As each character's desires emerge, it becomes apparent that each person's role is frustrated by the others. The Condemned Man wishes for freedom, but the Soldier and Officer need for him to die and have a religious experience. The Traveller is confounded by the Officer's sincere defense of the apparatus and knows he must to report to the Commandment in a way that upholds his integrity. The Officer wants both favor from the Traveller and to continue torturing the condemned prisoners, but upon realizing the hopelessness of his operation, he turns the machine against himself. It malfunctions and kills him without allowing him the religious experience of death.
This theme is poignantly resonant of Kafka's own struggle to find meaning in his life. It's ironically self-defeating and emphasizes his message in this theme: meaning in life is often blocked, leading to deep, even fatal frustration. If it is attainable, it is only by perverse means, and is usually directly opposed to someone else's joy.
Religion (Officer as Christ Figure)
The Officer serves as a Christ figure because his torturous death saves the life of someone who was condemned to die. This ironic death serves to raise moral questions about religion and the meaning of life. Because the Officer chooses torture in order to experience the religious value of a slow death, this Christ figure is self-serving, abandoning his post due to the frustrations that surround him. Thus, Kafka punishes him by making him die quickly and brutally.
The prospect of another saved life is ended when the Traveller refuses to allow the formerly Condemned Man to leave the island with him. This has meaningful implications about the life after salvation; it potentially has teleological implications about the afterlife and alludes to the frustrations that the putative afterlife brings to the sublunary one.
Life as slow torture
The image of a slow, torturous death may seem to be only about the death of the mortal body, but it alludes meaningfully to Kafka's argument about existence as a whole. It's not clear exactly which aspect of life Kafka intended the symbol to apply to, or even if he had a specific allegorical application of the thematic symbol, but it is evident that the symbol indicates a type of torture-ridden frustration surrounding the pursuit of a meaningful life.
The torture is thematic in that it points to an idea about life; namely that life is a slow, drawn-out process heading inexorably toward death, and the question in the system revolves around whether there really is a religious experience somewhere along the way. The fact that the Officer who maintained that argument dies brutally at the malfunctioned torture-device does not bode well for the reality of religious awareness.
Religious Enlightenment in Death
One of the moral arguments the Officer uses to convince the Traveller that the torturous death at the hands of the apparatus is not immoral or excessive is that the slow, torturous death provides the dying man with a religious experience that redeems their sorry fate. His decision to die by the torture machine shows how committed he is to his ideology.
The Officer claims that the point of death is that it might have some transcendent value, some religious experience in the last moments of life, something to validate the pain and frustration of life. The question raised by the short story is whether or not the reader is convinced by this argument, and Kafka takes a stab at it by making the prophetic Officer die in a way that obviates his claim.
Discipline and Punishment
Kafka probes the nature of discipline and punishment in this story. His penal colony is a place where those in power maintain that there is perfect order and justice, but in reality both are lacking. Discipline is enforced through both the spectacle and the internalization of the law. Punishment is levied through the destruction of the body, for the body is ultimately the means by which those in power get to control the hearts and souls of those they rule. The power system maintains itself by insisting that its methods of discipline and punishment are good for the people and can even result in transcendence; they use utilitarian and emotionless language to convey this message, which reveals just how morally ambiguous language actually is.
The Fallacy of Narrative
The Officer has a story and he does nothing but stick to it. He spends much of the story talking; he tells of the Old Commandant's glory and genius, he explains the particulars of the apparatus, he waxes poetic about the old days, and he stoutly defends the purpose of the machine and lauds its creation of a moment of transfiguration in the condemned. He also maintains that the machine works perfectly on its own and seems to think it is ultimately infallible; he treats the diagrams as if they are sacred scrolls. However, all of this proves to be nearly completely false. His narrative is flawed, his use of language is to an end that is ultimately devoid of truth. There is no metanarrative; the Officer cannot bridge the gap to the Traveller; language is perverted, incapable of conveying the reality of the situation in the penal colony.
In the Penal Colony Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for In the Penal Colony is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.