Review: In the Penal Colony by Kafka

The story is set in an unnamed penal colony. It describes the last use of an elaborate torture and execution device that carves the sentence of the condemned prisoner on his skin in a script before letting him die, all in the course of twelve hours. As the plot unfolds, the reader learns more and more about the machine, including its origin, and original justification.

Before you read this, I really recommend reading In the Penal Colony first, because I’m going to be getting in-depth. It’s available here for free and isn’t all that long!

I can’t believe it! A Kafka story/novella that I actually liked and understood!

I’ve had trouble with Kafka in the past. I’ve found him really difficult to read, because while I understand what he’s getting at and respect that, I couldn’t bring myself to actually enjoy the reading experience. I also felt like the symbolism was choking, making the meaning so obscure that it was beyond comprehension in some cases.

In the Penal Colony isn’t really like the other short stories of his I’ve read. It’s much more straightforward and easy to interpret. It’s quite bloody and violent, but it makes sense to me to have it that way. There’s an overarching sense of confinement, menace and horror, which is pretty common in Kafka’s works, but I think it’s really prevalent in this one. I was actually starting to feel a bit jumpy, because I wasn’t sure where he was going to go with the story. That, to me, is the mark of a master.

Kafka wrote The Penal Colony in 1914, shortly after he had broken an engagement and while he was writing The Trial. He actually stopped writing The Trial to write this- I wonder what brought him to that decision? I’ve not read The Trial yet, so maybe I’ll find out then.

I went to a lecture the other day about the use of comedy and laughter in Kafka’s work, focusing mainly on this story. I found it incredibly interesting and insightful, especially since I’d just read it the night before! It was also my first proper seminar as an academic researcher, which was a bit exciting. I even got a free pastry! I was honestly trying to work out how anyone could find anything particularly funny in his work, but now I really see what they were getting at.

Anyway, it’s interesting how Kafka uses elements of slapstick humour to poke fun at sovereign power. He diverts attention from the execution of the Officer in order to watch the ridiculous behaviour of the (formerly) Condemned Man and the Soldier, thus depriving the Officer of his attention. The Condemned Man is portrayed in an animalistic kind of way, referred to as “a dog”. This, and his absolutely useless role in society, plus the irony of his interest in the Machine, makes him a really comedic figure.

The lack of transcendence the Officer gets is also kind of comedic. He goes on and on about how the prisoner’s torture gives them a point of transcendence, a moment of enlightenment when they achieve recognition of the sin they’re being executed for. He puts himself into the Machine with the recommendation “Be Just”… but the Machine breaks down. He is then mutilated, but not in the slow, 12 hour torture he intends. The final spike through the forehead is really an “Oh, you stupid idiot” moment. He never gets his moment of enlightenment. The Machine prohibits that.

Apparently Kafka read this aloud in Munich in 1916, which caused people to flee, faint and assert that there was a foul stench of blood in the air as he spoke. That’s pretty intense! I’d say that’s ever so slightly exaggerated, but still… it’s a cool picture. It must have been pretty harrowing for people, particularly as it was midway through the bloodiest war in history.

I found the ending to be a bit abrupt. I’m told this is because Kafka himself was dissatisfied with it, but needed to have an ending to get it published. There’s actually several more variants in his notebooks, but he chose this one to publish with.

Overall, I quite enjoyed this, which is pretty cool and unbelievable! I’d recommend this to anyone struggling with Kafka but who wants to like him. I’d also say if you’re interested in just punishment and ideas of transcendence, this might be a good story to read. It’s a bit gory but not terrible.

4//5 Stars


11 thoughts on “Review: In the Penal Colony by Kafka

  1. I first read Kafka as part of a senior seminar, and the professor was very big on the idea of Kafka being a humorous writer. It’s definitely dark humor, but I have to say, he made a convincing case. And I remember that this story was one of my favorites, along with maybe “The Hunger Artist.”

  2. Oddly enough,I happen to have read everything Kafka wrote as a writer: his 3 novels and all his short stories.
    Hmm,the Penal Colony was shocking,but I liked it.For me,the best short story – although it’s more like a novella – from Kafka is Metamorphosis! 🙂

    • I found it shocking but was surprised by how much I liked it!
      I really wasn’t hot on The Metamorphosis =( I so wanted to love it but didn’t. I do love what he was doing with it, but the execution itself I’m not a massive fan of.
      How did you like The Castle? I’m having to read it this week!

      • The fact that it doesn’t have an ending plays against it.Some people see the abrupt ending as fitting,while others are frustrated by it.
        But it is a good book all the same.I think you might like it,even if The Trial is more intense and impacting on the reader.

  3. I haven’t read all of your review (heeded the warning about reading it first!), but I like what I’ve seen so far. If it’s a Kafka which is worth reading, I am on it! Thanks for the heads up, my dear! I’ll try and read it at some point today, and then your review shall be seized upon. 😉

    • You heeded my warning! Huzzah! But do read it. Then construct it for El Toolio. His crime shall be “don’t be a tool”
      I wouldn’t lie to you 🙂 if I thought it sucked I’d say so. Wonderful! Keep me posted!

      • Hahaha! I like your thinking, girl. I could just nonchalantly email him a copy. ‘Hey, thought you’d like this!’. Thank you kindly in advance, in that case, for making me like Kafka!

  4. UTTERLY, UTTERLY GRUESOME. So much so that I had to stop reading because I could feel my lunch wanting to fight its way back up. I did read your review, and loved it (aside from the spike through the forehead). This part was undoubtedly my favourite (yes, I chuckled. Silently) – ‘I even got a free pastry!’

    I will read this when I’m feeling a bit less chicken!

      • Haha! Not at all. I’m just a major chicken. On the plus side, a major chicken with homemade flapjacks.

        True. Especially when said pastry is baked in a special apron.

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