Four characters make up Franz Kafka’s short story, The Penal Colony. Each character represents a particular kind of citizen in society.
Society’s power elite makes use of these characters to maintain the status quo. The Officer is used to carry out the special interests of the power elite.
The story line of The Penal Colony is structured around how the Officer demonstrates to another character, the Explorer, the practicalities of The Apparatus, which represents how society treats deviant behavior.
The analogy that the Apparatus has to the functioning of the American criminal justice system is shocking to me. For instance, while the harrow (a needling/tattooing machine) physically brands the condemned man, the U.S. criminal justice system’s label of “felon” has the same effect—being branded a felon in the U.S. has dire consequences for the individual, ranging from loss of financial status, material dispossession to loss of family status, one’s legacy.
The Condemned Man represents society’s deviant.
I found it interesting that the Condemned Man did not understand the language contained in the judgment that was made against him— typical of the poor or the common man who become subject to legalese, mannerisms and technicalities involved in judicial proceedings. It is not uncommon for people to break laws, which they have no idea exist, let alone understand or even care about. However, society’s power elite often remind its citizens—ignorance of the law is no excuse.
The Explorer represents society’s ethics and principles.
The inquisitive nature of The Explorer creates a balance in the storyline that allows the reader to question whether laws should be made that punish the perplexing nature of human behavior as criminal.
Finally, there is the Soldier who represents the common man, in a context very much similar to the famous study of human behavior by Stanley Milgram, replicated by Philip Zimbardo in the 1974 Stanford University experiment that examined prison guard/inmate interactions. The experiments tested the limits ordinary people would take in the name of authority. Both studies found that ordinary people did unspeakable things to strangers under the guise of the law.
The location of the penal colony is mysterious—representing the secret nature that the wards of prisons believe they need in order to carry out what they consider their duty. The remoteness and isolation of the colony gives The Officer confidence to use The Apparatus subjectively, and be ignorant of the actual cruelty involved of its use — literally to be able to carry out punishment out of sight and out of mind of the rest of society.
When the reader learns the crime of The Condemned Man, the punishment seems very severe to such a trivial act. However, the point stressed in this story is to make a statement about the worker’s failure to respect authority — which has historically been a very serious offense against the power elite.