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In the Penal Colony

In the Penal Colony


by Franz Kafka

The Explorer Timeline and Summary

  • We meet the explorer, who's been invited to attend the execution of a disobedient soldier by the Commandant of the colony.
  • The explorer is at first disinterested in the apparatus that the officer is so eagerly showing him. Boy will that change…
  • The explorer first takes an interest in the apparatus after the officer has started to describe it.
  • When the explorer tells the officer he does not know the sentence of the prisoner, the surprised officer tells him that the condemned man will have it written on his body. And that the condemned man has had no trial or opportunity to defend himself.
  • The explorer starts not to like this judicial procedure so much. He wonders if the new Commandant might move it in a different direction.
  • The explorer learns more about the apparatus, specifically about how the prisoner is painstakingly written upon for twelve hours until he reaches transfiguration. Just afterwards, the officer orders the condemned man put in the machine.
  • More troubled still, the explorer starts thinking to himself that he should intervene, given how unjust and inhumane the procedure is. Perhaps he has just enough influence to do so.
  • Just as the condemned man is being secured in the machine, the explorer receives an impassioned appeal from the officer to help save the procedure by speaking to the Commandant.
  • The explorer learns from the officer that he most certainly does have the influence to make an impact on the procedure, though he doesn't intend to use it in the way the officer wants. So, to deal with the awkward situation, he speaks "evasively" a lot. We also learn here that the explorer is from "the West," and apparently making a tour of the world to look at different justice systems.
  • The officer still doesn't get it, so the explorer finally tells him point blank that he won't help him, and will instead speak against the procedure to the new Commandant. He consoles the officer by saying that he admires his conviction.
  • The explorer watches as the distraught officer decides to put himself in the machine, and begins to do so. He feels, given the "strength of his conviction," that the officer is doing the right thing, and resolves to stay to the end. The officer starts the machine.
  • The explorer is annoyed when he notices that the condemned man and the soldier are a bit too curious, and happy, about what's happening to the officer. He tries to shoo them off.
  • Just then, the apparatus starts falling apart, and the explorer becomes "greatly troubled," going to stand by the officer. He watches helplessly as the officer's body is brutally slashed to pieces.
  • The officer's body is put over the pit by the apparatus, but it doesn't fall off. The explorer tries to take it off, calling for the others to help. In the process, unwillingly, he looks into the officer's dead face.
  • Walking back to the penal colony, the explorer visits the old Commandant's grave in the colony's teahouse and reads the epitaph. Everyone laughs, except him. He leaves.
  • The explorer escapes back to his steamer by ferry boat, warding off the soldier and the condemned man with a piece of rope when they try to join him.