Dialectical Essay

Rebecca Benning

A Comparison of Perspectives on “In the Penal Colony”

Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” is a complex tale of punishment and justice. Set in a penal colony, it details the events of one day as observed through the eyes of an explorer. Arguments can be made both that the short story is a literal tale of crime and punishment in a colony and that the story is an allegorical work about existential justice.

“In the Penal Colony” can be read from a literal standpoint due to its historical context. The short story is set in a penal colony and explores the use of justice. It does not have to be extrapolated in order to provide a clear message. The justice system is clearly laid out and allows the reader to form his own critiques of a system where the officer acts as judge, jury, and executioner, and guilt is “always beyond doubt” (57). The events are sequential and though they seem somewhat absurd, they are not beyond the scope of reality. An execution machine could theoretically exist, and it is possible that a man would go mad and condemn himself. A literal reading of “In the Penal Colony” provides ample material for critique.

The allegorical interpretation of “In the Penal Colony” is based primarily on the ambiguity of the characters, the justice system, and a religious reading of the text. The text is characteristic of an allegory in that the characters do not have specific names. There is an explorer, officer, soldier, and condemned man but they are never identified as specific people, as is characteristic of allegories. Additionally, the justice system used on the penal colony has many absurd components. The machine is grotesque and cruel and the officer uses it at his own discretion. Finally, the text can be read from an allegorical viewpoint because many of the symbols can be interpreted from a religious perspective. Through the machine, the condemned man is supposed to pay for his transgressions and reach a point of self-awareness by “decipher[ing] his wounds,” (61) much like one would atone for sins. These elements indicate a religious allegory of repentance and penance.

The most conclusive reading of “In the Penal Colony” combines both the literal and allegorical components. The strongest literary works can be read on multiple levels, and this is true of “In the Penal Colony.” From a literal standpoint, the story critiques the justice system and the colonial system. It raises the question of the worth of a man and what constitutes a fair trial. From an allegorical standpoint, the story presents an allusion to the religious experience of penance. These points are not mutually exclusive; the story can be seen as both a literal and allegorical critique on justice as a whole. By combining both perspectives, the reader gains a greater insight.

“In the Penal Colony” is a fascinating tale of a perverse justice system. By examining it on both a literal and allegorical level, one gains a greater understanding of the challenges facing a justice system that attempts to mete out a fair punishment. Kafka appears to critique both the established justice systems and the religious concept of atoning for sins. Kafka uses a multi-layered approach that encompasses both literal and allegorical components to fully express his themes of justice.

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