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Franz Kafka's The Penal Colony and existentialism


1. Think about why it was written? Indifference to religion, existential struggle
2. What it has to do with how one appreciates the world? Existential view- hostile or indifferent universe
3. What is the context (1914)-

The Penal Colony written in 1914, on the brink of WWI. Setting is the tropics. NEITHER the old Commandant nor the NEW commandant ever physically appear in the story. The old represents traditional religion of any form, while the new represents secularism.
“The Condemned Man, incidentally, had an expression of such dog-like resignation that it looked as if one could set him free to roam around the slopes and would only have to whistle at the start of the execution for him to return” (Kafka 1). The dog-like character and animal docile like nature have religious connotations to the biblical parable where Jesus is the shepherd, and his sheep are his congregation of followers. In much the same fashion, the officer is the shepherd and the condemned man is merely one of his sheep.
Initially the traveler had “ little interest in the apparatus... almost visibly indifferent” (Kafka 1). The officer carries out his tasks relating to the machine “with great enthusiasm” (Kafka 1).
“The officer tried to protect himself against all eventualities by saying, “Of course breakdowns do happen” (Kafka 2). Just like religious framework breaks down when some biblical miracles seem impossible.
“the organization of the entire penal colony is his work”. Refering to the previous commander, an almost mystical figure. Moreover he says a new commander “would not be able to alter anything of the old plan” (Kafka 2).
“The needles are arranged as in a harrow, and the whole thing is driven like a harrow, although it stays in one place and is, in principle, much more artistic”. (Kafka 3)
“The condemned man is laid out on his stomach on the cotton wool – naked of course. There are straps for the hands here, for the feet here, and for the throat here, to tie him in securely” (Kafka 3). Almost like a modern version of a crucifixion.
Commandant OR Commandment? The sentence is almost straight out of the original 10 commandments “Honor your superiors” (Kafka 4). The condemned man “had no opportunity to defend himself”, because “Guilt is always beyond a doubt” (Kafka 4). The officer explains the justice system in a very methodical and logical way, but “the information about the judicial procedures had not satisfied him” (Kafka 5). The traveler comforts himself that “here it was a matter of a penal colony, that in this place special regulations were necessary, and that one had to give precedence to military measures right down to the last detail” (Kafka 5). This system of laws closely resembles a religious government, or a theocracy. The diagrams in the apparatus are the most cherished things the Officer possesses, and are obfuscating to the traveler. “it’s not calligraphy for school children. One has to read it a long time” (Kafka 6). This may be a reference to the Jewish bible, the torah, which is treated with reverence, and intensely studied. Almost like a bible. After the torture process is over, the “Judgement is over”, again with religious connotations.
“The traveler was thinking: it is always questionable to intervene decisively in strange circumstances. He was neither a citizen of the penal colony nor a citizen of the state to which it belonged” (Kafka 8). The traveler even thinks “the injustice of the process and the inhumanity of the execution were beyond doubt” (Kafka 8).
“This process and execution, which you now have an opportunity to admire, have no more open supporters in our colony” (Kafka 8). “I have something of the Old Commandant’s persuasiveness, but I completely lack his power, and as a result the supporters have gone into hiding” (Kafka 9).
Officer holds two small children in his arms: “how we all took in the expression of transfiguration on the martyred face” (Kafka 9)!
“Where he and all of us are concerned you are – forgive the expression – to a certain extent innocent” (Kafka 10).
Officer believes the traveler not only wants to carry out his plan to preserve the torture machine, but has to help. Thus the dichotomy between existential and deontological is finally in the open. Kafka then reveals that “from the start the traveler had had no doubts about the answer he must give” (11). He tells the Officer he will not help him, and that he is “opposed to this procedure” (11). The officer realizes his cause is lost, so makes himself a martyr with the inscription “Be Just” (Kafka 11).
“There exists a prophecy that the Commandment will rise again after a certain number of years and from this house will lead his followers to a re-conquest of the colony. Have faith and wait” (Kafka 13)! FAITH
The traveler comes to the island alone, and leaves the island alone.
Franz Kafka was an avant-garde writer
This theme, the ambiguity of a task's value and the horror of devotion to it--one of Kafka's constant preoccupations

Kafka was dissatisfied with the ending of the story
Existentialism - A philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe, regards human existence as unexplainable, and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one's acts. The lack of a divine being allows for complete freedom in existence.

hopelessness and absurdity that seem to permeate his works are considered emblematic of existentialism

his satirization of bureaucracy in pieces such as In the Penal Colony

Kafka maintained his indifference to formal religion throughout most of his life. While he had a sense of Jewish identity, this identity was complicated by a sense of alienation from Judaism and Jewish life: "What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe."[11] Kafka wrote that even his father attended synagogue only four times per year; when he accompanied his father, he reported that he "almost suffocated from the terrible boredom and pointlessness of the hours in the synagogue."[11]


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