Reconciling Kafka's "In the Penal Colony" with Christianity

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This is an essay I wrote my first semester in college for an expository writing class, which I have not edited since, making this the original submitted version. I believe it is unique since all previous critiques I had seen of "In the Penal Colony" had written it off as sac-religious, which I dispute based on archetypical evidence and imagery.

Submitted: January 14, 2011

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Submitted: January 14, 2011



Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” shows that somebody, readers, critics, or Kafka himself, is confused. The readers (and especially those who write in literature journals on the story), have so many interpretations that Edwin Steinberg (in his own criticism) writes that “contradictory interpretations suggest either that one or more critics is misreading or that the work itself is so poorly executed that it becomes an ink blot on which the critic is invited to project fantasies arising out of his own needs and experiences”(1). At least Steinberg has the guts to at leastimplythat he may be misreading it. Many other critics put up ridiculous assertions and back them up with little more than their Ph.D. However, “In The Penal Colony” is also a canvas on which Kafka himself is projecting his own experiences and applying them to religion and spirituality, creating interesting comparable explanations between Kafka and the reader which bring up more questions than they answer. But some critics have rejected the idea that the story is a religious allegory; they need to use the trees to see the forest. There are so many examples of religious (Christian) allegory there is no way that you cannot put them all together and assume that Kafka is making a statement on Christianity. Maybe in a story with one or even two comparatively religious aspects you could make the argument that it isn’t religious in nature. But “In the Penal Colony” is absolutely chock full of them, and shows that Kafka is saying something about religion, whether it be about his struggles with Judaism or a possibly newfound interest in Christianity. This essay is the putting to paper Kafka’s lifelong struggle with forms of spirituality, and greatly increases the chances that Kafka flirted with Christianity.

There is absolutely some hostility towards Judaism from Kafka. Much of Kafka’s work, including much of his “Letter to My Father,” focuses on his feelings of futility towards Judaism and his condemnation of it. Kafka wrote in this letter, that in the synagogue “I don’t think I was ever again so bored, except later at dancing lessons…” (Kafka “Letter”). He definitely expressed a disinterest in Judaism that came out in “In the Penal Colony;” this is the first thing nearly all the critics note (those who see it as religious allegory), and one which all readers should be able to see clearly. The rigidity with which the Old Commandant’s regime conducted its business definitely evokes images of the Jewish tradition. The Old/New Testament allegories are right there: The Old Commandant, by all allegorical interpretations, is God Almighty, the Creator of the Earth. In the story, the Old Commandant created the apparatus (the entire creed upon which the colony is founded) as well as the colony itself: “This apparatus was invented by our former Commandant… well it isn’t saying too much if I tell you that the organization of the whole penal colony is his work” (98). Since, as Doreen Fowler states, the apparatus is a microcosm of the penal colony, and the penal colony the world itself, the Old Commandant would be seen as the creator of the world. He would also seem, to the worshipful eyes of the officer, to be omniscient, as well as all-powerful, “soldier, judge, mechanic, draughtsman…” (101). In the context of the officer’s stories of the Old Commandant the reader is forced to believe him to be the perfect leader for the system he set up on the penal colony (Steinberg 5). The prophesy that has him coming back to life to take back the colony merely cements his place among the gods.

The drawings, which no one but the officer is allowed to touch (and only he after washing his hands twice), reflect the Torah, the religious book of the Jews. The Torah is not handled by anyone but the highest of priests and then as little as possible. Also, as Steinberg points out, “Kafka would not have been able to make out the script, for it is in Hebrew…” And the word Kafka uses in the original text,schrift, means bothscriptandscripture, very simple connotations for the Biblical allusion. As well, the officer and the explorer speak French, a language indecipherable to the soldier and the condemned man, a phenomenon experienced by Kafka in the synagogue when the priests spoke in Hebrew (Steinberg 5-7). Kafka would have been extremely turned off by the rigidity and the feeling of remoteness to it, adding to his distance to the Jewish tradition.

Other examples include the mixing of blood and water, which run out of the machine into the pit in “In the Penal Colony.” Compare this to John 19:34, when a soldier pierces Christ’s side, “bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.” Also evident is the bickering of the soldier and the former prisoner over the clothes of the officer: As Christ was being crucified, also in John 19, the soldiers there “cast lots” to decide who would get Jesus’ clothing. The machine, also, exhibits Biblical allegories: The spike through the head represents the crucifixion on a cross, where the condemned has nails run through his wrists and ankles to hold him to the machine. These very literal comparisons make it very simple to see the extended analogy.

