“In the Penal Colony” incorporates a vast array of religious, artistic, and philosophical elements. Interpretation of this almost novella-length short story does not come easily because of all of the possibilities and ambiguities laid forth. Most critics agree on a number of issues regarding the religious and artistic aspects, but the philosophical elements are the muddiest and are therefore most ripe for scrutiny. The non-philosophical elements still merit discussion but in this case only to supplement the underlying philosophy of the story. The story features as a protagonist a worldly explorer, to whom some amount of respect and dignity is attached. Upon his visit to the penal colony of an unnamed island, the explorer meets with an officer at the colony’s execution site, directly in front of the execution device, or “apparatus.” The officer, one of the few remaining followers of the old Commandant, has dedicated himself fully to the reinstallation of the former, but currently dejected, glory known to the apparatus and the old Commandant’s regime. The explorer is present because it is his charge to assess the execution set to take place and to draw a conclusion concerning the retention or rejection of the existent system. The popular critical analysis seems to be that the story is allegorical, where the old Commandant represents either the God of the Old Testament, those that subscribe wholly to the Old Testament but not the New Testament, or something else related directly to the Old Testament. As Steinberg, regarding various interpretations of the story, says, “There is no contradiction, for example, when Globus and Pillard see in the old Commandant a representation of ‘the primitive super-ego’ and Beck sees in him a suggestion of ‘Moses, or an ancient Hebrew priest, if not Jehovah himself’ (Steinberg 493).” This is further evidenced in Peters’s analysis: “[The old Commandant’s] type of omniscience has led many commentators to believe that Kafka’s formidable Old Commander must be some allegorical reference to Yahweh, as the Judaic one and all-knowing, but also supposedly all-punishing God (Peters 409).” The omniscience to which Peters refers comes out of a dialogue between the explorer and the officer, in which the explorer asks, “Was he everything himself? Was he soldier, judge, engineer, chemist, draftsman?” to which the officer responds, “Yes sir, he was (Kafka 130).” Peters continues, though, after acknowledging the mainstream interpretation of the old Commandant by channeling his analysis through colonialism rather than religion, claiming that “in a colonial context, quite ordinary, mortal European males could aspire to similar all-knowing and omnipotent status (Peters 409).” The colonialist interpretation is but one of several valid alternatives to the religious interpretation, though all of the alternative interpretations remain alternative, not mainstream. While this does not necessarily mean that the mainstream interpretation is correct, it does mean that most scholars agree that “In the Penal Colony” is a story of a religious nature. The literary devices and artistic elements inherent to “In the Penal Colony” allow for more widely varying perceptions than do the religious elements. There is a plethora of fodder provided: the apparatus, the leather scripts, the teahouse, and the tomb, to name a few. Some of these elements straddle the line between the religious and the artistic. Steinberg notes that some critics may have seen Christian or Jewish symbols in some of the aforementioned artistic elements (Steinberg 494). Whether the apparatus represents the crucifix or the teahouse a shrine or any other Judeo-Christian symbol, though, is not the present concern. In examining the artistic elements of “In the Penal Colony” as artistic elements, more can be said. Considering the ornate writing on the leather script and the apparatus itself, Danielle Allen writes, “The officer’s gestures establish a context for judging his beloved Commandant’s apparatus: it should be viewed, or read, as a work of art (Allen 325).” Allen goes as far as to call the presiding officer the “artist-officer,” an apt moniker for the operator of the apparatus (Allen 327). Koelb, concerned largely in his study with the act, or art, of reading within the story, primarily of the words inscribed by the apparatus, shows “that this inscription is simply the reproduction of an act of writing that had taken place long before the time of the narration and that as such it is the embodiment of the intellectual re-production which we ordinarily call ‘reading’ (Koelb 511).” Allen and Koelb differ in their emphases – writing and reading, respectively – but they meet at the central point: The communication between the characters in “In the Penal Colony” is art, both in the story and for the reader. Koelb equates the action of the story to dramatic theater (Koelb 521). Spoken, written, or read, the words communicated throughout the story are to be seen as artistic elements and, as such, they play into the philosophy of the story. It is clear that views opposite in nature can be taken, examined, and concluded upon similarly via the examples of Allen and Koelb; while there are various interpretations to be made regarding the artistic elements of the story, like the religious elements, agreement among exegetes still prevails. A philosophical analysis becomes all the more