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Themes

The officer in "In the Penal Colony" is strongly attached to the traditions – in particular, the system of justice – established by the colony's founder, and finds them perfect. Yet the colony itself seems to have left the traditions behind since the death of the founder, and the officer becomes the only person left to defend them. He tries to win over a foreign explorer to his side in the hopes of convincing him to save the colony's traditions from its new Commandant, who appears bent on ending them. But to the explorer, the traditional justice system that the officer loves so much is barbarous.

Questions About Tradition and Custom

  1. Do you think that the officer provides a reliable account of how the colony was in the past? Why? What evidence can you find?
  2. There seems to be a disconnect between the officer's reverence for the colony's old traditions and their relative newness – they were established by the Commandant within the officer's lifetime. How does this influence your reading of the story, or of the officer?
  3. Do you think that the penal colony has started to fall apart after the death of the old Commandant and his system of justice? Is there any evidence in the story that it has? Or is it instead heading in a better direction?

Chew on This

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

The officer's account of the way the penal colony used to be is a product of wishful imagining. The "traditions" he speaks of so fondly were never revered by much of the penal colony.

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