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In the Penal Colony

In the Penal Colony


by Franz Kafka

In the Penal Colony "In the Penal Colony" Summary

  • Someone called "the officer" tells someone called "the explorer" that something is a "remarkable piece of apparatus" in what just might be the vaguest opening sentence ever.
  • All right, we get a little more background: there's going to be an execution of an insubordinate soldier, and the explorer, who's visiting, is here to watch it. Since everyone knows visitors to foreign places most like to see executions, the Commandant of the penal colony naturally invited him to watch this one.
  • Apparently the execution is taking place outside of the colony proper, in a "sandy valley" surrounded by "naked crags."
  • Nobody else from the colony is there to watch the execution. It's just the explorer, the officer, the "condemned man" (that is, the guy about to bite the big one) – who's all chained up and dog-like and "stupid-looking" – and the soldier who's restraining him.
  • The officer is making adjustments to "the apparatus," and seems to know what he is doing. And to like it. From the way he handles it, you can tell he loves the apparatus. The explorer, for the moment, seems totally bored.
  • The explorer does notice that it's hot, and comments on the officer's heavy uniform. Turns out we're in the tropics – ah, so we do get a bit more information. The officer responds that, even if it's hot and sweaty and miserable, wearing uniform is important to remember "home." (Aha, "home" is elsewhere.)
  • The officer finishes his fiddling, and washes his hands in a conveniently placed water bucket. Everything's ready to go. If nothing goes wrong (things sometimes do, he says), the machine should run smoothly for twelve hours.
  • There's a heap of chairs, and the officer offers one to the explorer, who takes it and sits at the edge of a pit on one side of the apparatus.
  • The officer wants to know if the explorer has had the apparatus "explained to him" yet. He hasn't. Goody. The officer gets to do it himself!
  • In the great days of yore, the officer says, the apparatus was invented by the former Commandant. He was a big deal. He organized the whole penal colony. And it wasn't just any penal colony: it was perfect. Just thinking about the old Commandant still makes the officer starry-eyed.
  • Now we get the first description of the apparatus. It has three parts: a bottom part called "the Bed," a top part called "the Designer," and something in between called "the Harrow." What these actually look like isn't clear yet, except that the Harrow has lots of little needles and looks somewhat like – you guessed it – a harrow.
  • (A "harrow" is, in its literal meaning, a plow – like you would use on a farm to make furrows in the soil.)
  • By the way, this whole time the officer and the explorer are speaking in French. This means that the soldier and the condemned man are totally out of the loop. The condemned man, though, is still trying to follow the officer's explanations.
  • The officer says he'll describe in detail how the apparatus works before actually putting the condemned man into it; that way, the explorer can better appreciate what's going to happen to him.
  • He also warns the apparatus might be noisy when it gets going, because it isn't in the best shape – there's a bad cog wheel, and, lamentably, it's hard for the officer to get spare parts.
  • The first part of the apparatus the officer describes is the Bed. The person destined for execution is laid out on the bed naked, bound to it with straps, and gagged with felt to keep him from screaming.
  • Now, finally, we get a bit more detail about the apparatus' appearance as a whole. It's huge. The Bed and the Designer are about the same size and look like "two dark wooden chests." The Designer is suspended two meters over the bed by four brass rods, one at each corner. The Harrow moves between the two, on a "ribbon of steel."
  • This intricate and grisly way of putting people to death are is pretty unusual, so the explorer's attention perks up as the officer continues his description.
  • The Bed, says the officer, vibrates very minutely, and coordinates with the movements of the Harrow. It's the Harrow that carries out "the sentence."
  • What's the sentence, the explorer wants to know? By this point, we do too.
  • The officer is aghast that the new Commandant didn't explain this to him. The old Commandant would always explain such things to visitors, especially important ones like the explorer. How fortunate that he, the officer, is the best person to explain anyway, since he has the original drawings of the machine made by the old Commandant. Right in his pocket!
  • So what does the machine do? It writes on the body of the guy-to-be-executed the very commandment he disobeyed. This poor guy, for example, did not honor his superiors, so "HONOUR THY SUPERIORS" (yes, it's all in capitals) will be written on his body. Get the idea?
  • To the explorer's surprise, the condemned man doesn't know his sentence. "He'll learn it on his body," the officer says.
  • To the explorer's greater surprise, the condemned man doesn't even know that he has been sentenced. How then could he know if he succeeded in defending himself before his judges?
  • Not a problem, says the officer. It's all very simple: he just doesn't get a defense.
  • The officer explains that he is the judge of the penal colony, and that his guiding principle is "Guilt is never to be doubted." That was the philosophy of the old Commandant. The new Commandant has been a bit meddlesome and tried to interfere with some of the officer's practice of justice, though the officer's managed to hold his own so far.
  • The man condemned for execution today, the officer says, was a servant who failed in his duty to knock on and salute his captain's door on every hour. Last night, the captain had found him asleep, and, when he whipped him for it, the condemned man grabbed the captain's legs and threaten to eat him.
  • The captain promptly told the officer about this, who in turn had the condemned man put in chains. No point talking to the prisoner about any of this. He'd just have told lies.
