The Penal Colony is the last story I'm going to review from this collection of short stories written by Kafka.
The story is written in third person/limited. We see everything through the eyes of a man referred to as the traveler, although we come to know through the dialogue that he is a doctor. The traveler has come to visit a penal colony. The officer who oversees the colony takes the traveler on a tour of the facility. It is really this officer who tells the story.
While taking him around, the officer expounds on his philosophy on justice. The officer considers any infraction of the rules, no matter how minor, to receive the consequences of justice. This brand of justice is rigidly and mercilessly meted out by the lieutenant with absolutely no exceptions. All infractions incur the death penalty.
And not just the death penalty, but death by torture. The officer ends his tour by showing the doctor his piece de resistance. The instrument that is used to torture prisoners and rule-breaking guards to death.
It is a gruesome invention that was designed to take hours to kill the "criminal". After it finally exterminates its victim, a hole is conveniently located beneath the machine to dispose of whatever is left of what once was a human being.
While the officer is explaining the instrument, the traveler notices a guard in chains. Upon inquiring, he finds out that this soldier's job was to sleep in front of a captain's door but to wake up at every hour to salute the door. One night the captain went to check to make sure the guard was really saluting his door on every hour. When he finds the guard curled up asleep on the sidewalk he lashes his face with a whip. The guard shakes the captain and tells the man to "throw away his whip or I'll swallow you whole!"
The captain reported the incident to the officer and the guard is now waiting to be executed in the machine. The traveler is appalled but at the same time doesn't feel he can do anything to stop what is happening.
It turns out that the officer understands that a new Commandant is in power, unlike the old Commandant, this one considers the death machine inhumane. The officer hopes by showing the traveler everything and explaining how things stand he will persuade the new Commandant not to interfere.
The traveler tells the officer that he has no choice but to be honest and tell the Commandant exactly what he has seen. He is careful not to give his personal judgment on anything.
However, the officer knows enough of the new Commandant that he is the sort that does not believe in the Penal Colony's type of justice. He knows that an era is about to end.
The officer knows that with the new Commandant, a new definition of justice will replace the old one and consequently redefine what the officer has termed "just". Not only will the officer's executions be considered wrong, but will be considered criminal. What does that make him?
He looks at the traveler with understanding. He assumes they both understand the situation. The traveler does not understand but soon finds out what the officer means to do. The officer believes he must carry out one more act of justice. Only this act of justice will conform to the new rules. The traveler watches in horror as the officer straps himself in the torture machine and dies horribly.
Again, this story raises a lot of questions in my mind. What was Kafka getting at? What was the message in this story? Was he saying that morality is dependent on who is in power? The traveler, who also serves as narrator, clearly finds the officers "justice" as wrong, even though he takes a passive stance.
Kafka doesn't seem to be making a statement of relative morality because he is obviously trying to provoke the reader to a strong sense of injustice when regarding the hapless guard who is clearly being treated unjustly.
Is he trying to make a thinly veiled comment on how he sees countries such as Germany or other European countries creating their own moralities based on the whims of despots?
It's strange that the officer, who so gladly and easily condemned others to horrible deaths, carried his strange logic out to his own demise. No one in real life would do that. They would either repent of how they acted or go to their grave defending it. Justice is carried out through outside parties (as in the Nuremberg trials).
And then there's the traveler. Why did he feel so helpless? Does he represent the rest of us when we see injustice happen but are too intimidated to stand up to it?
Even the guard is portrayed as passively accepting his verdict. He never shows outrage or a sense that his punishment does not fit the crime.
Yet in the end the traveler made it clear without stating his own opinion what he was going to do (report to the new commandant) and in the end his actions, albeit passive, did effect change.
Letters to Family, Friends and Editors is a book that is a collection of letters written by Kafka. I would like to read it to see if it sheds any light on Kafka's intentions in writing his stories.