In the Penal Colony
by Franz Kafka
If the explorer is the character who watches the spectacle of the story, the officer is the person who makes a spectacle of himself. To call him emotional is an understatement. We're brought back time and time again to the enthusiasm he feels for the apparatus and the "justice" of the old Commandant. Perhaps enthusiasm is too weak a word; the officer basically worships the old Commandant and the system he created, which is embodied in the apparatus:
We who were his [the old Commandant's] friends knew even before he died that the organization of the colony was so perfect that his successor, even with a thousand new schemes in his head, would find it impossible to alter anything, at least for many years to come. And our prophecy has come true. (3)
The officer is driven completely by that devotion to the old Commandant's system. He just loves being the judge of the colony and getting to "do justice" by executing people with the apparatus. He judges on the principle "Guilt is never to be doubted" (which doesn't seem much like "judging" at all). And he has an intense fascination with the intense torture the apparatus inflicts on the body. He thinks it brings "enlightenment" or "transfiguration," and is tempted to subject himself to it just to experience that:
Enlightenment comes to the most dull-witted. It begins around the eyes. From there it radiates. A moment that might tempt one to get under the Harrow oneself. (16)
He also relishes the idea that anyone who goes into the machine has a moment of certainty, just before dying, that "Now Justice is being done" (22). That's his reason for living. In fact, he can't live without it. So when the explorer refuses to help him and he realizes that whole system will go down the drain, he goes into the apparatus himself. However, he doesn't die in quite the way he wants – his execution is rapid with no chance for transfiguration.
Is the Officer Insane?
The big question we have to ask about the officer is: do we take him seriously? Chances are the officer's understanding of justice and of "humane" execution are pretty far from your own. It probably looks pretty sadistic and barbaric. But he clearly believes in it with every fiber of his being. Do you admire the force of his conviction anyway, such that perhaps you even feel sorry for him that his world is collapsing? Do you maybe even wonder if there might be something to his beliefs? Or do you think: "Wow, that guy is totally insane"? That's one of the central questions for interpreting the whole story, and we can't tell you the answer, because we don't know it. But we can at least get you thinking.
One way to approach understanding the officer is to try to think about why he believes so strongly in his kind of justice. Maybe he has good reasons. The problem is that it's actually hard to understand why the officer believes what he does. On the surface it often seems like nonsense – like the stuff a brainwashed cult member might buy into – and we're just not given many clues by the text.
Think about it. Take the officer's belief that "Guilt is never to be doubted," which is probably the place to start since that's his operating principle as a judge. It seems pretty absurd. Does that mean that he'll just judge anyone guilty who's accused of something? Isn't it obvious there can be false accusations? Why should we always believe the accuser and never the accused? (And what if the judge is accused?) We're not given any further indication of what the officer means by that.
There are a few ways we can try to make sense of the officer's statement. For example, you could see it as related to the idea that all human beings are guilty of something, like some religions do (see the "Symbols, Images, Allegory" section for more on this, and why the story can be read as a religious allegory).
Why would the officer think that? The officer could just believe that all people are pretty rotten – he does live in a penal colony full of people like the condemned man, after all. Since he believes they're rotten, perhaps they do deserve punishment. Besides, the people in the penal colony are all guilty of something, at least in the past, which is why they're presumably there. Do you agree with this interpretation?
What about all that transfiguration stuff? If the officer believes everyone's pretty rotten, the most important question on his mind might be: how do we make them less rotten? And that's probably where suffering, or punishment, comes in. By making someone suffer, you can make them appreciate how awful, how guilty they truly are.
There's something redemptive about that: in realizing their guilt and feeling repentant, the person overcomes the guilt. That's one way of understanding what the apparatus does, and why the extreme suffering, the prisoner's "learning through his wounds," is so important: it's the only way to really make the prisoner feel guilt. In doing so, the prisoner becomes better than he's ever been (for the brief moments that remain until he dies, that is). Maybe that's why the officer believes that his methods are "the most humane, and the most in consonance with human dignity" (25).
It could also be that the officer believes those dirty, rotten fellow humans become nobler or better when they submit to or obey something higher than themselves. It could be God (read: the old Commandant), it could be the Law (coming from God, i.e., the old Commandant). The apparatus forces the victim into the most extreme kind of submission, depriving him of all of his energy and forcing him to contemplate in agony the "commandment" of the law which he has violated.
The officer also seems to think that the "procedure" brings people together. If multiple people submit to or obey the same thing, and if it's clear what they have to obey – a law, a commandment – then they can feel a unique kind of certainty about what they're doing and come closely together. It seems the officer finds that "everybody's comin' together around Justice!" part of his procedure very important:
Many did not care to watch it but lay with closed eyes in the sand; they all knew: Now Justice is being done[…] How we all absorbed the look of transfiguration on the face of the sufferer, how we bathed our cheeks in the radiance of that justice, achieved at last and fading so quickly! What times these were, my comrade!" (22)
Of course, it could be that we're just reading way too much into this. Maybe the officer just loves seeing people hurt really bad, so much that he's thrilled at the prospect of hurting really bad himself. The guy does say, with excitement:
Nowadays the machine can no longer wring from anyone a sigh louder than the felt gag can stifle; but in those days the writing needles let drop an acid fluid, which we're no longer permitted to use. (22)
Blech! And it's also worth remembering he was fond of attending the executions with children under each arm…we won't even go there.
At the end of the day, we can't know whether or not to just dismiss him as a sadist or a madman, or to take him seriously. What's your take on him?