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Kafka's Punishment An Essay About Kafka's Short Story, In The Penal Colony And The Theme Of Punishment Throughout His Literature

1017 words - 4 pages

Kafka's PunishmentSome of the most common themes in Joseph Kafka's literature deal with justice and punishment. "In the Penal Colony" is a narrative which takes a critical look at totalitarian punishment and its faults. As the title suggests, it is set in a penal colony, on a small island where discipline and punishment are all-important.The story is told from the perspective of an explorer who, much like the reader, is an outsider of the penal colony, Western educated and liberal. He has come to evaluate the effectiveness of this machine, a device of punishment, torture, and execution. Of course, the explorer is totally biased against the whole thing from the start.A great deal of the narrative is the officer describing to the explorer in detail the specific functions of the machine. A system of needles slowly inscribes the punishment, which is as simple as a single phrase ("honor thy superiors!"), on the body of the condemned man. The needles carve deeper and deeper, until finally after 12 hours, the victim is impaled through the head, killing him instantly. What made the torture so effective was how the people could watch the transformation take place on the victim's face as he realized the message that was being cut into his body. The officer reminisces, "How we all drank in the transfigured look on the tortured face, how we bathed our cheeks in the glow of this justice, finally achieved and soon fading!" This enlightenment, the realization and utter acceptance of ultimate justice was what the machine's purpose was to extract from the guilty man. It was made into a spectacle for all the people in the penal colony to see, so that nobody else would ever dare question the law again.The narrative raises a great number of issues about the significance of punishment. The concern does not seem to be so much with the crime itself or the difference between right and wrong. There is no question of fairness, and no trial. What's important in this story are the methods and effects of justice. Theoretically, justice and punishment exist in society to keep people from overstepping their bounds, to circumvent chaos and maintain order. Those who are responsible for causing harm to others must be punished and hopefully rehabilitated. With the machine, the execution makes a horrifying example of the guilty man (whether he is actually guilty or not), which serves to educate the people as to the all-knowing power of the law. Thus, true justice is secondary to the importance of public fear of punishment.The nature of the punishment in the story is extremely physical. The guilty man is not even told what law he has violated, it is instead simply carved into his body. This is symbolic of the very physical control that any system of law has over the people. The body can be confined, tortured, and punished in many ways, but the human mind is free to believe what it wants.Today in the United States, we have certain rights, to a fair trial and to be considered innocent...

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