In the Penal Colony and the Subversion of Nostalgia
Franz Kafka subverts the idea of the romanticized past with “In the Penal Colony” particular in the character of The Officer. The Officer is the kind of character that one encounters at trade shows. This is a man who knows everything about a certain subject – jewelry, automobiles, comic books, winemaking, etc. – and is brimming with enthusiasm over the prospect of sharing this knowledge with the rest of the world. In most cases, the person is an enthusiastic hobbyist who eventually understands that he needs to find other people just as obsessive as himself in order to have a proper conversation about his obsession. At other times, the person can become unbearable in the enthusiasm and not realize just how little his audience may care about his expert opinion.
The Officer is the latter case. He takes great joy in explaining every detail of the torture machine from the bed to the harrows to the process that creates a near mystical experience for the condemned man toward the end of the twelve hours. The Traveler provides a willing audience as someone who is neither a citizen of the penal colony nor a citizen of the state to which it belonged. There is really no reason for the Traveler to be there at the execution. He’s an outsider with letters of recommendation. Yet, the Officer welcomes him as a willing audience member. In many ways, it appears that the Officer has been waiting for an audience member to talk about the machine.
In other stories, the Officer talking about the machine would be dismissed as an “infodump” where one character functions solely to relate a particular aspect of the story in order to serve the purpose of world building. The term “infodump” carries particularly negative connotations since it often gets in the way of the story. This negativity often rests in the fact that the person telling the back story is merely there to tell the back story and really has no intrinsic personality that adds to the overall story.
However, the Officer transcends such hackneyed tropes by being the most interesting character in the entire story. The Traveler is ostensibly the main character, but he’s more of a viewpoint character who is merely in place to be told things. The Officer, by contrast, has some very real concerns about the lack of standards. The Officer’s love for the torture machine comes through in every sentence and when the Officer complains about how the torture machine is the not the same as in the old days when the original commandant was in charge, it heightens the absurdity to satirical levels.
The main joke of the story is that even though the reader sees an inhuman torture device that slowly murders people for their transgressions and a systematic brutality in which an soldier who is unable to wake up every hour to salute his superior is condemned to this horrifying torture, the Officer sees the torture machine as a sign of a bygone past in which things were somehow better and more pure. The machine is breaking down and it hasn’t been cleaned properly for decades and these are the kind of items that the Officer is concerned about. There are some lines about how the machine is really inhumane, but they only serve to heighten the Officer’s desperation. The Officer can only understand that the machine is being retired as an obsolete piece of equipment. Whatever empathy he might possess is focused on the machine itself.
Even more compelling is the fact that the Officer is certain that the process will convince the Traveler to tell the new commandant to keep the torture machine going. The Officer is the kind of true believer that cannot conceive that someone else can see the same thing and not feel the same way that he feels.
To add insult to injury, the Officer decides to put himself into the torture machine as the last victim. Without fanfare, he allows the condemned man to go and decides that he will go through the entire experience on his own. As a believer, he has spent his entire life administering these executions to prisoners and believing in the beatific experience. Yet, when he is in the machine, it does not work as well as he wants it to work and instead of a twelve hour slow death that will destroy his ability to talk or complain and put him in some kind of a holy ecstasy, he ends up with a large iron needle poking through his forehead.
After the Officer’s absurd death which is based on his love of the old regime, the story wraps up with an epilogue about the original commandant’s grave that actually has an inscription promising that he will rise from the dead and re-conquer the island. This seems like a reference to Jesus, but it could also just be a particularly cruel joke on the proponents of nostalgia who are always looking backwards. The Officer cannot live in the new world and so chooses to die and then cannot even die in the way that he wanted. The Condemned Man and the Soldier try to follow the Traveler away from the penal colony but he pushes them off. Whether they are seeking freedom from the penal colony or simply a new life remains a question as they aren’t so much characters as ciphers. Like the Officer is trapped in his nostalgic reminiscences of the way things used to be, they are trapped in the penal colony without hope for escape.
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Franz Kafka subverts the idea of the romanticized past with “In the Penal Colony” particular in the character of The Officer. The Officer is the kind of character that one […]