In the Penal Colony by KafkaWorld Literature

In the Penal Colony; Analysis as The Utopian Dimension

10 Mins read

In the penal colony incorporates the dilemma of utopia expressed in a continuum from the Utopian spiritual longing to its material Dystopian realization and the Anti-Utopian attempt to retreat from it. The spatial and temporal background of the story is portrayed as a movement from centrality and timelessness to peripheries and sequential time.

Kafka’s unique clustering of figures emphasis the Utopian dilemma. A feeling of anguish is expressed in the description of three meaningful moments of “silence,” placed at significant points with the structure and expressing the experience of “… guilt is never to be doubted” in the Penal Colony.

A closer look at “In the Penal Colony” reveals the presence of ingredients of a Utopian story. The story has already been opened to a wide variety of interpretations ranging from the biographic to the metaphysical and existential.

From Thomas Moore’s Utopia to Aldous Huxley’s Island, the Utopian genre has represented man’s spiritual longing for a better and more meaningful life. The main features of the “good life” in the “good community” that dominated the Utopian genre in the 18th and 19th centuries evolved in the 20th into “Dystopia”. Frustration, self-reproach and guilt are the feelings evoked by the Utopian-Dystopian dilemma and they prevail “In the Penal Colony.”

In the Utopian genre the ideal is exposed in the description of a Utopian world isolated in space and time – often a remote island, a future time. The plot is mostly a schematic one: a traveler visits the island; the inhabitants explain and justify their social organization and its ideological essence; the stranger is impressed, discusses and reflects on his observations, stays for some time and usually leaves impressed.

In the Dystopian variation of the Utopian genre, a member of the Utopian world realizes its imperfection, attempts to run away outside of Utopia, either succeeds or succumbs to the Dystopian machine.

The structure of “In the Penal Colony” incorporates these derivatives of the Utopian genre. All three spheres, the Utopian, Dystopian and Anti-Utopian are embodied in the story and express the complexity of the Utopian dilemma. The Utopian sphere is centered around the Old Commandant who had invented the machine to implement the Utopian ideal. At the center of the Dystopian sphere stands the machine, to which the island society has become subservient since the death of the Old Commandant. The center of the third sphere, Anti-Utopian is the hedonistic tea-house in which the grave of the Old Commandant serves as a table.

Read About: Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” Analysis

All three spheres, although interwoven, may be distinguished by some dominant aspects of the Utopian genre: their setting in place and time, the inner structure of their world and their representative figures.

The Spatial and Temporal Background:

Utopian writers have invariably resorted to some type of distancing device. As Ruyer notes, Utopia is “the description of an imaginary world, outside… historical and geographical space and time… based on principles that differ from those underlying the real world.”

The temporal background of Utopia lies outside of empirical or known history. Some Utopias express their timelessness in search for immortality, or in a relaxed attitude towards the tyranny of time. The Dystopia sets itself in close feasible time and functions effectively according to the clock.

Some of the characteristics of Utopia and Dystopia are recognizable in “In the Penal Colony.” In the spatial dimension of the Penal Colony there seems to be a movement from the center to the peripheral. The “machine” symbolizes the enigma of the Utopia, is situated in a pit which is “in the small sandy valley, a deep hollow surrounded on all sides by naked crags”; the valley being the center of an island “belonging to a state.” The concentric circles of “pit-hollow-valley-island-state” allude to the enclosure centrality of a Utopian world. The regression from the Utopian through the Dystopia all the way to the Anti-Utopia, is symbolized spatially by withdrawal from the central to the peripheral ring of the “tea house” in the colony.

The Anti-Utopia, as the outer sphere, is even more exposed by the colony’s harbor, boats and ferryman, reflecting the dubious possibility of escape (ism?) from the colony altogether.

In the temporal dimension, the Utopian sphere of the story, redemption comes to man after “twelve hours” – a time-point symbolizing cosmic order and spiritual salvation; the transition to Dystopian time comes when ‘‘. . . the turning point is reckoned to come at the sixth hour” – a time symbolic of ambivalence and disequilibrium, when the condemned man loses his feeling of pain and need for nourishment and floats between the sensual and the spiritual level.’ In the Dystopian sphere of the story the condemned man is punished for not obeying the mechanical clock, tyrannically demanding definite, concrete actions: “It is his duty, you see, to get up every time the hour strikes and salute the captain’s door.” In the Anti-Utopian sphere of the Colony, the effort is to bury “the power of past days,” to reject any obligation towards the flow of time, not to be “detained” and “rushing” to leap “at the last minute” into flight from the Penal Colony.

