Tag Archives: The Officer

The Officer: An Obsessed Madman

In the “Penal Colony”, the character put on by the officer reminds me of a obsessed madman. The officer was obsessed with the death apparatus at the penal colony which makes him a “bad guy”, in my opinion. For someone to actually get “excited” about death is pure evil. He is an obsessed man gone mad. He tries and tries to convince the Traveller of the death apparatus and win him over as well proves him to be a pitiable man.  He says to the Traveller, “The matter stands like this. Here in the penal colony I have been appointed judge. In spite of my youth. For I stood at the side of our previous Commandant in all matters of punishment, and I also know the most about the apparatus. The basic principle I use for my decisions is this: Guilt is always beyond a doubt.”  With this quote, he tries to explain to the Traveller that though he is young, he is on top and knows the most. He feels as if no one knows the apparatus as he does and that guilt is more than just a gut feeling–it is usually your conscience.

By explaining this to the Traveller, he tries to get off the subject of the apparatus and win his side of agreement. The Officer’s character displays his obsession with the apparatus and shows he is a “good guy” gone crazy–a madman. At the end, I somewhat feel sorry for him for not realizing his obsessive, deranged ways over th apparatus.


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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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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 Officer: A Good Man Following the Wrong Leader

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.


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