The Theme of Justice in Franz Kafka’s in the Penal Colony

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Franz Kafka is renowned for his short stories, which have substantial themes. From the short story In the Penal Colony, Frank focuses on the military judicial system and its statutes regarding errant soldiers. The story highlights how unjust legal systems may be, especially when the culprit lacks a defendant. It also highlights the rigidity in courts as far as ancient laws are concerned. Kafka highlights the challenges of justice using the Traveller, Officer, New Commandant and Old Commandant.

Kafka uses the apparatus to highlight injustice. When the story begins, an army Officer is checking a machine for faults. “It’s really quite a contraption…” shows how attached he is to the pain machine. He then proudly goes on to recount to the lone Traveller how it works, which reveal the dire lack of just methods of punishment in the military camp. First, he says that the apparatus takes twelve hours to complete the execution process. He even insists that “…it takes twelve hours to complete a cycle, twelve long hours…”. The offender would obviously be in excruciating pain by this time, based on the design of the machine. The long, torturous clearly excite the Officer. He even takes credit for its invention. He then explains how the machine is designed to inscribe the guilty man’s punishment in his body. The “harrow” is made of spike-like needles, which bite into the body of a supposed criminal, and “…naturally, everything is done more artistically”. The “bed” has cotton “wading” where the naked offender lies facing down. It also has strappings that “…straps are for his feet, these are for his hands… then the top one goes round the neck…” to portray how inhumane and humiliating the justice system is. He then continues to explain how the human shaped harrow sinks down the offendant’s body and pierces him simultaneously. This type of justice is much skewed.

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Lack of justice is also advanced by the Officer and the Old Commandant. The former chains a soldier for fighting back unfair punishment. He narrates how the soldier who was about to be punished was condemned. The officer states that “...guilt is never in question. There’s never any doubt…” and of the condemned soldier, he says that “he doesn’t even know his own judgment.” This implies that the court system greatly compromised on fair ruling, because a guilty person should be accorded the chance to defend himself. This decision shocks the Traveller who “…already felt a dawning interest in the machine…”. The Officer also brags about being the only judge in the camp “…I am the one who carries the handwritten renderings that pertain to all judgment”. He exerts his tyranny without interference. The Old Commandant was also at fault, for designing the murderous apparatus and stringent laws. For instance, it was very cruel for the law to stipulate that self-defense is punishable by death. He also glorified the insane method of dispensing justice as Kafka highlights in “early on the morning of the commander would appear with his entourage of ladies…trumpets would ring out…” The Officer further states that few people had the courage to watch the execution, to symbolize his complicity in meting justice.

The Traveller and the New Commandant signify the beginning of a new, fair dawn. The former’s occasional inquiries about the execution process signify how much he values fairness. When asked to give a vague report about what he witnessed, the Traveller clearly states that “ I am against capital punishment” He even explains how he was tempted to interfere in the execution process, “…I have been asking myself as to whether it would be right to for me to make a stand against these methods…with smallest possibility of success”. These remarks may signify a change in the camp’s judicial system, which the Officer is afraid of. The New Commandant’s position concerning the current judicial system may also signal the start of a fair system. He is said to have introduced a “new mild doctrine”. Additionally, he frequently frustrates the Officer’s execution attempts by denying him money to purchase the apparatus’ spare parts. He laments that “…the machine has been fouled worse than a pigsty”. (Kafka, 88) The Officer also believes that the Traveller was invited to “…use...a foreigner to advance his interests…” The New Commandant secretly hoped that the explorer would share his personal views concerning the current execution process. He would then use these views to change the existing laws of punishment. The Officer is also appalled that the New Commandant terms the current judicial system as “inhumane”. The latter has been accused of using his influence to stop people from watching public executions, like his predecessor. In the end, justice is served, albeit cruelly, when the “machine” breaks down while executing the Officer and the prisoner is set free.

The author force to overthink readers the question of how justice should be carried out in a well-functioning society.  The Officer’s apparatus functions represent unjust methods of punishing supposed criminals. The New Commandant’s efforts show his passion for justice. The short story In the Penal Code highlights how challenged the courts are when tasked with administering just sentences on criminals. 


Works cited

1.Boyer, Daniel W. 'Kafka's Law-Writing Apparatus: A Study in Torture, a Study in Discipline.' Yale Journal of Law & Humanities, vol. 27, no. 1, Jan. 2015, pp. 83-114, Accessed 15 Dec. 2019.

2.Cliffnotes. 'In the Penal Colony' (In Der Strafkolonie)'.' Cliffs Notes Study Guides | Book Summaries, Test Preparation & Homework Help | Written by Teachers, 2016, Accessed 17 Dec. 2019.

3.Coulehan, Jack. 'In the Penal Colony.' LitMed: Literature Arts Medicine Database, 2019, Accessed 15 Dec. 2019.

4.Essay Resources. 'Literary Analysis of Franz Kafka’s ‘The Penal Colony’ – Essay Resources.' Essay Resources – Helps Students Accomplish Goals!, 30 Jan. 2018, Accessed 17 Dec. 2019.

5.Kafka, Essential. 'In the Penal Colony.' MLA Commons – An Online Community for MLA Members, 2019, Accessed 15 Dec. 2019.


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