The Utopian and Dystopian World:

A Utopian thought or ideology is the monolithic rational behind the description of a Utopian world. The world is depicted as a planned and perfectly organized entity where self-sustained functioning and harmony are ever present so as to eliminate any conflict. The harmonious wholeness of the Utopian world is expressed in the well-being of the human body and the physical universe as it serves the wholeness of the Utopian world. In the Dystopia the internal logic of the Utopian world is brought to an extreme and distorted.

In many Utopian writings a machine metaphor serves to illuminate, thematically, the enigma involved in the process of implementing Utopian aspirations. Utopia evolves into Dystopia with the growing realization that the machine has become master and not servant.

In the Dystopia, the robot takes over and his frenzied operation of gadgets and parts becomes an absurd and grotesque entity. Man becomes an extension of machine and his individual identity breaks down and becomes conditioned to the machine. In many Dystopias the machine is the instrument of brainwashing and torture applied to the rebellious Dystopian hero.

The Utopian quality of the Penal Colony is conveyed mainly through the consciousness of the officer. It is in his memory alone that what apparently functions as a Dystopia., has Utopian spiritual roots. The Utopia implements itself through the function of the machine which eventually leads to the nightmare of the Dystopia and finally to a frustrating awakening in the Anti-Utopian world of the colony.

Read About: “In the Penal Colony”: Themes

The Old Commandant is the Idea behind the Utopian World since “the credit of inventing it belongs to him alone.” The Utopian World, characteristically, is harmonious and self-sustaining and its realization is centered around the Old Commandant, for he “combines everything in himself… soldier… judge, mechanic, chemist and draughtsman.” Every individual, as well as society as a whole, is committed to him and involved in the ritual life of the community. So all-embracing was the Commandant’s total world-view in the life of the society, and so dominant in the life of every individual within it, that when “the condemned man was laid under the Harrow by the Commandant himself,” the result was ecstatic suffering expressed in “the look of transfiguration on the face of the sufferer.” It was the Old Commandant’s “strength of conviction” felt by his followers which created a world of total identification and complete allegiance.

The description of life in the days of the Old Commandant is of a spiritually imbued, harmonious and static world, characteristic of the Utopia. It is a world “so perfect” that the future “would find it impossible to alter anything.” The world of the Penal Colony rests, in effect, on its axiomatic principle of legitimacy, founded on the assertion that there is no place for “several opinions” or for “higher courts” of justice.

The minute description of the proceedings of the machine that “works all by itself” and is deprived of any meaning, adds to the Dystopian quality. The vehicle does not serve any purpose but becomes an aim “effective in itself.” The message of the spiritual authority has become “a labyrinth of lines crossing and re-crossing each other;” “the harrow whose shape corresponds to the human form” now “regulates itself automatically.”

The ritual around the machine annihilates the complete Utopian unity of an ideal society. Man, who committed himself to the machine as an expression of the Utopian ideal and of his belief in its being “just,” is now called upon to “obey.” The Officer, as the loyal worshipper, guardian and servant of the machine, attempts to prove the performance of Utopian justice by trying to reset it, but misjudges the possibility of translating spiritual aspiration into concrete-mechanical matter and dies by a process which has become “plain murder.”

In the Anti-Utopian colony life centers on the attempt by the inhabitants to live hedonistically, retreating from, ignoring, and even burying, the Utopian Enigmatic World. The New Commandant is to the Anti-Utopian world what the Old Commandant was to the Utopian World. This is also demonstrated structurally; both of them appear in the background without taking part in the action of the plot. The New Commandant renounces the ideal of the Old Commandant by tearing it out of a mythical and timeless context, and implanting it in a historical utilitarianism; he denies its absolute glory and exposes it to criticism and change.  By inviting the stranger-explorer, the New Commandant subjects an ideal based on faith and conviction, to objective criticism. However, he is reluctant to take any committing decision and although “he is powerful to take measures…. he doesn’t dare to do it.”

The spiritual agonism which generates the conflict between the Utopian and Dystopian spheres is degraded in the Anti-Utopian colony into what may be described, in Kafka’s terms, a “stream of life.” Anti-Utopia, it should be noted, is not the result of a process of dialectical synthesis between Utopian and Dystopian, but a Kafkaesque symbolic, ambiguous retreat from a dilemma.

The Characters of “In the Penal Colony”:

According to Northrop Frye, Utopia is related to that narrative form which deals mainly with mental attitudes rather than just with fictitious characters. The stranger-visitor arrives alone in the strange land, observes the Utopian life, compares it with other societies, judges it positively, and usually leaves in order to tell of its merits. The guide, accompanying and introducing the Utopian world to the stranger, is an ardent admirer of Utopia. Other inhabitants of the Utopian world, usually the common members, are depicted as adherent followers of the Utopia, each one performing his specific function in the overall harmony.

