In the Penal Colony

In the Penal Colony Summary and Analysis of Pages 10-15


The Officer takes the Traveller into his confidence and begins to talk at length. He frankly admits to being the only defender and advocate of the Old Commandant and his ways. The Old Commandant had many supporters when he was alive, but now they have all gone into hiding. He points to the machine and asks why a life’s work should coming to nothing because the New Commandant and his women do not like it.

He continues, saying people are rallying against him; even the Traveller’s presence is a sign of that. Back in the day, executions were extremely popular and the whole valley was filled with people. The Old Commandant and his women came, fanfare filled the air, and society arranged itself around the machine. People knew justice was being carried out. They were silent and respectful. The felt helped keep the prisoner’s noise to a minimum and a caustic liquid (which the Officer isn't allowed to use that anymore) seeped into the wounds of the condemned. People especially wanted to see what happened around the sixth hour, when the condemned person supposedly stops fighting and begins to understand their sentence. The Officer used to take children and get as close as they could so they could see the “expression of transfiguration on the martyred face” (10).

The Officer puts his arm around the Traveller as he waxes poetic, and the Traveller is embarrassed. He looks over at the Soldier, who has now finished cleaning the apparatus, and at the Condemned Man, who is lapping up rice pudding.

The Officer collects himself and comments that the machine runs on its own anyway, even if there are not hundreds of people gathered. The Traveller averts his gaze and the Officer asks if he sees the shame of it—that is, of how the old ways have vanished.

After a moment the Officer continues, explaining that he heard about the New Commandant’s invitation to the Traveller, and knows what the intent was. The Officer thinks that the Commandant wants to get rid of the Officer, but cannot yet do so, so he is “exposing me to the judgment of a respected foreigner” (11). The Officer says calmly that the Traveller didn’t know the Old Commandant and doesn’t understand the death penalty as such, and the real importance of the apparatus. The Officer acknowledges that the Traveller probably thinks the apparatus is wrong, but pleads that he not speak out against the apparatus when he returns to the penal colony. Instead, he should offer a small, careless remark to the New Commandant that will “appear as correct as [it is] self-evident—innocent remarks which do not impugn my procedure” (12). The Commandant then won't be able to get rid of the apparatus by basing his decision on the opinion of a distinguished visitor. The Officer says that even if the Traveller in fact admires the apparatus, he shouldn't say so; one of the New Commandant's ladies would cover his mouth before he got to say it.

The Traveller smiles, seeing that his task is not difficult. He says the Officer exaggerates his influence and that if the New Commandant has such strong views of the procedure, he would end up banning it no matter what the Traveler’s opinion was.

The Officer shakes his head. He says softly that the Traveller's influence is very, very important and tells him that now that he has heard the explanation of the procedure he must help him with the Commandant.

The Traveller is surprised, and comments that he cannot help at all. The Officer refutes that assertion and tells him of his plan. The Traveller, the Officer says, must remain quiet about his verdict on the procedure. He must not answer any questions directly, he must not incur any bitterness. Tomorrow when the New Commandant and high administrative officials meet, it will no doubt turn into a spectacle. The Traveller will be invited so that he will be able to speak out against the apparatus in front of a crowd of witnesses. The New Commandant will watch him. The question of the apparatus will come up as if by chance, and the New Commandant will mention the Traveller and put the question to him. Now the Traveller must stand and the ladies will watch. Actually, says the Officer, he need not stand. He does not need to rail and shout; he can give a few quiet words. He need not mention the squeaky wheel or the torn strap. The Officer says that if the subject of the apparatus does not come up, he will bring it up himself.

That is his plan, the Officer concludes. He asks the Traveller if he will help him. He even yells the last few phrases and grips the Traveller. The Traveller has doubts, but knows he must say no, and he does so. He asks if the Officer wants an explanation and the Officer nods.

The Traveller states that he is against this procedure. He has been wondering how much he should intervene, and though he admires the Officer’s convictions, he must state that he is forever against it.

The Officer looks away, and then looks to the apparatus as if making sure things are in order. The Soldier and Condemned Man seem to have made friends, making signs to each other. The Traveller goes up to the Officer and tells him he will not denounce the procedure in public but will do so in private and will not stay long enough to have to go to a meeting. He will leave tomorrow morning.

