the prisoners.  It is scary to me that one person could have such control over a person’s life, especially when they have the opinion that “guilt is always beyond a doubt”.  To me, this is the officer saying that anyone can be proven guilty, and he seems out to prove just that.  Another instance is when the officer hurries over the fact that the prisoner doesn’t know what his sentence is, or even why he is being held prisoner!  This idea is foreign to our culture, where rights are still given to people who are in prison.

 

The other opinion of the officer that I had while reading In the Penal Colony was at the end.  I was surprised when I realized that the officer was taking the condemned man’s place!  I thought it interesting that the machine took on a different “look” when the officer was being murdered.  It suddenly turned into a vicious and terrible thing; not at all providing justice of any sort!  My thought of this is that no one deserves to die such a terrible and painful death.  I certainly believe the officer is a pitiable character, for this actually made me feel sorry for him, despite what I thought of him even just sentences earlier in the story.

 

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The Indoctrinated Officer

It is difficult to tell whether or not the Officer is a person who should be pitied or considered a zealot hell bent on returning to a time of torture.  Ultimately, however, the Officer is an individual who has been completely indoctrinated by the Old Commandant and cannot escape his mental prison.  The Officer exhibited behavior of an individual who had been forced to engage in horrific behaviors; he had been conditioned to believe this was the only acceptable course of action and behaved accordingly.

The Officer ventures to explain how justice is executed within the Colony, and paramount to his explanation was the phrase “the basic principle I use for my decisions is this: Guilt is always beyond a doubt” (Kafka 3).  The last words of this statement, “Guilt is always beyond a doubt” (Kafka 3), appear in the text as if they are  a direct quote, which makes it appear as a phrase the Officer was taught to live by and follow without question.  This type of dedication to something so harsh is obtained by careful conditioning and creates a person who is dead to any reality besides the one they were taught.  The officer has been told that guilt is the standard to live by and he has become so dedicated to his ideals that no other option seems acceptable.

Additionally, when faced with a reality separate from the one he had been existing in for so long, the Officer had what appeared to be a mental break.  The Officer reacted the way that many would and went a little mad when faced with the fact that his reality was ending.  After the Traveller had stated he did not support the apparatus the Officer begins yelling at him to read one of the papers he holds and when the Traveller cannot he yells “‘Be Just!’…it was clear that he [the Traveller] was still unable to read anything. ‘Be Just!’” (Kafka 10).  Clearly that Officer is so obsessed with the rules he cannot fathom not following the rules given to him by the Old Commandant.

Ultimately in the face of having his reality altered the Officer kills himself by using the apparatus because facing something other than the laws he knew under the Old Commandant was unbearable.  The Officer behaved the way any conditioned person would have and followed the rules he believed in until the end.  There was no world for the Officer besides the one that had been assigned to him and taught to him by the Old Commandant, which is why the Officer should be pitied.  It may not excuse his actions, but considering how intensely the Officer stuck to his rules and regulations he is quite a pitiful character.

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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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