In the Penal Colony
by Franz Kafka
In the Penal Colony Justice and Judgment Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Paragraph). We used Willa and Edwin Muir's translation.
No," said the explorer, wiping his forehead, "then he can't know whether his defense was effective?" "He has had no chance of putting up a defense," said the officer. (12)
Apparently, in the penal colony the accused has no chance to defend himself. How can that be felt to be just? Isn't the point of justice to determine whether someone is guilty and, if so, to punish that person to the extent he/she deserves? Doesn't that mean it's important to first figure out whether the person is guilty? This is the first indication that justice in the penal colony doesn't quite operate the way you might think. The officer appears to think it doesn't matter whether anyone is guilty or innocent.
[The officer:] "My guiding principle is this: Guilt is never to be doubted. Other courts cannot follow that principle, for they consist of several opinions and have higher courts to scrutinize them. That is not the case here, or at least, it was not the case in the former commandant's time." (13)
Well, this is telling. The officer believes guilt is never to be doubted. OK, so that's why the guilty/innocent question doesn't trouble him. But what does it mean that guilt is never to be doubted? Is that just because he expects the worst of people, and would tend to trust their accusers much more than themselves? (One could imagine that going horribly wrong.) Or does he believe that somehow everyone is guilty all the time, so guilt never has to be established. That's kind of how original sin works in the Christian religion – everyone is guilty, insofar as they're human beings. But of what would the officer think that they're guilty?
The explorer considered the Harrow with a frown. The explanation of the judicial procedure had not satisfied him. He had to remind himself that this was in any case a penal colony where extraordinary measures were needed and that military discipline must be enforced to the last. He also felt that some hope might be set on the new Commandant, who was apparently of a mind to bring in, although gradually, a new kind of procedure which the officer's narrow mind was incapable of understanding. (14)
The explorer finds the justice system of the colony disagreeable. It's a bit odd how weak his reaction is, given that he's already learned that in the colony people are put to death without a trial or any chance of defense. He seems to be trying to justify the practice to himself by admitting that this is a penal colony, which might need to take extreme measures. But would that affect whether or not the procedure is just?