Thursday, January 24

One of the most interesting things about “In the Penal Colony” is the fact that it didn’t end like I expected it to. The whole time I was reading it, I was expecting that the officer would find something wrong with the conduct of the traveler and condemn him to death in the machine. I think such an ending would make it more of a horror story, and if it had been written by someone like Poe the ending would have gone more like this: the officer tells the condemned man that he is “free” and the traveler finds out the whole thing has been an elaborate scheme to get him into the machine. The condemned man, soldier, and officer have all been working together in an elaborately staged ruse, and they seize the traveler and strap him into the machine, whilst the others on the island crowd around to watch. It would be hinted at—but left ambiguous—as to whether the traveler was being put into the machine simply because the officer and the other prisoners in the colony are depraved and enjoy tricking people into the machine, or whether the traveler has done something that caused his home government to condemn him to death and send him here.
I think part of the reason I expected this to happen is because the officer so fervently worships the machine that its existence has become more important to him than the death sentences for which it was created. This is evident on page 46 when the officer complains about the fact that it takes 10 days to get a new strap for the machine and wonders how on earth he’s supposed to use it in the meantime. He doesn’t consider holding off on the death sentences during this time. The fact that the machine exists, for him, means that he must always be condemning men to death in order to put it to use. I wonder if there even were death sentences in the colony before the advent of the machine. I also wonder if the machine were in better condition and didn’t break down or wear out parts so often, if the officer and the former commandant would have gone through all the prisoners on the colony and started finding others, such as the dockworkers, to feed the machine. It makes me think of something a child would do when given a rock polisher, for instance, and has to find every rock within a three-mile radius of his home in order to polish it, because using the rock polisher is so fun. The officer definitely seems to have a childlike personality, which adds to his creepiness.
I am reminded a little bit of La Bete Humaine, because both the officer’s and Jacques’ existences are so bound up in killing. Jacques has an irresistible urge to kill women simply because they, and whatever they represent for him, exist. He can fight the urge as long as he is not near a woman. Kafka’s officer must kill men because the machine exists, and as long as the machine exists, he feels that he must make use of it. As I said earlier, if the machine didn’t exist, the officer would have not reason for death sentences, but he is too weak to resist his nearly religious obsession with it. In the same way, Jacques wouldn’t need to kill anyone as long as he never encountered a woman, but whenever he sees one, he feels that he must kill her simply because she exists, and he has a hard time overcoming this urge due to weakness.
This story is referenced in, of all things, a Harry Potter book. Harry is sentenced to write lines as punishment, and a magical spell causes the words he writes to be scratched into the skin on his hand, leaving a permanent scar reading, “I will not tell lies.”

No comments: