“The story is set in an unnamed penal colony. It describes the last use of an elaborate torture and execution device that carves the sentence of the condemned prisoner on his skin in a script before letting him die, all in the course of twelve hours. As the plot unfolds, the reader learns more and more about the machine, including its origin, and original justification.”
In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka is one of the weirdest stories I have ever read. The plot and setting are fairly odd. But once you dig deeper into the book and really get in depth, it becomes much more clearer and Kafka’s short story really becomes something else.
I have been reading a bunch of classic novels lately, and I decided to read this short story after a friend recommended it to me. It is a short story at a small 40 pages (at least in my edition). Normally classic novels, or classic literature in general, are a bit obscure and this is no exception. Upon first read, the characters are fairly straightforward. There are only 4 characters in this novel, at least ones that have dialogue: the explorer, the officer, the soldier, and the condemned man. The weird, devoted officer and the skeptic explorer make up most of the short story. And for the most past, all of the characters stay the same. It’s hard to talk about the short story into detail without going into spoilers, but all I can say to make the reading a bit easier is determine what the explorer and officer represent. They are clearly on two different sides of the argument. Once you figure it out, the machine and the symbolism become much clearer. Kafka is a more straightforward writer than Melville and for the most part, you will get what is happening (although, not so much what it means). But he is a clever writer and once you understand the novel, the writing comes to life. He can give so much within one sentence, often causing you to think about it.
In the Penal Colony is an odd short story. Yet once the meaning is unveiled, it becomes so much more than a weird short story and Kafka’s writing becomes more important and comes to life. If you are an English major, definitely read it.
Rating: Must Buy