Tag Archives: symbolism

Isolation from Reality in “Blu’s Hanging” using Animals as Symbolism

Growing up, older members of my family who are native to Puerto Rico, particularly my grandparents on both of my parents’ sides, encouraged me to escape sadness and negativity by turning to religion for comfort. I became aware later in my childhood that the ideals I was taught were not true for all people, and people from different places believe in different entities and  symbols that provide them with comfort the way my beliefs do. These differences are what make people unique, and the ways their beliefs affect the way they live almost dictate whether or not they will live a stressful or stress-free life.

As I was reading “Blu’s Hanging”, I found that the story was abundant with symbolism that was unfamiliar to me, particularly because of how counterintuitive it seemed. For example, many people have been taught that crossing paths with a black cat is bad luck, where as black cats play a vital role in minimizing sadness. It also became apparent that, when Hoppy Creetat and Ka-san were brought into the household, life for the family became more bearable an, at times, fun.

In addition, there are instances when  the animals act as extensions of the Ogata family, while other times the animals are presented as spiritual guides that contain wisdom that will release the family from sadness, such as the dog’s tears and the colors of the cats. The animals of the family have always, in some way, affected the emotional state of each character in some way that allows them to escape from the disenchanting occurrences of their daily lives. Such apparent symbolism inspired me to research more heavily on the topic.

Questions that will encourage further clarification of my main points in my essay are:

1. What makes the presence of birds important? Do animals, other than cats and dogs, play a significant enough role to mention in conjunction with the greatest symbolic animals of the text?

2. Why is it important that a black dog can be substituted for a black cat when the latter is absent in the Ogata family’s lives? What can this signify?

3. Does their living situation affect how strongly they believe in the symbolic representation of the animals? How would their experience with animals be different if they were financially better off than they are in the story?

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The Library as a Symbol for Colonialism

A library is considered a staple of a thriving town, or at least of one that seeks to thrive. Libraries are symbols of knowledge, of education. It is through education that individuals and communities seek self-improvement, and thus the existence of a library is a mark of that goal. The institution of the library by the colonists was not precisely an attempt by the colonists to improve the lives of the island’s inhabitants, but more so because it was natural: one builds a town, and as it grows, it requires certain infrastructures, such as a city hall, a jail, and a library. They were accustomed to having them in England, so it would be natural to have them in home away from home – Antigua. But the library Kincaid speaks of is also a symbol of that colonialism. The library used to be orderly, and housed, as Kincaid puts it, “the fairy tale of how we met you, your right to do the things you did, how beautiful you were, are and always will be” (42). It was destroyed shortly before Antigua got its independence, and the “temporary” location of the library is now in a dilapidated building above a dry goods store, with hardly enough room to house the books it is entrusted with. The old library, like the old Antigua, was highly structured, an outside institution, beautiful to the casual observer, but had lies within. The new library is the product of the new Antigua, blatantly ineffective and still carrying remnants of the old regime – the books of the old library. As the inhabitants of the island know that their library is in desperate need of repair, they know the same of the government. And yet nobody moves to change it.

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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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Apparatus’ collapse symbolizes generic concerns and a failure of justice

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.

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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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