In the Penal Colony
In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka presents a view of justice that is in transition from barbarism to civilized enactment of the law. Unfortunately, the officer that administers the barbaric justice is still the agent of applying atrocious methods of societal retribution and, in order to preserve his psyche, distances himself from the true process. By remaining ambiguous throughout the story on the true nature of the barbaric procedure, Kafka allows the officer to excuse himself of what he sees as only his duty to administer justice.
From the very beginning of the story, ambiguity on the true barbaric nature of the executioner’s role is witnessed in his language and dialogue concerning the executions. In referring to the actual machine of torture as “a peculiar kind of apparatus”, the officer distances himself from the reality of the true nature of the machine. The word peculiar can be taken several ways within the dialogue and thus the officer leaves the voyager who is listening to his description in the dark as to the officer’s role in the barbaric process. Peculiar could mean odd in its role as a form of torture; however, it is likely that the officer meant that it belongs to a peculiar process of justice that he uses that word to describe in order to assert that he does not quite understand and is not really a part of. Hence, the officer sets himself up as only as the administrator of justice and outside of the power system that has any control over the fate of the accused.
Furthermore, the narrator seeks to excuse others in the story by blaming European ideology. When the voyager seeks to question the apparatus and, in turn, is mislead by the officer as to the logic of the type of punishment, the explanation for this is that he was “conditioned by European ways of thought” and was unable to separate the notion of justice from the “peculiar” way in which justice was administrated at the penal colony. Lending further evidence of the defense mechanisms imposed by penal colony on the officer, when the officer did finally answer the voyager as to what the accused had done, the officer answered him “looking in another direction, as if he were talking to himself and wished to spare the voyager the embarrassment of being told such self-evident things”.
The officer is so thoroughly conditioned to his role in the administration of justice he does not concern himself with accused crimes. The narrator, after disclosing the ambivalence of the officer’s position, aligns himself with the voyager and excuses the officers ambivalence by blaming his “limited understanding”. Hence the narrator is forcing the reader to stand in judgment of the officer, despite all the officer’s attempts to stay neutral and ignorant on the true barbarism of the apparatus.