In the Penal Colony

In the Penal Colony Study Guide

Franz Kafka wrote “In the Penal Colony” in 1914; its original German title is "In der Strafkolonie." The short story, a cornerstone of existentialist writing, centers on themes of religion, colonialism, and torture. It is notable for its unaffected tone, with a narrative voice that maintains a complete disinterest in the face of the highly disturbing torture occurring in the story.

There is no indication biographers have found that Kafka visited prisons or had studied them in detail, but the larger concerns of the story resonate in aspects of his own life, and he was indeed an attorney. The story may have been born from Kafka's own frustrations, as he continually sought new professions, new endeavors and new distractions from his internal turmoil. He began a new company around the same time he wrote many of his short stories (producing asbestos, which saved him from being drafted into the war but also left him very sick). His own complicated racial/ethnic/religious identity—he was Czech and German, as well as Jewish—caused further problems.

Kafka began writing the piece in 1914 (while he was also working on The Trial). It only took him two weeks to complete and he read it aloud to his salon group of fellow writers in December of that year. He commented that he wasn’t “entirely dissatisfied,” a rare note of self-praise from a writer inclined to disparage his own works.

“In the Penal Colony” was published for the first time in 1919. It was translated into English in 1948. It is, next to The Metamorphosis, considered Kafka’s greatest work and has inspired a plethora of criticism and interpretation.

Other filmmakers, visual artists, and musicians have looked to the story for inspiration. Perhaps most notably is the contemporary composer Philip Glass, who created a chamber opera version of the work in 2000; it is a critical favorite and staged frequently.