Helplessness in Kafka’s The Trial and “In the Penal Colony”

            “The Traveller wanted to reach in to stop the whole thing, if possible. This was not the torture the Officer wished to attain; it was murder, pure and simple.”  These words describe the final moments of the Officer in Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”.  These words are indicative of the helplessness that pervades the works, and indeed mindset of Franz Kafka.  Works such as The Trial and “In the Penal Colony” provide a glimpse into a topic which obviously affected Kafka to a great deal.

“In the Penal Colony” is a prime example of the helplessness that Kafka often illustrates.  The Traveller is brought to an island in order to observe the execution of the Condemned.  Everything about the setting speaks to suggest that the Traveller is in a powerless situation.  He is situated in a barren valley which lies on a secluded island in the middle of the ocean.  The landscape is certainly unforgiving and foreign to the Traveller.  Furthermore the majority of the story is purely the Officer explaining a method of torture and execution to the Traveller, one which the Traveller finds increasingly repulsive.  Nonetheless he is beseeched to stay and observe the execution.  Finally when the Officer straps himself into the now malfunctioning machine, the Traveller is unable to stop the contraption’s murderous rampage.  Even when the Traveller implores the Officer and Condemned to help him pull the Officer to safety he is unable to communicate, since they both speak an unknown language.  All of these instances provide an overall powerless, disturbing, and at some points chaotic environment for our protagonist to occupy.

These feelings of helplessness pervade Kafka’s work, and can be attributed to the difficulties that Kafka found he was unable to escape from in his own life.  In 1917 Kafka was diagnosed with Tuberculosis.  The disease often left him bedridden, and Kafka had to rely on his family to take care of him despite his fears of being viewed as repulsive.  “In the Penal Colony” was published in October of 1919, and The Trial was published posthumously.  Both of these works were likely written during a time in which Kafka perceived himself to be feeble and defenseless.   Kafka’s own feelings leaked into his works and provide us with a glance of how Kafka himself may have been feeling at the time of their creation.

The Trial provides a prime example of Kafka’s expression of helplessness through his works.  The story within itself paints the picture of a man who can do nothing to aid his current situation.  The novel portrays K. as he attempts to live his life as normally as possible while being convicted for an unknown crime.  K.’s only hope appears to be a lawyer who says he will attempt to deal with the court officials.  However, when K. consults with a local client, he becomes demoralized as he learns that the client has become effectively dependant on the lawyer, with nothing concrete to show for it.  The story demonstrates the life of a man who can do nothing but wallow in paranoia and vulnerability.

The final words which K. speaks in The Trial are his outcry of “Like a dog!” just as he is killed by two men without so much as a real explanation.  This scene exemplifies the helpless nature of the entire novel, as well as many of Kafka’s works.  Within The Trial K. is put down as if he were an animal, and it is unlikely that anything which he did could have prevented that outcome.  Likewise in “In the Penal Colony”, the Traveller finds himself helpless to do anything but watch as the Officer is destroyed by the terrifying machine.  Both of these protagonists display the helplessness that Kafka felt in the circumstances of his own life, and can be used as a glimpse into the emotions of this seemingly enigmatic author.

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