Franz Kafka frequently revisits absurdism while questioning life in the 20th century. What gives his body of a work a cynical tinge is a lack of answers to the questions Kafka rightfully raises. Is this part of the “horrific arbitrary judgment” that makes something “Kafkaesque?”
“In The Penal Colony” separates itself by seeming to offer some sort of satisfying resolution. The Officer finally passes judgment on himself, and, in his final moments, is deprived of the consolation of having his final sentence carried out. Instead of receiving the “exquisite torture” that he felt was due to him, the death apparatus gives him, instead of the “justice” which it symbolized for the Officer, only meaningless demise. We find the Old Commandant, architect of the death apparatus and the island’s symbol of authority, buried in a modest, nearly unmarked grave, which dockworkers eventually cover up with a table, not out of lingering resentment, but simply because they need a place to drink. The Soldier and the Condemned, both arguably complicit in the bureaucracy which precipitated events in the penal colony, are both left to devise their own escape. Finally, the Explorer, an outsider from the beginning, washes his hands of the situation when judicial reform in the penal colony is inevitable.
As an avid procrastinator, his pen was always running out of ink, but, while Kafka was infamous for unfinished writing, most of his endings were self-aware. There’s a quote by Kafka, “Probably that’s why I can’t finish anything. I am afraid of the truth. . . One must be silent, if one can’t give any help. . . For that reason, all my scribbling is to be destroyed,” and he really did request his surviving friends destroy his work. However, there were several exceptions: “The Judgement,” “The Stoker,” “The Metamorphosis,” “In the Penal Colony,” “Country Doctor,” and his short story, “The Hunger Artist.” Most of these stories end with some sort of defeated, cynical introspection, yet all were chosen for preservation. Kafka probably intended any implications. Therefore, “In the Penal Colony” is exactly the same. As one of Kafka’s “finished” works, it ceases to stand out, and, instead, displays more of his depressing, trademark gallows humor.
“In the Penal Colony” is where Kafka thought the world was figuratively heading, and he wasn’t all that inaccurate. Scientific advancement applied to warfare, in the wake of World War 1 (machine guns, artillery, planes, gas), were definitely on Kafka’s mind while writing “In the Penal Colony” – all the better that war fit snugly between authority, punishment and his fascination with both. Haruki Murakami said it best in Kafka on the Shore. His protagonist admits “In the Penal Colony” as his favorite of Kafka’s short stories. He describes the machine as “a substitute for explaining the situation we’re in,” which, ironically, is a quote still relevant today, even in the United States.
“In the Penal Colony” presaged an advancing society with the story’s theme of men enslaved to technology. We’ve far surpassed all that, now, with iPhones and Netflix, but Kafka’s machine could symbolize violence, for one, or even war. While the officer represents society, the Old Commandant could be the dying culture of yesteryear. Just like the humble dockworkers, it will be the working-poor who rise to cover the ground in which the old will be buried – not out of resentment, but because they’re ready to move on.