Study Guide

In the Penal Colony Tradition and Custom

By Franz Kafka

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Tradition and Custom

"These uniforms are too heavy for the tropics, surely," said the explorer, instead of making some inquiry about the apparatus, as the officer had expected. "Of course," said the officer, washing his oily and greasy hands in a bucket of water that stood ready, "but they mean home to us; we don't want to forget about home." (2)

This is the only reference we get to a tradition or practice imported from the homeland of the soldiers at the penal colony. The officer is willing to suffer through heat and wear something thoroughly impractical to remain attached to tradition. You might say that expresses something substantial about his character.

[The officer:] "The resources for maintaining the machine are now very much reduced. Under the former Commandant I had free access to a sum of money set aside for entirely this purpose. There was a store, too, in which spare parts were kept for repairs of all kinds. I confess I have been almost prodigal with them, I mean in the past, not now as the new Commandant pretends, always looking for an excuse to attack our old way of doing things." (18)

The officer looks back upon the good old days, when the apparatus was well-provided for. He sees the new Commandant as an enemy because he wants to attack the traditional practices of the colony, which were given to it by the old Commandant. A pretty clear contrast is drawn between the "old" and the "new." We get a sense that the tradition of the officer is facing hard times.

[The officer:] "The commandant, in his wisdom, ordained that the children should have preference; I, of course, because of my office had the privilege of always being at hand; often enough I would be squatting there with a small child in either arm." (22)

There's something both deeply disturbing about the idea that children would be given special places to watch a man gruesomely tortured for twelve hours. Presumably the old Commandant did this to ensure that they would have a strong respect for "how things were done" in the colony from a young age. Perhaps also to give them a sense of "justice" and a reverence for it – at least the kind of justice practiced in the colony. You could also argue that watching the man suffer was meant to scare the children into submissiveness.

[The officer:] "During the old Commandant's lifetime the colony was full of his adherents; his strength of conviction I still have in some measure, but not an atom of his power; consequently, the adherents have skulked out of sight, there are still many of them but none of them will admit it." (22)

It's now quite clear that the officer's tradition is falling apart. What he says raises several questions, though. Do we believe him that there are still many adherents, or is he the only one? Were the "adherents" of the old days, if they've stopped being adherents, ever adherents in the first place? And has anything stepped up to replace the old convictions?

"I didn't want to upset you," he [the officer] said, "I know it is impossible to make those days credible now." (23)

The officer admits there is something mythical-sounding or unbelievable about the days of the old Commandant, as he describes them. This adds more to the somewhat religious aura around the guy. It also raises the question of how much we should believe the officer's descriptions of the past. Are they true, if hard to believe, or hopelessly exaggerated or idealized?

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