This month’s highlighted story has been right under my nose for years. It was one of the first short stories I was assigned to read at the start of my undergraduate study as a writer, and it has been a personal favorite ever since. This story really needs no other introduction, other than for me to name it, Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” as That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for June 2010. (I have included a link to a full-text version of the story at the bottom of this post.)
Along with three other short stories, I read “In the Penal Colony” in my writing workshop course that focused on structural parodies. The idea was simple: by reading and breaking down a story into chronological plot points, and then using that for your own parody (which need not be comical in nature) of the story, then you could discover how stories are told, how they work, and how you can craft your own complete story. Right away, I gravitated toward Kafka’s “Penal Colony.” I don’t necessarily have a taste for dream-like fiction or magical realism, but as a long-time first-person writer, it was eye-opening to read such a powerful and evocative third-person story.
“In the Penal Colony” is all about a torture device that is used to execute prisoners. (Interested yet? Keep on reading!) Well, that’s somewhat misleading. The visual focal point of this epic short story is in fact an execution machine, but the literary focal point is more in the hands of the four characters, aptly named the Explorer, the Officer, the Soldier, and the Condemned man (plus, there are the often mentioned but never-seen Former Commandant and New Commandant).
The story is told in third person, but is relatively told from the vantage point of the Explorer. In other words, we see the story unfold almost as if we are over his shoulder or somewhere close by him, and we listen to the Officer as he reveals information about the “apparatus” works, as well as how the former Commandant favored it and the new Commandant abhors it. We listen, or rather read, with interest as the Officer paints the horrific picture of how this three-part machine actually works. (Basically, a condemned person is strapped down on the Bed and above him is the Designer which powers the Harrow, a field of sharp needles that elegantly carves into the condemned person’s back words, like “Honour thy superiors” or “Be just,” that literally spell out the person’s sentence. The whole process takes no more than twelve hours…if the condemned person can actually survive the sentence.
But more horrific and terrifying than the apparatus itself is the way the Officer believes so adamantly in its use. He was in close contact with the former Commandant before he died, and together they perfected a “justice system” in which all accused parties were automatically tried, convicted, and sentenced for crimes on any scale (including falling asleep on the job, which was the Condemned Man’s crime). The condemned were never made aware of their crimes, that they had been found guilty, or that they were sentenced to death by the apparatus. Even as the Officer explains the apparatus and the old ways of the penal colony to the Explorer, he is using a language that neither the Soldier nor the Condemned Man understand.
The Officer is maniacal in the way he praises the apparatus, the whole justice system, and the former Commandant. He is a zealot, so intent to sell the Explorer on the idea of the apparatus that he ultimately begs the Explorer to speak on behalf of its use or against it to the new Commandant. The Explorer refuses, trying to not get involved at all with anything, really, in this penal colony. And, finally, when the Officer sees that the reign of the former Commandant and the practice of the old ways are truly at an end, Kafka delivers one of the most surprising and memorable endings I’ve ever read in a short story.
I will admit that the “conclusion” to the story was a bit confusing and, I suppose, open-ended, but that’s one of the reasons that this story has stuck with me these past few years, and why it has stuck with readers across the world for the past few decades. This story is, I think, meant to be a little confusing, a little out there, and still entirely accessible. And by that I mean that although I was left with a big question mark over my head regarding the meaning of the “conclusion,” I felt that I grasped the overall story enough to sit and really dwell on what Kafka was trying to say and what he was trying to get us, me, to think about. A story with this much detail about the politics and justice system of a community undoubtedly is making some sort of commentary.
But what exactly is it trying to say? I’ll leave that up to you…just like Kafka left it up to all of us. So be the judge yourself. Give “In the Penal Colony” a read and see what you think. Even send me an e-mail with your thoughts, and I’ll post your responses. But it all starts with a click of the link below. So enjoy!
To read a full-text version of “In the Penal Colony,” please click here. (Thanks to horrormasters.com for posting this easy-to-read PDF version of the story.)