In The Penal Colony

The Penal Colony is a short story about a foreigner who visits a mysterious island and discovers the unspeakable acts that occur there. As the story’s name suggests, the setting is that of a penal colony for prisoners awaiting execution. The manner of execution is a key detail in the story; the device inscribes the death sentence into the skin of the convicted. The tortuous experience lasts up to 12 hours and ends with the prisoner’s death. According to the machine’s operator, the purpose of the device is to provoke a moment of enlightenment and subsequently, repentance for the misdeeds the person has committed.  

The story has only four characters: the Traveler, the Officer, the Condemned Man and the Solder. The Traveler is there to evaluate the use of the torture device and determine whether or not it should remain in use. The Officer, who is the only person with knowledge of how to operate the torture device, is fond of its use and does not think it should be taken out of service. The Condemned Man, who is unaware of his death sentence, is an observer, as is the Soldier who escorts him. The Traveller, who is repulsed by what he’s learned, has to decide to leave before making any recommendation about the ongoing use of the machine. Disappointed by the Travelers refusal to help him, the Officer releases the Condemned and uses the machine on himself. He is denied the purported enlightenment that other prisoners supposedly experience, when the machine malfunctions and kills him in an instant.

This story deals heavily with themes of justice, mercy, old traditions versus new traditions, redemption and change.  Moreover, there many references to Christianity and the story would appear to be an allegory for the old testament of the bible. Various reviews and analyses of this work have produced similar opinions, and even more dissenting ones. The story crosses many philosophical lines of thought and this what makes the story so enjoyable. No matter which school of philosophical thought you subscribe to, there will be something in this story that resonates with every reader and forces the reader to re-evaluate their personal position on life, death and judgment.

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