In the Penal Colony

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Author Franz Kafka
Original title "In der Strafkolonie"
Translator Eugene Jolas (1941)
Country Germany
Language German
Genre(s) Short story
Publisher Kurt Wolff Verlag
Media type book (hardcover)
Publication date October 1919
Published in English 1941

"In the Penal Colony" ("In der Strafkolonie") (also translated as "In the Penal Settlement") is a short story by Franz Kafka written in German in October 1914, revised in November 1918, and first published in October 1919.

The story is set in an unnamed penal colony. Internal clues and the setting on an island suggest Octave Mirbeau's The Torture Garden as an influence.[1] As in some of Kafka's other writings, the narrator in this story seems detached from, or perhaps numbed by, events that one would normally expect to be registered with horror. "In the Penal Colony" describes the last use of an elaborate torture and execution device that carves the sentence of the condemned prisoner on his skin 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.[2]

Plot outline


There are only four characters, each named according to their role in the story. The Officer is the machine's operator, the Condemned is a man scheduled for execution, the Soldier is responsible for guarding the Condemned, and the Explorer is a European dignitary and visitor. In the original German, the Explorer is referred to as "der Forschungsreisende" — which is closer in translation to traveler/researcher/voyager — or simply as "der Reisende".


The story focuses on the Explorer, who is encountering the brutal machine for the first time. Everything about the machine and its purpose is told to him by the Officer. The Soldier and the Condemned (who is unaware that he has been sentenced to die) placidly watch from nearby. The Officer tells of the religious epiphany the executed experience in their last six hours in the machine.

Eventually, it becomes clear that the use of the machine and its associated process of justice — the accused is always instantly found guilty, and the law he has broken is inscribed on his body as he slowly dies over a period of 12 hours — has fallen out of favor with the current Commandant. The Officer is nostalgic regarding the torture machine and the values that were initially associated with it. As the last proponent of the machine, he strongly believes in its form of justice and the infallibility of the previous Commandant, who designed and built the device. In fact, the Officer carries its blueprints with him and is the only person who can properly decipher them; no one else is allowed to handle these documents.

The Officer begs the Explorer to speak to the current Commandant on behalf of the machine's continued use. The Explorer refuses to do so, and says that he will not speak against it publicly, but will instead give his opinion to the Commandant privately and then leave before he can be called to give an official account. With this, the Officer frees the Condemned and sets up the machine for himself, with the words "Be Just" to be written on him. However, the machine malfunctions due to its advanced state of disrepair; instead of its usual elegant operation, it quickly stabs the Officer to death, denying him the mystical experience of the prisoners he had executed.[3]

Accompanied by the Soldier and the Condemned, the Explorer makes his way to a tea house in which he is shown the grave of the old Commandant. Its stone is set so low that a table can easily be placed over it; the inscription states his followers' belief that he will rise from the dead someday and take control of the colony once more. As the Explorer prepares to leave by boat, the Soldier and the Condemned try to board but are repelled by the Explorer himself.


  • In 1916 Kafka read the story out loud in the Galerie Goltz in Munich. An observer wrote, "The listener, too, was dragged into this hellish torment, he, too, lay as victim on the seesawing torture-bed, and each new word carved as a new spike the slow execution into his back. A muffled thud, confusion in the hall, people carried out a lady who had fainted. ... The rows of listeners began to thin. Some fled at the last moment, before the vision of the poet could overwhelm them. Never have I witnessed a similar effect of spoken words."
  • In 1969 the story was adapted as a play by Steven Berkoff who also played The Officer.[4]
  • In 1999 Charlie Deaux wrote and directed the short avant-garde film Zoetrope, which is loosely based upon the story.
  • In 2000 composer Philip Glass wrote a chamber opera, In the Penal Colony, based on the story.[5]
  • A 24 minutes film adaptation by Turkish-born Canadian filmmaker Sibel Guvenc was released in 2006.
  • In 2009, young Iranian filmmaker, Narges Kalhor, showed her short film adaptation at the Nuremberg Film Festival[citation needed]
  • In July 2011, the ShiberHur Theatre Company of Palestine presented a new version of In the Penal Colony, adapted by Amir Nizar Zuabi, at London's Young Vic.
  • In 2012 Egyptian independent theatrical group Warsha performed an Arabic language adaption in Cairo directed by Hassan El Geretly.
  • A 40 minute film adaptation created by filmmakers in Las Vegas, Nevada, was completed in 2013 and released on Vimeo in 2014.

Publication history (in English)

In popular culture

Frank Zappa, in the liner notes of the Mothers of Invention album We're Only in It for the Money, recommends reading the short story before listening to the track "The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny."

Ian Curtis of the band Joy Division was inspired by "In the Penal Colony" to write the song "Colony" from the album Closer.

The novel The Shadow of the Torturer, by Gene Wolfe, follows the exploits of a member of a guild of torturers. At one point, when giving a tour of the facilities to a condemned prisoner, the head of the guild describes a device identical to the one presented in the short story.

The episodic video game Resident Evil Revelations 2 contains many references to Kafka. Along with being set within an island colony, the first episode is named "The Penal Colony" after the story, and a file found within the game contains an excerpt from "In the Penal Colony."


  1. Corngold, Stanley (2007). Kafka's Selected Stories. New York: Norton. p. 44 n.8. ISBN 978-0-393-92479-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. For a study of the story in relation to the British penal colony Port Arthur, Tasmania, see Frow, John (2000). "In The Penal Colony". Journal of Australian Studies: 1ff. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Fickert, Kurt J. (2001). "The Failed Epiphany in Kafka's 'In der Strafkolonie.'". Germanic Notes and Reviews. 32 (2): 153–59. 12. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Church, Michael (16 September 2010). "In the Penal Colony, Music Theatre Wales, Linbury Theatre". The Independent. Retrieved 27 February 2013.
  5. Kinzer, Stephen (6 December 2000). "A Pocket-Size Opera From a Harrowing Kafka Story". New York Times. Retrieved 27 February 2013.

External links