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In the Penal Colony

In the Penal Colony


by Franz Kafka

Not reading the story strictly as an allegory

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Other readers, however, think that it's wrong to read Kafka as an allegory, and believe he didn't intend his stories to be read that way. The arguments against allegorical readings are complex, but basically they boil down to two points: 1) allegorical readings of Kafka are often imaginative but read much more into the text than is actually there; and 2) they make things too easy: everything gets a clear meaning, and the story gets a clear point. According to this school of thought, simple clarity of meaning doesn't seem like Kafka's style.

We here at Shmoop wouldn't say it's wrong to read Kafka as an allegory. It can be fun, and make you feel as if you solved a puzzle. So long as you can make it convincing, and make it fit with the story, go ahead – it'll probably enrich your experience of the story. But we don't recommend doing so until you've spent a while thinking about the story without treating it as an allegory. Why? Because part of what makes the story so interesting and rich is how hard it is to pin down, and how it seems as though it could mean many things. If you read exclusively it as an allegory, like Warren does, you pin it down.

Taking up Warren's allegory, for instance, makes it almost impossible to find the story funny, or to wonder whether the officer is crazy and the old Commandant was a psychopath. In Warren's view, the old Commandant just is God, the officer is a faithful believer (and the hero of the story), and that's that. We find the story more interesting, and more troubling, when we admit that we just can't tell, in the end, whether or not the officer is a madman.

Our recommendation, take it or leave it, is to read the story as "suggestive of allegory," but not strictly as an "allegory." Look at the ways it might lead you to come up with an allegory, but don't commit yourself to an allegory. It might be frustrating. But you'll also find it makes the story more fascinating. It also continues to challenge you: though you can make strong cases that the story is an allegory, there's no definite evidence that it should be read that way – that's why there are so many different interpretations. And it's probably more what Kafka himself had in mind. He liked keeping things inscrutable (that is, without a clear meaning).

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