Religious Symbolism in Kafka’s In The Penal Colony
Because essentially all faiths propose a set of moral and behavioral laws upon which one is expected to base one’s life decisions, religion and criminality are inexorably linked. While today in our society we aim to separate the two controversial subjects as much as possible, it cannot be denied that religion puts forth rules and regulations that align with those of the government, and that a moral compass and spirituality play a role in dealing with criminal cases. No matter how prevalent the separation of church and state in the contemporary movement towards secularism, people still swear on a Bible in court and talk of justice and repentance in church. Religion, particularly Christianity, has a subtle way of seeping into criminal sentencing and punishment because in the past laws originated from religious doctrines and were enforced by religious leaders who were often one and the same with government leaders. While the juxtaposition of the judgment of faith and of the court system has certainly decreased today, its past presence leaves its mark in many aspects of human culture, especially in arts like literature. For instance, this occurrence can be seen in Franz Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, which tells the chilling tale of a foreigner’s visit to an isolated and primitive land in the tropics to which prisoners are brought to be sentenced and punished. Although the system carried out in the story does not blatantly reflect religious beliefs, many aspects and objects within its plot are heavily symbolic of the ways of a world overseen by a merciless god. Kafka’s In the Penal Colony employs religious symbolism in a way that demonstrates the cruel incompetence of a justice system based in blind faith in a higher being, whether that being is a god or a government.
First of all, the setting and the apparatus, if one were to include the apparatus as an integral part of the setting, strongly symbolize many parts of the Christian faith. The penal colony itself is reminiscent of a kind of purgatory; the land is described as “a small, deep, sandy valley, closed in on all sides by barren slopes” (1) in which “the sun was excessively strong, trapped in the shadowless valley, and one could hardly collect one’s thoughts” (2). The penal colony is encompassed by a sweltering heat and an inescapable glaring sun which appears similar to how one imagines the fiery tortures of purgatory. It is only inhabited by the punished who got here to be slowly and torturously executed and the punishers who work there to keep the community functioning. If the colony is a purgatory that keeps its people contained in their barbaric acts and experiences, the dark pit below the apparatus represents hell into which the tortured and bleeding body is finally tossed. The apparatus itself is uncannily like a crucifix in that its shape corresponds to that of the body of the condemned and also pierces it with a series of long needles similar to the nails on the cross; since “everyone can see through the glass” (6) the punishment used to be a huge public spectacle where “the entire valley was overflowing with people…they came merely to watch” (10). The whole image of the naked condemned man laid out on the bed of the apparatus getting stuck by needles while a crowd looks on in excitement is a striking comparison to the crucifixion of Christ.
Additionally, many of the characters in Kafka’s story align with prominent figures of religion. The Officer himself propels this biblical imagery even further. He is a devout follower of the original commandant, the Old Commandant, who created the penal colony and its apparatus of justice as “soldier, judge, engineer, chemist, and draftsman” (4). The Old Commandant displays the merciless punishment sentiments of the Old Testament; he is the god-figure and creator, given all his roles in the establishment of the colony and the propagation of the rules and sentencing, similar to the commandments. The Officer plays the role of an almost Christ-like figure, “the single advocate for the legacy of the Old Commandant” (10). He is preaching and praising to the Traveller the system set in place by the Old Commandant in pure and boundless faith, as we see by his ultimate sacrifice. The Officer also has a noticeable fascination with cleanliness, both of himself and of his machine of gruesome penalty. He repeatedly washes his hands in a bucket of water before handling any of his sacred machinery, and is also greatly upset when the Condemned Man vomits on the machine, making it “filthy as a pigsty” (9). This reminds the reader of holy water or baptism in a way; the Officer only allows himself to touch the property of the Old Commandant, his god, if he has been purified by washing his hands prior to contact. Ultimately, he is most accurately represented as a Christ figure by his end – when the Traveller declines to help support his faith in the penal system, the Officer commits suicide by letting the apparatus, the object of his faith, destroy him rather than exist in a world where his idea of justice is not supported. In his final image, the Officer even has a symbolic crown of thorns, as “the tip of a large iron needle had gone through his forehead” (18). His perfect faith in the system brought him to his end, and with his death the penal colony is essentially obsolete because he was the last supporter of the Old Commandant, its creator. In contrast, the Traveller is the non-believer, and he survives because he is critical of the system and does not accept it without question.
In Franz Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, the justice system of this peculiar land in the tropics designed for torturing and punishing contains elements that resemble the Christian religion. In the end, this cruel and primitive system collapses upon itself because its ethics and justness were never questioned, its followers diminished and disinterested in its existence. The penal colony is a terrifying image of what a justice system could become with a charismatic leader and an accepting populace. While we no longer integrate religion and justice in our country today, there are similarities between the two societal pillars in the way that people can adhere to a system of great consequence without critically examining its ethics and humanity.
Kafka, Franz. In the Penal Colony. New York: Limited Editions Club, 1987. Print.
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