In The Penal Settlement by Franz Kafka

Many years ago at, High School,  Steppenwolf  by Herman Hesse and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis were metaamongst our required reading for the English Literature course. I had never encountered either Hesse or Kafka before and was both fascinated and inspired by their work. Indeed, The Metamorphosis, which is a novella was first published in 1915 and has been cited as one of the seminal works of fiction of the 20th century.  So, when I found The Penal Settlement by Franz Kafka in my local library, I decided to renew my acquaintanceship with Kafka’s work.

In the Penal Settlement is a short story by Franz Kafka written in German in October 1914, revised in November 1918, and first published in October 1919. The story is set in an unnamed penal colony and opens with an officer showing an explorer a remarkable apparatus, a capital punishment machine.  He is shown the last use of an elaborate torture and execution device that carves the sentence of a condemned prisoner on his skin in a script before letting him die, all in the course of twelve hours. As the plot unfolds, the reader learns more and more about the machine, including its origin, and original justification.

When the explorer arrives in a penal colony, at the invitation of its new commandant, his task is to investigate its organization and report his findings to a commission created by the commandant. Franz Kafka calls the explorer a “research traveler,” and he is clearly more than an amateur. He is an enlightened modern naturalist and relativist, trained to observe and analyze dispassionately the customs of diverse cultures.

penalSo, the explorer is introduced to the machine that is the central edifice of the colony’s structure by an officer extremely loyal to the former commandant’s administration of the colony. The machine is an instrument of torture and execution, the complex operation of which is described in devoted detail by the officer. He displays the  intricacy of the coordination of its three main parts: the “Bed,” on which the condemned prisoner is strapped; the “Designer,” whose cogwheels control the machine; and the “Harrow,” which adjusts its needles to the dimensions of the condemned man’s body and then engraves his sentence on it. The prisoner is thus literally forced to feel the pain of his punishment, in a ritual that lasts twelve hours.

The officer explains to the explorer that this form of execution has no open supporters left in our colony. He is the sole champion of it and of the old commandant’s legacy. The old commandant’s system of blind justice is in the process of being replaced by a more humanitarian one. This also explains the influence of the women on the new commandant. The officer is overcome and acquiesces to the new order. He unsheathes his sword, breaks it into pieces, and throws it away from him with such force that it hits the bottom of the pit. This act symbolizes the end of an era. The new world order, symbolized by the explorer, as well as by the new commandant and his women advisers, embraces a humane justice system that extends rights to all, even dull-witted characters, such as the prisoner and the soldier.

There is an exploration of evil in The Penal Settlement that is characterized by two attitudes: an unwavering faith in authority, and dependence on the machinery of bureaucracy to dispense justice. Although the explorer is appalled to learn the execution machine carries out excruciating torture prior to killing its victim, he does not prevent the act. This dynamic is represented by the officer, a man whose highest moral imperative is doing his job. When the explorer asks if the victim knows what’s about to happen to him, the officer replies: “No. There would be no point in telling him.” The officer does not care about the human dignity of his victim. Indeed, the officer is so invested in doing his job of execution that when the alleged criminal escapes from the chair, he places himself in the chair – thus committing suicide – just so that his “job” of executing someone in the chair will be complete.  With this absurdity, Kafka invites us to think about the irrational and immoral tendency to simply go along with institutional protocol.

The cost of our participation in any structures and bureaucracies whose ends are either unjust or unknown, kafkaaccording to Kafka, may be our very lives so, while this is not an easy read, The Penal Settlement is a profound short story that is worthy of more than one reading. I highly recommend it. Franz Kafka was such a noted German language writer of novels and short stories that he is still regarded by critics as one of the most influential authors of the 20th century. He was born on 3 July 1883 as a the son of a middle class Jewish family  in Prague, Czech Republic. He read law at the University of Prague and then worked in insurance. He wrote in the evenings. Although Kafka survived through World War I, he suffered poor  health. Still, in 1923, he moved to Berlin to focus on writing, but died of tuberculosis shortly afterwards in Austria on 3 June 1924. His friend Max Brod published most of his work posthumously .

Valerie Penny








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