Fear and Loathing in the Penal Colony
Roaul Duke in the popular film, Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas, said, “And that, I think, was the handle - that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of old and evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that.” Kafka uses the idea that the “old and evil” can, in fact, prevail to create fear and suspense in The Penal Colony. The battle between the old and new regime, what they individually represent, and the confusion surrounding them brings a realistic terror to the piece. The fear this instills creates a “shiver of recognition” (Charles, 1080), which brings about greater understanding of the concept of justice and good prevailing over evil.
A major theme of Kafka’s piece is the idea of justice, which is tied to the ever fleeting concept of truth. The primary form of justice is brought about using the apparatus. The piece tries to explain the apparatus as it consists of three parts, “the lower one is called the ‘Bed’, the upper one the ‘Designer’, and this one here in the middle that moves up and down is called the ‘Harrow.’” (Kafka, 142) Although the author goes into great detail about the inter-workings of the apparatus, it is difficult to comprehend, much like the concept of justice. There are many interpretations of what the apparatus looks like, mostly because the details Kafka gives are so vague. For example, the officer explains, “here is the bed… It is completely covered with a layer of cotton wool… The Bed and the Designer were of the same size and looked like two dark wooden chests. The Designer hung bout two meters above the Bed; each of them was bound at the corners with four rods of brass that almost flashed out rays in sunlight. Between the chests shuttled the Harrow on a ribbon of steel” (Kafka, 142-143). There are so many different aspects to the apparatus, although a complete understanding is almost impossible. The apparatus represents justice in the Penal Colony because for the reader there are many interpretations of the apparatus. These mental images are formed from the many vague details we’re given about the apparatus itself, the same way that the truth about what happens during crime committed can be vague. The commandant explained, “He would have lied, and if I had been successful in refuting his lies, he would have replaced them with new lies, and so forth.” (Kafka, 145). This shows that to the members of the old regime of the Penal Colony see the apparatus as a representation of justice because it cuts out the grey area and the lies behind the prisoner’s story and one is left with one black and white conclusion: the crime happened, so the prisoner dies. As the officer says, “guilt is to never be doubted.” (Kafka, 145).
Kafka uses the idea of the apparatus to create suspense by tying the idea of truth and justice to the Old Regime, which represents the “old and evil”. By tying these opposing ideals together, he causes confusion and clouds the reader’s judgment about the conclusion of the story. When the old Commandant is described, there are undertones of regality. “It isn’t saying too much if I tell you that the organization of the whole penal colony is his work…” The officer says, “And our prophecy has come true; the new Commandant has to acknowledge its truth. A pity you never met the old Commandant!—But,” (Kafka, 141). The prophecy isn’t brought up again until the end of the piece where “after a certain number of years the Commandant will rise again and lead his adherent… to recover the colony.” (Kafka,167). Although the officer seems like the only person who still believes in the ideals of the old regime (namely, the use of the apparatus), there are many places where the Old Regime stands for truth and justice. The confusion and suspense occur because of this pairing. The Old Regime utilizes a cruel and barbaric method of justice which involves a punishment with lack of a trial, the use...
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