The officer is the Godfather of all Kafka’s religious parallels, even though he is rejected often in his position as the Christ-figure because he isn’t portrayed as an adherent to the new philosophy, as he would seemingly have to be; these adherents seem to think that Kafka had his own “unique interpretation of Biblical events.” Fowler writes, “The New Testament affirms that Christ died in order to free humanity from bondage to original sin. According to Kafka’s construction of Biblical events, as suggested in “In the Penal Colony,” Christ died for an opposite reason- in affirmation of man’s guilt and the necessity of suffering for that guilt.” Her interpretation, however, also hinges on widespread inferred ideas based on Kafka’s other writing, both literary and personal. Based on Kafka’s diary, letters, etc., she infers that he had an inferiority complex to match his progressivism and writes that this directly caused his divergent interpretation of the Crucifixion: “Kafka’s frequently reiterated feelings of guilt and inferiority may provide an explanation for this unique interpretation of Biblical events…to Kafka, who was overwhelmed by a sense of guilt, the Christian doctrine that Christ’s crucifixion freed man from the effects of original sin might very possibly have seemed remote and unreal…” (5) While this very well may be true, it is also possible that Kafka’s Biblical interpretation is closer to the Biblical version than that: The key is in the crucifixion scene, both the most important part to Kafka’s story as well as the most important story in the Bible.

The most important thing during the officer’s crucifixion scene is the point at which the his attitude shifts. When the officer realizes that the traveler is not going to cooperate with him in his appeal to the New Commandant, his state of mind transforms very significantly and he says, “Then the time has come.” This surely implies that the officer saw this development in his future, but what does it reveal about his change in mindset? Is it possible that he has shifted from one that has guarded a tradition for many years to one who knows he must destroy it? What was the Old Commandant’s command to the officer? Was it not “Be Just?” All previous critics of “In the Penal Colony” have merely assumed that the officer was doing exactly what the Old Commandant instructed him to do; however, now using the machine is unjust, and the officer recognizes that it needs to be destroyed. This exact pattern of events can be interpreted Biblically, as the old Jewish tradition of rigidity and eternal punishment no longer holds for the people it protects; the solution is to institute the more lenient Christianity, which is based on love and forgiveness and leaves out the eternal damnation (yes, it does). Christ is a proponent of the old order (he was a Jew), but came to destroy it and replace it with Christianity. Steinberg writes, “Was Kafka considering, becoming susceptible to, inclining toward Christianity? We know that he read and was impressed by Kierkegaard [a 19thcentury Danish philosopher] , and Christianity must have been discussed, perhaps even promoted, in the intellectual circle in which he moved.” However, while other critics also cite the complete lack of any references to Christianity in Max Brod’s biography of Kafka, this may say something in itself. According to Steinberg, “Brod also confesses… ‘in several (rare) cases I omitted things that were too intimate.’” Gertrude Thieberger Urzidil, who knew Kafka, said that “both Kafka and Brod were deeply absorbed in the world between Judaism and Christianity” (Steinberg 508). Brod even write a book called, in it’s translation,Paganism, Christianity, Jewry.What other evidence is needed? A first-person source states that Kafka and his best friend were interested in the spirituality behind these two religions, showing that Kafka and his social circle definitely toyed with the idea of the religion that, historically, was the successor to their Jewish tradition, the logical step after becoming alienated from Judaism. The lack of references to Christianity in Brod’s biography could also show that Brod felt Kafka’s interest in Christianity was not something that should be publicized; in my opinion, this makes it an even bigger deal since there was obviously something shameful in what Kafka and Brod were getting into.

