In the Penal Colony

In the Penal Colony

"In the Penal Colony" (German: "In der Strafkolonie") is a short story in German by Franz Kafka. It is set in an unnamed penal colony. Some commentators have suggested
Octave Mirbeau's "The Torture Garden" as an influence.Fact|date=February 2007 As in some of Kafka's other writings, the narrator in this story seems detached from, or perhaps numbed by, events that one would normally expect to be registered with horror.


"In the Penal Colony" is a story about the last use of an elaborate torture and execution device that carves the sentence of the man on his skin in a script before letting him die, all in the course of twelve hours. As the plot unfolds, the reader learns more and more about the machine, including its origin, and original justification.

There are only four characters, who are named only according to their role in the story. The Officer is the machine's operator, the Condemned is a man scheduled for execution, the Soldier is responsible for guarding the Condemned, and the Traveler (called "der Reisende" in the original) is a European dignitary and visitor.

The story is told from the point of view of the Traveler, who—like the reader—is encountering this brutal machine for the first time. Everything about the machine and its purpose is told to him by the Officer, while the Soldier and the Condemned (who is unaware that he has been sentenced to die) placidly watch nearby. The Officer tells of the religious epiphany the executed experience in their last six hours in the machine.

Eventually it becomes clear that the use of the machine, and its associated process of justice where the accused is always instantly found guilty, has fallen out of favor with the current Commandant. The Officer is, in a cruel sense perhaps, nostalgic regarding the torture machine and the values that were initially associated with it. As the last proponent of the machine, he strongly believes in its form of justice and the infallibility of the previous Commandant, who designed and built the device. In fact, the Officer carries its blueprints with him and is the only person who can properly decipher them; no one else is allowed to handle these documents.

The Officer begs the Traveler to speak to the current Commandant on behalf of the machine's continued use. When he refuses to do so, and instead says that he will speak against it, the Officer realizes that this will be the machine's last use. He frees the Condemned and sets up the machine for himself, with the words "Be Just" to be written on him. However, the machine malfunctions due to its advanced state of disrepair; instead of its usual elegant operation, it quickly stabs the Officer to death. [ Kafka,Franz. "In the Penal Colony," The Complete Stories. New York: Schocken Books, 1995. p. 140-167 ]

Accompanied by the Soldier and the Condemned, the Traveler makes his way to a tea-house in which he is shown the grave of the old Commandant. Its stone is set so low that a table can easily be placed over it; the inscription states his followers' belief that he will rise from the dead someday and take control of the colony once more. As the Traveler prepares to leave by boat, the Soldier and the Condemned try to board but are repelled.


*In 1999, Charlie Deaux wrote and directed the short avant-garde film Zoetrope (film), which is loosely based upon the story.
*In 2000, composer Philip Glass wrote a chamber opera, "In the Penal Colony", based on the Kafka story.
*In 2008, Chatterbox Audio Theater posted an [ adaptation of the story] on their [ website]


* Kafka, Franz (ed. Nahum N. Glatzer). "The Complete Stories". New York: Schocken Books, 1995. ISBN 0-8052-1055-5
* Kafka, Franz. "The Metamorphosis and Other Stories", trans. Donna Freed. New York: Barnes & Noble. ISBN 1-56619-969-7

In popular culture

Frank Zappa, in the liner notes of the Mothers of Invention album "We're Only in It for the Money", recommends reading the short story before listening to the song "The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny".


External links

* [,+Franz/Erz%C3%A4hlungen+und+andere+Prosa/In+der+Strafkolonie Original German text ("In der Strafkolonie")]
* [ An English translation of the story]
*imdb title|id=0343217|title=Zoetrope
*imdb title|id=0773756|title=In the Penal Colony (2006)

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