  • The explorer is not very impressed with this "judicial procedure," but is silent about it. From what the officer has said, he hopes that maybe the new Commandant isn't a fan either, and would be up for changing it.
  • Meanwhile, the officer wants to get back to the important question: explaining how the machine kills the prisoner. He invites the explorer to examine the Harrow up close.
  • The Harrow's shape is fitted to the human body, with different parts (each with lots of little needles) for the torsos, legs, etc. (and a single big spike for the head). When the machine is "turned on," the Harrow is lowered onto the prisoner's body.
  • Like the bed, the Harrow vibrates and, with great precision, the needles slowly begin to carve the prisoner's sentence into his skin. The Harrow is made of glass so the audience can watch the whole thing.
  • The Harrow has two kinds of needles – needles for cutting, and needles for squirting water. The water-squirting needles keep the body of the prisoner clean so the inscription can be seen as it is written on him. The blood generated by all of this is washed off, flowing down two "channels" in the Bed and into the waste pit near the machine. Now we know what that pit's for.
  • All the while, the condemned man has crept up to have a look at the Harrow with them. He's pulled along the soldier holding his chains, who is on the verge of falling asleep and not paying attention to anything.
  • When he notices, the officer is outraged, and throws a dirt clod at the soldier to rouse him. They both promptly restrain the condemned man and pull him away from the machine.
  • The officer takes out a drawing of what will be written on the condemned man's body to show to the explorer, but the explorer can't make out anything. It looks like one big mess of loops and lines.
  • The officer admits it's "not a simple" script, but for something so important they couldn't have used one anyway. Plus they needed to come up with something that would actually take twelve hours to write on the body.
  • Getting more excited, the officer starts up the machine, which begins making a racket. Over the noise, he continues his explanation.
  • The process of this "bodily inscription" is involved. After the Harrow has written on the prisoner's back, the vibrating Bed turns him over so it can write on his front, while the prepared cotton of the Bed helps stop the bleeding of the back so it can be written on again.
  • The inscriptions are traced over several times, and all the while the needles dig deeper and deeper, moving from skin deep to…deep.
  • Around the sixth hour, the officer says, the prisoner experiences Enlightenment: he begins to realize that something is being written on his body, and starts to make out what it is. He continues this effort to discern his sentence until he dies six hours later, which is supposedly how long it takes to arrive at complete realization.
  • By that point, the Harrow has "pierced him quite through" (with that nice big spike for the head going right through the head at this point), and his body is cast into the pit.
  • Now that we know, in great grisly detail, what's going to happen, it's time to watch it in the, uh, flesh. The soldier cuts off the condemned man's clothes while the officer turns off the machine, and the condemned man is put under the harrow.
  • As he's being strapped in, one of the wrist straps breaks, so the officer substitutes a chain for it, complaining all the while about how he never gets the spare parts he needs these days.
  • Meanwhile, in the explorer's head, a debate is taking place. He normally doesn't like to intervene in other peoples' affairs, but this stuff is seriously wack – and inhumane and unjust. Is there any way he can intervene with the new Commandant to get rid of this judicial procedure, he wonders?
  • The condemned man, upon being gagged, vomits all over the machine.
  • The officer is disgusted, and takes the opportunity to complain. Why didn't they force the man to fast so this wouldn't happen, instead stuffing him full of candies? Why couldn't he have a new felt strap, so the man wouldn't have to take into his mouth the same one they've been using for three months?
  • With the condemned man now laid down and the soldier trying to clean off this recent outpouring, the officer takes the explorer aside to "exchange a few words in confidence."
  • The officer tells the explorer that – surprise! – nobody in the colony really likes the procedure any more. Or at least, no one will admit to it – he's sure there are others. But he's the only outspoken advocate.
  • With the new Commandant and his women, it's only a matter of time before the plug is pulled on his beloved execution methods and the apparatus.
  • Nostalgic again, the officer recalls the good old days of the old Commandant, when everybody in the colony would watch the execution, and the Commandant would conduct it himself. The machine was all shiny and didn't make nasty grinding noises. Everybody would reverently watch the "transfiguration of the sufferer" (his arriving at enlightenment).
  • Carried away, the officer embraces the explorer and puts his head on his shoulder. Awkward! It's a smile and nod moment.
  • The officer pulls himself together. He has a plan he wants to discuss, about how to save the apparatus.
  • The Commandant wants the explorer to attend the execution, the officer has realized, because he's hoping the explorer will be disgusted by the "procedure." Since people would respect the "famous Western investigator," this would give the Commandant a perfect excuse to stop the procedure. The officer seems sure the explorer wouldn't want that.
  • The explorer's secretly loving this – everything's a lot easier than he had thought. But it wouldn't be very considerate to just have out with it, since the officer's clearly in delicate shape at the moment, so he tries to find a graceful way out. He tells the officer that he doesn't think he has that much influence.
  • The officer won't have any of that. He knows the explorer has lots of influence. And the officer wants him to use it to defend the machine.
