Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” begins with a Traveler, described as a “great Western explorer,” learning about a “peculiar apparatus” of justice. The apparatus, known as the Harrow, is administered by the Officer. Much of the first half of “In the Penal Colony” consists of the Officer explaining the logic and history of the Harrow to the Traveler. The Harrow is a delicate system of glass needles, which inscribe the crimes of those who have been condemned, bloodily and painfully, into their bodies. The procedure takes an average of twelve hours. The first six hours are very different from the second six. “For the first six hours the condemned man goes on living almost as before,” the Officer explains. “He suffers nothing but pain.”
Around the sixth hour, though, a great change begins to occur in the prisoner. Without fail, at that time the condemned become very quiet, and even “the most stupid of them begin to understand.” Where before they were suffering only pain, for the next six hours they suffer something in addition—the agony of self-recognition:
It starts around the eyes and spreads out from there. A look that could tempt one to lie down under the Harrow. Nothing else happens. The man simply begins to decipher the inscription. He purses his lips, as if he is listening. You’ve seen that it’s not easy to figure out the inscription with your eyes, but our man deciphers it with his wounds. True, it takes a lot of work. It requires six hours to complete. But then the Harrow spits him right out and throws him into the pit, where he splashes down into the bloody water and cotton wool. Then the judgment is over, and we, the Soldier and I, quickly bury him.
The whole time he is explaining how the Harrow works, the Officer is preparing to use it on a Condemned Man. As he speaks, the Officer adjusts the machine, unclogging it and setting it to make the correct inscription, then ordering a Soldier to strap the Condemned Man into the bed. The Traveler is sometimes distracted by the Condemned Man, and sometimes disturbed by what the officer is telling him; once, he feels the need to sit down. As his doubts about the system of punishment mount, he asks a series of procedural questions. Does the condemned man know his sentence? Has he received a proper trial? Does he even know that he has been condemned? The answer to all these questions is “No.” The condemned does not know what his crime is; he has had no chance to defend himself; the Officer himself serves as judge, jury and administrator of justice all in one. This information stuns the Traveler, who now “looked at the Harrow with a wrinkled frown.” He consoles himself that after all he is a foreigner in a penal colony, and perhaps “in this place special regulations were necessary.”