The Officer simply says, “So the process has not convinced you” (15), and smiles.


In these few pages the Officer reveals that he is not simply an impassive tool of the state, but a fervent advocate of the older form of justice as embodied by the Old Commandant and the apparatus. Now that times have changed, though, he is one of the only vocal supporters of the old regime left. He hopes that the Traveller will recognize the merits of the machine and what it does. But the Traveller will not do this. Though he is no forceful critic of the machine, he certainly plans to indicate his disapproval to the New Commandant.

While all of this is happening, the Condemned Man lies strapped on the Bed. Kafka gives readers very little insight into this character, but the way the man is characterized does, in fact, give us another interpretative angle on the short story: it is about the horrors and depravities of colonialism. Of course, as critic Paul Peters notes, Kafka isn’t going to lay this out for us. Kafka is about concealment, estrangement, and disdain of an explicit resolution. However, the evidence is there; all of European colonialism is on full display in this microcosmic penal colony. The colonial world is one of exposure to limitless punishment; it is occupied and dominated by procedures and apparatuses of power and control. Obviously, Kafka’s penal colony operates in exactly the same way.

Peters explains how the story equates the apparatus with colonialism. There is “the explosion of an overwhelming, terrifying, extraneous power into an indigenous space” and the rapturous, laudatory narrative that accompanies it. The “founding myth” the Officer extols is as powerful as the apparatus itself. Like other Kafka works, Peters notes, the apparatus “is a prime example of the materialization of the metaphor.” The apparatus is huge and dominates the indigenous space; it is technologically advanced and rational in its violence, just as the colonial powers were in India, the Congo, etc. Peters writes that the apparatus “incarnates all of the annihilatory practices of the colonizer, the constant exposure of the colonized to random and massive use of force, as well as the technical means which make such force possible.”

The parallels between “In the Penal Colony” and European colonialism can also be glimpsed in the limitations of language in conveying their horror. Apologists of European colonialism spoke of the “humanizing” nature of their endeavors; King Leopold famously bragged of Belgium’s civilizing mission in the Congo. In Kafka’s story the Officer is full of words, but they belie the cruelty and torture of what the apparatus is actually doing.

Language also comes into play with the gulf between the colonizer and colonized. As with European colonial administrators who knew nothing about the country and people they were now in charge of, the Condemned Man and the Soldier do not speak the language of the Officer and Traveller. The Condemned Man is described very much in the way that colonists thought of natives. He is stupid, brutish, and bestial. He and the Soldier laugh and gambol about like children. They “react with pleasure or disturbance to immediate sensual stimuli, without seeming to have any sense of the more mediated, abstract processes of administration, science, or technology.” Kafka suggests the Condemned Man is understood as being outside of history, a “lazy native” who needs to be chained up and punished for indolence and insolence. His punishment will be bodily, just the punishments experienced by actual colonial subjects (again, in the Belgian Congo natives had their hands cut off if they did not gather enough rubber). Peters concludes his analysis by claiming that the actual act of inscription on the body “closely matches the particularly unrelenting nature of colonial conquest.” Overall, Kafka provides plenty of parallels for readers to discern his indictment of the colonial system.

Peters’ is not the only scholarly article that takes on the theme of colonialism in the text. Ruth Cumberland also sees Kafka engaging with the type of power dynamics found in colonial systems: “the colonial undertones in Kafka’s ‘Penal Colony’ interrogate a particular type of power domination and subjugation and evoke inter-textually the experience of domination of one race over another.” The Condemned Man as Other is dehumanized, and his body is subjected to to corporal punishment, mastery, and usage. He is forced into the apparatus, in contrast to the Officer who (later) will willingly seek it. The Officer's speech about the apparatus also reflects another aspect of colonialism, which “insists that the victim transcends through torture in extremis and that the inscrutable joys of deliverance are possible only through violence.” Again, colonial officials and apologists made all manner of big claims about the good they were doing, and Kafka hints at the same thing through the Officers’ absurdly laudatory yet dispassionate explanation of how the machine works.