necessary. Thanks to the written communication between Kafka and Max Brod, the literary world knows certain intimacies about Kafka’s life. For one, it is known that Kafka had read Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling as well as his Buch des Richters prior to writing “In the Penal Colony,” and, in the case of the latter, even within about a year of doing so (Heidsieck 135). Given this information, and the fact that “Kafka felt that Kierkegaard’s writings deepened his own understanding of ethical individualism,” it does not seem an unrealistic possibility that Kafka would weave some of Kierkegaard’s philosophy into his own work (Heidsieck 134). Though a number of studies done and comments made parallel Kafka and Kierkegaard – or attempt to separate the two – the discussion is hardly through. A Kierkegaardian approach to “In the Penal Colony” may yield some interesting results. In Kierkegaardian philosophy there are three levels of being, ordered hierarchically. The first, the aesthetic level, marks the single individual as the single individual in the physical world. The second, the ethical level, marks the single individual as the universal. The third and final, the religious level, marks the single individual as the single individual in an absolute relation with the absolute, whose relation with the absolute, God, comes by virtue of the absurd and is inexplicable. The second and third tiers each possess a hero, an ideal representative of the level. The ethical hero is called the tragic hero, and the religious hero is called the knight of faith. There are uncanny similarities to be found between these heroic Kierkegaardian forms and a few of Kafka’s characters in “In the Penal Colony.” The aesthetic level of being deals primarily with sensory experience, with the single individual living in the physical world. The aesthetic individual is a single person with whom a bond, through sensory perception, is formed, usually but not necessarily with something artistic. Such a bond could be formed between the individual and, for instance, a piece of music or a sculpture or, perhaps, an execution apparatus. The officer sees many aspects of the apparatus, from the leather script it uses to operate to the ingenious machine itself, as artful. The officer, or, recalling Allen’s terminology, “artist-officer,” is connected to each of the artistic elements to be found in the story. His profound connection with the machine denotes a sensory bond. Of all the characters, the officer has the most fervent interest in art and punishment, which are two concepts that, Allen says, intermingle, and which also are to be found in the Kierkegaardian aesthetic category (Allen 326). The art of punishment is his and, since the new Commandant’s rise, his alone, at least of the characters in the field. The machine, without doubt, is the officer’s responsibility, not to mention his pride and reason for living. Certainly there is a connection between the officer and the teahouse, and the reader may even presume that the officer had spent his free time lounging there, depending on the reader's interpretation of the clientele. The old Commandant’s makeshift tomb is the aesthetic element with which the officer may have the deepest association, perhaps even more so than the apparatus; for, as the soldier tells the explorer, “it’s what [the officer] is most ashamed of (Kafka 156).” Shame and pride, two indisputably human emotions, represented respectively by the tomb and the apparatus, are at the officer’s core. The officer, via his connections and emotive response to and passion for these elements, is the single individual that represents the aesthetic level of being. The ethical level, in a sense, opposes the aesthetic level, in Kierkegaard’s terms. The single individual forsakes his individuality for a connection with the universal in the ethical level. The ethical zenith, the tragic hero, becomes so in forsaking his individuality and making a “move of infinite resignation (Kierkegaard 38-46).” The move of infinite resignation, concisely, is a shedding of all things held dearly and closely, coupled with a feeling of reconciliation with the suffering caused by that loss. After making the move of infinite resignation, the tragic hero can act as judge for the universal, for he has nothing to gain in making a decision either way. He therefore pulls himself out of the equation and considers the good of the universal, the good for all. “In the Penal Colony” features such a tragic hero. Is not the explorer at the colony to act as a judge regarding the retention or rejection of the apparatus and execution in general? Perhaps the reason that his opinion is esteemed as it is came by way of the move of infinite resignation. Being an explorer, his material possessions must be few. For whatever reason, the explorer is in a position to judge the penal colony’s methods of execution. He witnesses firsthand the enthusiasm with which the officer expresses the machine’s grace and artfulness. Still, the explorer puts his personal experience out of the picture in favor of the common, universal good. Disdaining the procedure and apparatus itself, the explorer decides not to vouch for the validity of the executions, much to the chagrin of the officer. It is in this respect that the explorer becomes the tragic hero. In mere moments, the officer moves from the aesthetic level to the ethical