  • The officer, growing more animated by the minute, now tells the explorer of his great plan, of how he will save the machine by speaking in favor of it at a crucial moment in the new Commandant's staff meeting the next day. The new Commandant will make a big introduction for the explorer, expecting him to denounce the procedure, but then he'll surprise them all tell them all by revealing what he truly thinks of the machine. The officer is practically panting with excitement.
  • After a moment's hesitation, the explorer gives his response: no. He'll have to speak against the machine, since he feels that's an obligation to his own conscience. The officer's conviction was touching though, he says in consolation.
  • Falling silent, the officer starts to gaze at the Designer. He begins smiling and murmuring to himself, "The time has come."
  • The explorer doesn't know what this means, but has a bad feeling...
  • The officer announces that the condemned man is free (not in French, but their native tongue). Understandably, the condemned man is quite happy about this, and starts struggling to get out of the machine. The officer has the soldier help him out.
  • The officer shows the explorer a different drawing of the old Commandant's – another sentence. Just like the first, it's completely unreadable for him. So the officer tells him that it says: "BE JUST!" and tries to trace it out. The explorer still can't make anything out, but says he'll believe the officer.
  • Placing the drawing in the Designer, the officer starts adjusting things in the apparatus. Meanwhile, the condemned man and the soldier have dressed the condemned man back up in his now torn and filthy clothes, and are playing around as if something is super funny.
  • The officer finishes whatever he was doing and starts to wash his hands in a water bucket, noticing only too late that it's filthy. He rubs them in the sand instead.
  • Now the officer starts stripping off his clothes and throwing them into the pit. Last to go is his sword, which he breaks over his knee. Then he's totally naked.
  • The explorer now knows what's going to happen and thinks to himself that, if the officer really cares so much for his procedure, he's doing the right thing.
  • The condemned man and soldier have been wrestling and laughing this whole time, but, as you might expect, the sight of the completely naked officer catches their attention. The condemned man now realizes that what was going to happen to him is now going to happen to the officer, and he smiles. He really likes that idea.
  • The officer starts to adjust the machine, and the explorer is amazed at his control over it and its responsiveness to him. He sets the Harrow in place, turns the bed on, and gags himself. The condemned man, though, wants the full effect, so he and the soldier strap the officer in.
  • The machine seems to turn on by itself once the officer's strapped in. Curiously, the explorer notes, there's no creaking cog wheel. Everything is quiet.
  • The condemned man and the soldier are watching eagerly, and snooping around the machine to absorb the details of what's going on. This really irritates the explorer, who tells them to go away. The condemned man wants to stay, and doesn't look as if he's going to budge.
  • Just as the soldier prepares to go and shoo the pair off, he hears a noise from the Designer. The lid of the Designer opens, and a cogwheel, as if being forced up by something further down, pops out and falls to the ground.
  • One by one, the cog wheels, all of different shapes and sizes, all start to pop out of the top, coming up and rolling over the side of the Designer. This is great for the condemned man, who starts to play with them.
  • The explorer goes to the machine to stand by the officer, feeling "greatly troubled" by the machine's dysfunction. Upon taking a close look at the Harrow, he sees that something else has gone very wrong.
  • The Harrow is not writing on the officer's body, but stabbing it through with the needles, while the bed, instead of turning him, is throwing his body up against them.
  • Just as the explorer reaches out his hands (we don't know what he's going to do), the Harrow impales the officer's body, head and all. No twelve-hour torture-to-the point-of-enlightenment this time.
  • Also, it's quite a mess. There's blood everywhere – apparently, the water-cleaning needles didn't work either, so none of it got rinsed off.
  • Finally, the coup de grace of the machine's mishaps: the apparatus doesn't even drop the officer into the pit. Instead, having impaled him, it just holds the body hanging over the pit.
  • The explorer forces the others to help him try and get the body off the Harrow. As he does, he sees the officer's face. No enlightenment there: just calm and convinced ("as in life"), but now with a spike poking through the forehead.
  • Break in the narrative. Now the explorer is with the soldier and the condemned man on the outskirts of the colony itself, and the soldier points him to a house, telling him it is "the teahouse."
  • Something about the teahouse feels "historic" to the explorer as he enters it.
  • The soldier has told him that the old Commandant is buried there, since he was not allowed to be buried in a churchyard. The explorer doesn't believe him.
  • He doesn't believe him, that is, until the soldier and the condemned man point him to the grave, which is under a table against a wall. A bunch of dock laborers are there sitting at nearby tables, and clear a space for him to see the headstone.
  • He reads the inscription, which prophesies that the old Commandant will "rise again and lead his adherents from this house to recover the colony. Have faith and wait!" it says. Everybody around finds this quite funny.
  • The explorer doesn't, and leaves the teahouse. He walks to the dock, and starts bargaining with a ferryman to take him back to his steamer.
  • The condemned man and the soldier come running after him, apparently hoping he'll take them with him. They arrive too late: the boat's already pushed off from the shore.
  • It looks like they might try and jump into the boat, but he explorer wards them off with a piece of rope. THE END.

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