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Themes

One of the four characters in "In the Penal Colony," a prisoner, is depicted as more animal than human being. At once wild and submissive, fiercely violent and stupid, he has been sentenced to death for threatening to eat a superior. Although we see little of the colony's other inhabitants, the condemned man's example seems to suggest that many of them are beastly and brutal. What is the connection between the animal-ness of the inhabitants of the penal colony and the gruesome justice system used to keep them in check?

Questions About Primitiveness

  1. Are there any moments in the story at which the condemned man appears human? How does he appear human?
  2. Do you think the animal-like quality of the condemned man is the result of living in such an oppressive and brutal system? Or do you think that such a system might have been designed because most of the penal colony's inhabitants are like the condemned man? Can you find evidence for either answer in the text?
  3. Is the condemned man the only character in the book to appear primitive? Does the soldier? Does the officer? Is the officer's entire system of justice "primitive," or is it opposed to primitiveness?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

The condemned man is not the only primitive or barbaric character in the story. He is instead simply one product of a system of control that is itself primitive and brutal, turning people into submissive animals.

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