level and finally to the religious level. Shedding his clothes and metaphorically shedding his dearest values, the officer enters the machine’s harrow. The officer's move of infinite resignation signifies his crossing of the threshold into the ethical level. A Kierkegaardian leap of faith, an inexplicable movement of faith, follows. The apparatus malfunctions, stabbing the officer mercilessly; this is not the slow, tautological death intended. The officer's extreme, crystallized suffering raises him above the universal as an individual. The officer becomes the knight of faith – that is, he acts as the single individual standing in an absolute relation with God and the absurd, and in a way, the old Commandant. If a reader assigns to the apparatus a symbolic religious meaning, the officer’s relationship with God becomes evident, as does his relationship with the old Commandant – for the old Commandant could represent the God of the Old Testament. On another level, the officer stands in relation with God in a way that is only indirectly related to the apparatus; specifically, that the officer has condemned himself to death, which places him in a direct relationship with God. In his move toward the absurd, the officer necessarily stands in relation to the void. The surrounding company tries to save the officer from his self-appointed fate; indeed, the bystanders cannot understand or explain his actions. There are other potential knights of faith in the story. The explorer, followed by the prisoner and soldier, enters a teahouse on the edge of the colony. The teahouse patrons are “poor, humble people (Kafka 156).” This characterization suggests the possibility that these folks have undergone the movement of infinite resignation. Upon reading the old Commandant’s gravestone, which bears a prophetic, religious inscription, the explorer is alarmed and looks around the teahouse. The patrons smile knowingly, “as if they had read the inscription with him (Kafka 157).” It is as if the teahouse patrons know that the old Commandant will return by virtue of the absurd, though the explorer speculates differently. The philosophical components of “In the Penal Colony," while the least understood, may present a deeper understanding of the story when examined, especially through the output of a philosopher of whom it is known that Kafka admired the work. Yet there may be a claim to be made in opposition to this stance. In an essay, Eliseo Vivas has considered and censured the parallelism between Kafka and Kierkegaard. The central reason for this denunciation is that, for Kierkegaard, belief is willed as a human decision, whereas for Kafka belief is a cognitive exercise. Vivas goes on, “In Kafka anguish issues from doubt, in Kierkegaard from certitude (Vivas 145).” Vivas has a strong argument until the generalities fade: “Having been thrust from the aesthetic [Kafka’s] heroes stop before they reach the next stage. And they stop because they refuse – or are unable to bring themselves – to solve their problems by the only means that such problems can be solved… It is the leap, taken by the greatest number of the major philosophers of our West, that Kafka, faithful to the limitation of his empiricism, will not take,” claims Vivas (Vivas 146).” Either “In the Penal Colony” is an exception Vivas did not consider or Vivas is lost. That there are characters progressing in Kierkegaard’s sphere should be evident. Even if the officer’s suicide is not seen in terms of Kierkegaard’s philosophy, it ought to be seen as a leap away from his prior state into something inexplicable – whether a commentator uses the word “absurd” or not. The rest of the aforementioned examples follow in this manner and invalidate, or at least bring to question Vivas’s claims. The aesthetic and religious elements of the story are worthy of considerable research on their own. The pieces on which are here conferred, however, are intended to support the philosophical issues that, in a way, overshadow the other aspects. Kierkegaard’s philosophy, it should be seen, elucidates some fascinating facets of the story that are sometimes overlooked. Kafka’s characters move within Kierkegaard’s prescribed stages – with this information, a deeper understanding of “In the Penal Colony” develops.
Allen, Danielle. “Sounding Silence.” Modernism/Modernity 8.2 (2001): 325-34. Heidsieck, Arnold. The Intellectual Contexts of Kafka’s Fiction: Philosophy, Law, Religion. Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1994. Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis and Other Stories. Trans. Donna Freed. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1996. Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling/Repetition. Trans. Howard Hong and Edna Hong. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983. Koelb, Clayton. “’In der Strafkolonie’: Kafka and the Scene of Reading.” German Quarterly 55.4 (Nov 1982): 511-25. Peters, Paul. “Witness to the Execution: Kafka and Colonialism.” Monatshefte 93.4 (2001): 401-19. Steinberg, Erwin. “The Judgment in Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony.’” Journal of Modern Literature 5.3 (Sept 1976): 492-514. Vivas, Eliseo. “Kafka’s Distorted Mask.” Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Ronald Gray. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962. 133-46.
Kyle McGee is a senior undergraduate at the University of Scranton.