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Victoria Rielly
Freshman Inquiry
MacCormack
December 9th 2014
Attachment and Perceptions
The short story In the Penal Colony contained several different iterations of power. These
ranged from the rule of the Old Commandant to the influence of the Traveler, and even to how much
power the machine had over it's caretaker, the Officer. While the Officer is convinced he's the one
maintaining and upholding the ideals of the machine, the opposite is really true, and the machine
controls the Officer's every action. The reading as a whole conjures a wide range of questions,
observations, and is also a prime example of how even inanimate objects can take control, much like in
Reeling for the Empire.
Of course, The Penal Colony has many more layers than just that, it also deals with different
viewpoints. This is seen in how the Traveler categorizes the actions of the machine with inhumanity
and torture while the Officer sees the machine has having an odd beauty, and representing the old
Commandant's ideals of justice. This can be applied to Berger and Luckmann's theory in a way,
because it's those pre-constructed perceptions of what's right and wrong that creates the major tension
and conflict between the characters.
Zerubavel can also relate in this situation, since there are obviously many boundaries between
Traveler and Officer. They live in the same world, but the way they distinguish things as correct and
incorrect, moral and immoral, are what really set them apart. Only by dissecting and inspecting every
part of the machine, the bed, inscriber and harrow, does the Traveler really understand the meaning of
each piece and what purpose it serves in the 'justice' procedures of the Penal Colony.
One extremely striking part of the story is where the Officer speaks about how much of an event

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these punishments used to be, and how such a large crowd turned out to watch the machine at work.
This entire section shows exactly how his society viewed the justice system under the rule of the Old
Commandant. He also described giving children the viewing priority Often I crouched down there
with two small children in my arms, on my right and left. How we all took in the expression of
transfiguration on the martyred face! How we held our cheeks in the glow of this justice, finally
attained and already passing away (Kafka p.15) This shows that the children of the colony were raised
to believe this is how justice is supposed to work.
On the opposing viewpoint, the Traveler sees the whole process of inscribing words onto a
man's body to be a cruel and unneccessary form of punishment, especially without first having a trial,
and children from his home country surely are brought up with the same principles. As he struggles to
understand the entire process and the reasons behind it, it becomes clear that this secluded society's
judicial system is much different from his own. This is the root of the tension between the two, how
they are similar yet entirely different, and now the Traveler suddenly has all the power to destroy the
Officer's old way of life if he isn't satisfied.
While explaining his standpoint to the Traveler, the Officer clearly speaks about the machine
like he's the one who maintains and controls it, but in reality the opposite is true. It seems that he's
spent so long tending to the parts of the machine and helping it do it's work, he's become a slave to it's
every need and wish. When it's no longer kept in good repair the Officer suffers and can't stand to see it
deteriorating. This escalates to the point where, as he realizes that the machine will never return to it's
former glory, the Officer would rather put himself through the punishment of the device than watch it
be dismantled. This final act really exemplefies how much the machine has a hold on him. Instead of
moving on like the other citizens in the Colony and accepting that times have changed, he does all he
can to preserve the rule of the Old Commandant, which proves the amount of power that ghosts and
inanimate objects can exert over a person.

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The Penal Colony can be applied to modern times as well. The cell phone is our new version
of Kafka's machine, many are a slave to it and compulsively check for texts and emails. A mobile
phone is nowhere near as drastic as the device in this story, but it can control people in a similar way,
warp their reality, take time out of their day, become almost an object of comfort and something we just
can't let go of. Much like the Officer stuck with his machine and couldn't live without it, people today
would feel lost without their devices as well.
In it's entirety The Penal Colony is much too complex to whittle down into one or two points,
but if it has to be simplified, the aspects that I found the most captivating were the relationship between
the Officer and his machine and the differences between the Officer and Traveler in the way they view
the world. Having come from two different societies, the two have an intense disagreement in how
justice should be served. We get the point of view in the story mainly from the Traveler, as he listens to
the Officer's argument as to why his system deserves to live on.
However, by the end of the story it has transgressed Officer vs. Traveler and become Officer vs.
himself. Unable to cope with the way his society is changing, he lets himself and the machine destroy
each other, because he could not exist without it, and it could not function without his care. Much like
today where people experience a disconnect if one of their devices is compromised, the Officer likely
felt the same way, like he was falling out of touch with the old way of the world, and the only way to
remedy that was to literally immerse himself in the last remaining symbol of his past. It's a tragic end
of an era, but holds a lot of meaning and reminds readers that while one person may see one thing, an
outsider will have a completely different view of that very object.

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Works Cited:
Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality; a Treatise in the
Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966. Print.
Kafka, Franz. In the Penal Colony. Trans. Ian Johnston. N.p.: n.p., 1914. Print.
Zerubavel, Eviatar. The Fine Line: Making Distinctions in Everyday Life. New York: Free, 1991. Print.