The apparatus is a machine which is supposed to render justice, inscribing a permanent life lesson on the skin of a condemned person. It is a machine that has no mercy on the person lying on its bed. This killing machine is supposed to go for twelve hours without interruption, making the torture as unbearable as possible. The apparatus is a symbol of the penal system as a whole, which functions on the idea that “guilt is always beyond a doubt". By inscribing the law directly on a person's body, it makes justice into a physical fact, beyond question.
The Traveller is invited to attend an execution “of a soldier condemned for disobeying and insulting his superior” to get acquainted with the local penal system. The New Commandant expects that the Traveller will speak against the procedure, while the Officer does his best to persuade him that this form of punishment is “the most humane and most worthy of human beings.” And when the Condemned Man is no longer to be executed, the Officer takes his place for his own execution. Kafka wants to impress upon the reader all of the different ways execution plays into the larger themes of bodily harm, state control, the workings of the law, and more. Only this senseless execution, as opposed to a trial or an arrest or a simple conversation about the law, could truly convey the horror and absurdity of the penal colony.
The Penal Colony (Allegory)
It is possible, of course, to read Kafka's penal colony literally, but there are also multiple ways to understand the text as an allegory. It could be read as an allegory for the Old Testament, in which a fearsome, all-powerful force metes out ruthless punishment for sins. It could also be an allegory of the policies which European empires used to apply to their colonies. Others can find a direct correlation between the penal colony and war camps. The mere idea of a place where a person has “no opportunity to defend himself” is markedly disturbing; thus, it could be even an allegory of hell itself.
The Diagrams (Symbol)
The detailed diagrams of the apparatus symbolize government bureaucracy and the penal and justice systems that pride themselves on objectivity, rationality, and fairness. A diagram is a completely utilitarian document that is intended to be devoid of emotion or nuance or subjectivity; another example includes the classic Brooks slave ship diagram of the ideal way to pack in slaves for shipment across the Atlantic. These diagrams represent a larger system, such as capitalism or a government. They seem straightforward in their depiction of order and rationality, but actually mask the entrenched hierarchies and specific interests that they serve. The way a diagram can obfuscate the immorality of governmental actions is shown through the Traveller not understanding the diagrams that the Officer shows him.
When the Officer receives his sentence in the broken apparatus, he bleeds copiously and visibly, rather than having his blood wash away as it was supposed to. Critic Ruth Cumberland sees this as a symbol of his guilt and of the violence of the system as a whole, writing, "The passage impresses the violent reality of body as transposed against ideal. The mess of leaking blood exacted from bodily inscription fails to mix with water as the Officer's self-inflicted guilt cannot be cleansed." As it pools and stains, his blood is a visible symbol of the Officer's transgressions that cannot be washed away. However, blood also traditionally symbolizes sacrifice, so Kafka's intent here could conversely be to suggest that the Officer is a Christ figure of sorts, crucifying himself for the Old Regime as a new one is ushered in.
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.