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Written by Mason Tabor
Frustration and meaning
As each character's desires emerge, it becomes apparent that each person's role is frustrated by the others. The Condemned wishes for freedom, but the Soldier and Officer need for him to die and have is religious experience. The Explorer is confounded by the Officer's sincere response to report to the Commandment in a way that he feels would compromise his integrity. The Officer wants both the favor from the Explorer and to continue on in torturing the condemned prisoners, but upon realizing the hopelessness of his operation, he turns the machine against himself, which 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 in a zingy way that emphasizes his message on the theme, that meaning in life is obfuscated and frustrating. If it is attainable, it seems like it's counter-intuitive or directly opposed to someone else's joy.
Officer as Christ figure
The Officer serves as a Christ figure in that his torturous death saves the life of someone who was condemned to die but doesn't. 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 a saved life is lowered when the Explorer refuses to allow the formerly condemned man to leave the island. This has meaningful implications about the life after salvation, and potentially it has teliological implications about the afterlife and the frustrations that that prospect brings to this life.
Life as slow torture
The image of a slow torturous death may seem to be death oriented, but it only applies meaningfully to Kafka's argument about existence if the symbol applies to life. 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's 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 leading 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 on the prospect of religious awareness.
Religious enlightenment in death
One of the moral arguments the Officer uses to convince the Explorer that the torturous death is not immoral or excessive is that the slow torturous death provides the dying with a religious experience that validates their sorry fate. Whether he believes this to be true or not is shown by his decision to die at the torture machine.
The point of life 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.
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In the Penal Colony Questions and Answers
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