One problem that came up in my initial reading is that the text says that on the dead officer’s face there was “no sign of the promised redemption.” In the story, the officer states that, for normal executions, “about the sixth hour…enlightenment comes…” Enlightenment is not the realization of the wrongdoing, as E.R. Davey says, “brings it’s victim to a point of understanding what he is accused of;” the victim already knows what he has done: it doesn’t really matter if he does not know, since the punishment in this case is for all past sins (which no one is without). He is already enlightened in this way, in that he knows he is a sinner and knows he deserves what he’s got coming. To the contrary, in my opinion enlightenment is the realization, the relief, at knowing one has served the sentence for his sins. Does not even a child feel better about having served his time for a wrongdoing than for getting away with the wrong? I know I did, personally. Theonlytrue relief for the knowledge of wrongdoing is the subsequent knowledge that one has paid a fair price for it. Kurt Fickert says in his criticism, “Kafka’s concept of religion emerges as one centered on the individual who must acknowledge his guilt, having inflicted suffering on God (the Father) and who must reconcile himself to his having to suffer accordingly. In the end the pain of the individual would supposedly have the purpose of purifying him, of redeeming him.” The difference between the machine’s previous victims and it’s last was that the officer had not committed a crime and did not deserve to die in this way, exactly like Christ had committed no sin, yet died horribly for the sins of others. This is why the officer did not experience the “redemption” Kafka refers to: he had no guilt, and therefore could not feel the release of it. This is also the reason the machine falls apart: it is forced to do something which goes against it’s purpose, killing the officer, an innocent man.

The final evidence in this matter comes from Kafka’s personal diaries: About three years after he originally wrote “In the Penal Colony,” as if to show us exactly how his mindset had changed in those years, he went back and attempted to rewrite the ending to the story multiple times. His first recorded attempt illustrates his turmoil over the subject:

The explorer felt too tired to give commands or do anything. He merely took a handkerchief from his pocket, gestured as if he were dipping it in the distant bucket, pressed it to his brow and lay down beside the pit. He was found in this position by the two men the Commandant had sent out to fetch him. He jumped up when they spoke as if revived. With his hand on his heart he said, “I am a cur if I allow that to happen.” But then he took his own words literally and began to run around on all fours. From time to time, however, he leapt erect, shook the fit off, so to speak, threw his arms around the neck of one of the men and tearfully exclaimed, “Why does all this happen to me!” and then hurried back to his post” (178).

It seems Kafka finds himself going somewhat insane over spirituality. Does he feel himself running around on all fours like a dog, if the explorer is Kafka? Probably not, but this does reveal much of his inner turmoil. Earlier in the piece, the explorer is very calm, rational, through the explanation of the machine, the stories of the officer, and then through officer’s suicide. But after the suicide, and after the explorer realizes it’s implications, Kafka feels the need to portray the officer (and consequently himself) going crazy over this. The difference between the ending used in the original printing and this one are huge: In one the explorer (Kafka) is merely confused, undecided, somewhat melancholy; but in this alternate ending he is obviously shaken emotionally and psychologically. The explorer is characterized now as tired, “pressing [his handkerchief] to his brow and laying down beside the pit.” If the explorer signifies Kafka’s every thought, every move, then it is quite obvious that Kafka has found no end to his torment with this issue. This also brings to light images of the disciple Peter, who, upon hearing Jesus talk of his impending death, replies, “This shall never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22).

Another ending for “Penal Colony” found in Kafka’s personal diaries brings to light more of the Christian symbolism already exceedingly present in the story, as well as more evidence of Kafka‘s agony:

If the ship had slithered to him across this trackless sand to take him aboard- that he would have preferred to everything. He would have climbed aboard, except that from the ladder he would have once more denounced the officer for the horrible execution of the condemned man. “I’ll tell them of it at home,” he would have said, raising his voice so the captain and the sailors bending in curiosity over the rail might hear him. “Executed?” the officer would have asked, with reason. “But here he is,” he would have said, pointing to the man carrying the explorer’s baggage. And in fact it was the condemned man, as the explorer proved to himself by looking sharply at him and scrutinizing his features.

“My compliments,” the explorer was obliged to say, and said it gladly. “A conjuring trick?” he asked.

“No,” the officer said, “A mistake on your part; I was executed, as you commanded.” The captain and the sailors now listened even more attentively. And all saw together how the officer passed his hand across his brow to disclose a spike crookedly protruding from his shattered forehead (180-1).

This, Kafka’s final diary entry pertaining to “In the Penal Colony” (or at least in what is published), he goes with his most daring and apparent Biblical allusions yet. He is also illustrating his own personal mindset at this point: as the officer is climbing up the ladder, he denounces the officer and his actions, “raising his voice so that the captain and the sailors…might hear…” He believes the officer to have done the correct thing, but still denounces him to save his own skin, also suggesting images of Peter, who after the Crucifixion denied knowing Christ three times; Biblically, he is representative of all Christians, that all Christians are sinners, but Peter went on to become the single most important of the Twelve Disciples and is considered the father of the church. In relation, Kafka is also denouncing what he seemingly knows to be true, influenced by his Jewish heritage, as Peter was.

