In the Penal Colony  

From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

Related e



Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

"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 located in Europe. Internal clues and the setting on an island suggest Octave Mirbeau's The Torture Garden as an influence. 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 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.


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 Forschungsreisender,"—which is closer in translation to traveler/researcher/voyager—or simply as "der Reisende".

  • The Explorer
  • The Officer
  • The Condemned
  • The Soldier


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, while the Soldier and the Condemned (who is unaware that he has been sentenced to die) placidly watch 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 where the accused is always instantly found guilty and the law he has broken is inscribed on his body before ultimately killing him, 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. He refuses to do so. He says he will not speak against it publicly, but he will give his opinion to the Commandant privately, and will 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 executed.


  • In 1969 the story was adapted as a play by Steven Berkoff who also played The Officer.
  • 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.
  • A 24 minutes film adaptaion by Turkish-born Sibel Guvenc was released in 2006.
  • In 2009, young Iranian filmmaker, Narges Kalhor, showed her short film adaptation at the Nuremberg Film FestivalTemplate:Fact
  • 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.

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.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "In the Penal Colony" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools