Study Guide

In the Penal Colony Writing Style

By Franz Kafka

Writing Style

Sketched, Moving, Deceptively Simple

Kafka's writing style comes across simple and deceptively self-effacing – you don't notice it very much. He doesn't use many large words, or many adjectives or adverbs, and his sentences don't seem overly complex. What's surprising about them is that they're actually somewhat longer than they seem, but still come across as simple and effortless. Kafka leaves most details, but is able to sketch several distinct parts of a scene and set it in motion within a single, very-easy-on-the-eyes sentence:

The explorer did not much care about the apparatus and walked up and down behind the prisoner while the officer made the last adjustments, now creeping beneath the structure, which was bedded deep in the earth, now climbing a ladder to inspect its upper parts. (2)

This is actually a fairly long sentence, and a lot is going on at once in it: we get the explorer's emotional state (disinterest), what he's doing and where he is in relation to the condemned man, a brief description of the apparatus as being deeply embedded in the ground, and what the officer's doing. It felt so easy, but now you have a little, moving scene in your head.

It's also amazing how much you don't know: when this sentence occurs, we still have no definite idea of what the explorer looks like, what the machine looks like or how big it is, what the ground around the machine really looks like, or of what the officer looks like. It's just a sketch. Because Kafka can keep his sketches so bare, he can feed you exactly what he wants, and add details whenever he sees fit. All you need to know about the explorer at this point, for instance, is that he's disinterested.

Kafka chooses to keep a lot of the writing at that sketch level, and that's one reason it seems dreamlike (and fast-paced). It's also a reason it's tempting to read it as "representing" something, since it seems easy to interpret the sketched people or objects or places as abstractions of something else.