Study Guide

In the Penal Colony Justice and Judgment

By Franz Kafka

Justice and Judgment

No," said the explorer, wiping his forehead, "then he can't know whether his defense was effective?" "He has had no chance of putting up a defense," said the officer. (12)

Apparently, in the penal colony the accused has no chance to defend himself. How can that be felt to be just? Isn't the point of justice to determine whether someone is guilty and, if so, to punish that person to the extent he/she deserves? Doesn't that mean it's important to first figure out whether the person is guilty? This is the first indication that justice in the penal colony doesn't quite operate the way you might think. The officer appears to think it doesn't matter whether anyone is guilty or innocent.

[The officer:] "My guiding principle is this: Guilt is never to be doubted. Other courts cannot follow that principle, for they consist of several opinions and have higher courts to scrutinize them. That is not the case here, or at least, it was not the case in the former commandant's time." (13)

Well, this is telling. The officer believes guilt is never to be doubted. OK, so that's why the guilty/innocent question doesn't trouble him. But what does it mean that guilt is never to be doubted? Is that just because he expects the worst of people, and would tend to trust their accusers much more than themselves? (One could imagine that going horribly wrong.) Or does he believe that somehow everyone is guilty all the time, so guilt never has to be established. That's kind of how original sin works in the Christian religion – everyone is guilty, insofar as they're human beings. But of what would the officer think that they're guilty?

The explorer considered the Harrow with a frown. The explanation of the judicial procedure had not satisfied him. He had to remind himself that this was in any case a penal colony where extraordinary measures were needed and that military discipline must be enforced to the last. He also felt that some hope might be set on the new Commandant, who was apparently of a mind to bring in, although gradually, a new kind of procedure which the officer's narrow mind was incapable of understanding. (14)

The explorer finds the justice system of the colony disagreeable. It's a bit odd how weak his reaction is, given that he's already learned that in the colony people are put to death without a trial or any chance of defense. He seems to be trying to justify the practice to himself by admitting that this is a penal colony, which might need to take extreme measures. But would that affect whether or not the procedure is just?

[The officer:] "Many did not care to watch it but lay with closed eyes in the sand; they all knew: Now Justice is being done." (22)

The officer affirms that, in the torture and execution of the prisoner, the whole community of the penal colony knew that what was being done was just. Part of what the officer seems to admire so much is that the whole community could know it, and know it with certainty. But how do they know, given that the procedure itself seems so unjust?

[The officer:] "How we all absorbed the look of transfiguration on the face of that sufferer, how we bathed our cheeks in the radiance of that justice, achieved at last, and fading so quickly!" (22)

The officer thinks "justice" is only done when the prisoner achieves that kind of transfiguration. What is that transfiguration, anyway? It does seem clear that the officer believes "justice" is only done when a certain change is brought about in the prisoner, when the prisoner recognizes his crime (literally through his body). It's as if the "justice" is actually the state of the prisoner, which is why the officer can say it "fades so quickly." Justice is only done so long as the prisoner is in that state of transfiguration.

"'BE JUST' is what is written there," he [the Officer] said, "surely you can read it now." (38)

The officer has given himself the sentence "BE JUST!" As we know, the sentence written on the victim's body is what they're supposed to have violated. Does this mean that the author is admitting to having not been just? If so, how can he expect to remedy that by putting himself under the machine which embodies the justice system that he's followed to so vehemently?

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