Read About: Analysis of Kafka’s “The Judgment”

In the Dystopia, one of the inhabitants, of the supposed-to-be Utopian world, feels a growing awareness of his individuality, and an increasing doubt as to the merits of the Utopia. Depersonalization prevails, as man loses his wholeness and sense of identity. The Dystopian hero rejects uniformity, being numbered, and automation of life.

“In the Penal Colony” these features of the Utopian genre are present. “The stranger,” “the guide” and the “common member” of the Utopian genre are depicted by their mental attitudes, projected into a Kafkaesque world. Kafka’s heroes, as a result of their functioning in an ambiguous and contradictory way, are characterized by displacement of motives; emphasis is placed on parts of the body in place of the whole personality; two or more characters are merged into a figure-cluster behaving like a mechanical dehumanized collective.

The role of the officer in the Penal Colony parallels that of “the guide” in the Utopian genre. As an ardent member of his Utopia he continuously explains to the stranger the meaning of this world, “pursuing his subject with such great enthusiasm.” His devoted serving of the machine is constantly emphasized by the description of his functionally active hands. He expresses rage by clenching “his fists” and endeavors to keep up the spiritual tradition handed to him, by outlining “the scripture with his little finger.” The “soldier” and the “condemned man” constitute the objects of the Utopian effort.

There the officer is not only the servant and adherent of the Utopia trying to implement it by his worship of the machine, he is also a Dystopian hero. He is attempting to ignore the corruption of the spiritual, as expressed by the falling apart of the defective machine, the diminishing of the social-cult element in the machine’s rituality, and the total ignorance of, and immunity to the redemptive recognition in the “condemned man.” That the officer is preoccupied with the material is symbolized by “his tight fitting full-dress uniform coat, amply befogged and weighed down by epaulettes.”

The officer attempts to justify the lack of spiritual perfection by self acquittal: “I was not informed.” But, symbolically, he constantly and compulsively washes his hands so that the scripture, the spiritual heritage, will not “be sullied by touch.” Before his self-sacrifice he again feels the urge to wash his hands but not finding the bucket of water “in the end thrusts them into the sand.” His assumption is that by choosing to sacrifice himself he might again demonstrate the justness of the machine. Whereas the officer plays out his part on the border between Utopia and Dystopia, the soldier and the condemned man move in the Dystopian and Anti-Utopian spheres. They are supposedly redeemed, but “could not understand a word” and can concentrate only on their bodily needs. In the sphere of Dystopia, they are passive like “Submissive dogs,” but once they have crossed into the Anti-Utopian sphere they come alive and active. It is they who take over the function of the guide when the officer dies, and lead the stranger into the peripheral Anti-Utopian world.

Each of the above characters, then, faces and tries to resolve his own particular dilemma. The officer is torn between Utopia and Dystopia which leads to his futile self-sacrifice. The soldier and the condemned man, in their attempt to physically escape the island are, nevertheless, forced to stay in the Anti-Utopian Penal Colony forever. And the stranger, opting to remain an objective and disinterested “eye,” rejects his spiritual human responsibility of involvement and choice. Even when witnessing the officer’s self-sacrifice “the explorer bit his lip and said nothing.” His prolonged hesitation and detachment, however, is climaxed by his attempt to escape the Penal Colony like the soldier and the condemned man. And like them he, too, comes to express himself through physical acts as he threatens them with “a heavy knotted rope.”

Read About: World Literature and David Damrosch

Besides being representative Utopian figures, in a way, they reflect different aspects of the dilemma. They may be viewed, not only as individual entities but are clusters, so as to emphasize some points in the Utopia dilemma. One cluster of figures focuses around the “sentry-servant’’ theme of the Utopian-Dystopian spheres, and the other around the theme of the ambiguous detachment which prevails in the other two.

The first cluster includes the officer and the condemned man. The officer is loyal to the Old Commandant; the condemned man is supposed to be loyal to the captain. However, the similarity is on different levels: the officer is spiritually committed and involved but the condemned man “will have written on his body: Honor Thy Superiors!”

The second cluster, connoting an air of ambiguous detachment, is centered around the explorer and extends to the reluctant soldier and the bystanders. The soldier “seemed to be in much the same condition as the explorer.” Like the explorer he attempts to be detached, “paying no attention to anything”; he is “the sleeping soldier” and awakens only when the officer throws a clod of earth at him. Only in the last part of the story, in its Anti-Utopian realm, both become active. The figures in the second cluster are characterized by their reluctance to get involved in the dilemma which evolves into a final Anti-Utopian escapism.

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