In the Penal Colony

In the Penal Colony Study Guide

Franz Kafka's "In the Penal Colony" ("In der Strafkolonie" in the original German) is a cornerstone of existentialist writing which centers on themes of religion, colonialism, and torture. It is notable for its flat, unaffected tone, with a narrative voice that maintains a complete disinterest in the face of the highly disturbing torture occurring in the story.

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.

Kafka's own experiences factored into his writing of the short story. As an attorney as well as a writer, Kafka was concerned with the criminal justice system. The short story was written at the beginning of World War I and published just after the war ended, causing his focus to turn to justice on an international scale. Additionally, Kafka had a complicated ethnic identity as Czech, German, and Jewish, which led him to feel like an outsider in many situations, like The Traveller in "In the Penal Colony."

Filmmakers, visual artists, and musicians have looked to the story for inspiration. Perhaps most notable 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.