The second obvious allusion in this alternate ending is the officer’s reappearance. If the officer is Christ, as has been said numerous times, then he would have to come back to life, right? In this ending Kafka attempts to make that happen. The explorer expresses his disbelief in the officer’s actions, forcing the officer to come back to point out that the man who was to be executed wrongfully is right there, carrying the explorer’s bags. One of the most important statements the officer makes during this time is when he says, “I was executed, as you commanded.” The explorer, as the only one present at the officer’s execution, represents the mass of people who, at Pontius Pilate’s asking, said they wanted Jesus instead of the criminal they could have had instead: “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ? Pontius Pilate asked. They all answered, Crucify Him!” (Matthew 27:22). The explorer, by believing, and saying, that the old way was unjust caused the officer to put himself in the machine, much as Christ died to change the ways of the world. The explorer also doesn’t believe the officer is there, signifying Doubting Thomas, who said in John 20:25b, “Unless I see the nail marks in his wrists and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand in his side, I will not believe it.” And so when Christ arrives he shows Thomas the nail marks in his wrists, much as the officer does with the spike in his forehead, and Thomas believes.

I read other passages from Kafka’s diary, searching for something to give me a key to his mind. “Opened the Bible. The unjust Judges. Confirmed in my own opinion, or at least in an opinion that I have already encountered in myself” (130). “If I closely examine what is my ultimate aim, it turns out that I am not really striving to be good and fulfill the demands of a Supreme Judgment, but rather very much the contrary…I strive to know the whole human and animal community…and trim my behavior to these rules in order that I may find favor in the whole worlds eyes… so much favor that in the end I could only perpetrate the iniquities within me without alienating the universal love in which I am held- the only sinner who won’t be roasted” (187-8). What is he thinking? I believe the key word in this passage is love. This concept is examined very closely in “Penal Colony;” the idea that the Christian model of love is superior to the Jewish tradition of suffering for one’s guilt. Could he possibly be equating “sinners” with “Jews” changing his statement to mean he is “the only Jew who won’t go to Hell for his sins?” This is quite a possibility, but no one will ever be able to truly know the mind of Kafka, a mind as complex as any that ever lived. All readers of “In the Penal Colony” can do is use it as their own personal Rorschach test, examining their own beliefs in conjunction with what Kafka has to say about spirituality, and possibly find some answers in the lifelong search for truth. It truly is amazing, though, to imagine the possibility of Kafka’s transference to Christianity as it pertains to his writing; if this is so, nearly everything he wrote can be reanalyzed in a totally different way, and can help justify Christianity as a whole. Kafka has always been known as a great mind, but little has been known about his fight with spirituality; there is evidence in “In the Penal Colony” that suggest we may have to rethink our theories about Kafka, taking into account this spiritual bent. It may be wishful thinking, but this interpretation suggests that Kafka fought with Christianity, and we don’t really know which side won the battle.









Works Cited

Fickert, Kurt. “Criticism.”Twentieth Century Literary Criticism.Ed. Laurie Di Mauro. Vol. 53. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994. pp 207-9.

Fowler, Doreen. ““In the Penal Colony”: Kafka’s Unorthodox Theology.”College Literature,Vol. 6, No. 2 (1979): 113-120. JSTOR. Web. 29 Oct. 2009.

Greenberg, Martin. “Criticism.”Twentieth Century Literary Criticism.Ed. Laurie Di Mauro. Vol. 53. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994. pp 203-5.

Kafka, Franz. “The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1914-1923.” Ed. Max Brod, Trans. Martin Greenberg. New York: 1949. Print.

Kafka, Franz. “In the Penal Colony.”The Metamorphosis and Other Writings.Ed. Helmuth Keisel, Trans. Edwin and Willa Muir. 2002. pp 97-122.

Kramer, Dale. “Criticism.”Twentieth Century Literary Criticism.Ed. Laurie Di Mauro. Vol. 53. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994. pp 205-7.

Neumeyer, Peter. “Do Not Teach Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.””College Literature,Vol. 6, No. 2 (1979): 103-112. JSTOR. Web. 29 Oct. 2009.

Steinberg, Erwin. “The Judgment in Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.””Journal of Modern Literature,Vol. 5 No. 3 (1976): 492-514. JSTOR. Web. 29 Oct. 2009.

Thomas, J.D. “Notes and Discussion On The Penal Apparatus of Kafka.”College Literature,Vol. 9 No. 1 (1982): 64-67. JSTOR. Web. 29 Oct. 2009.

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