Subjugated Pain, Mortality and Romanticised Spectatorship in Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’


  • Vivien Chan The Chinese University of Hong Kong
  • Christopher Chan The University of Edinburgh


Pain, Mortality, Franz Kafka


Modernity is characterised by fragmentation and spiritual loss associated with such a terrifying historical event as The First World War. Written just before World War One, ‘In the Penal Colony’ (1914) represents one of the well-received short stories by the modernist writer Franz Kafka. This essay investigates Kafka’s literary responses to the disruptive changes of modernity. We discuss the way he taps into the theatricalization of pain and violent modulation of the body which lead up to agonising mortality in ‘In the Penal Colony’ so as to critique the discourse of progress and civilization in the age of modernity. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975), Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of ascetic ideals in On the Genealogy of Morality (1887), and various Kafka critics, we analyse the story’s penal procedure and its participants from three aspects: the volunteered docile mentality of the condemned, the dramatisation of his punitive, depersonalising pain, and the romanticisation of the suffering to beguile spectators so that they will readily obey. The essay concludes by reflecting on how Kafka may well be re-creating his own infliction through the depiction of suffering of the other and discussing how the text can inspire changing sentiments from the understanding readers.


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How to Cite

Subjugated Pain, Mortality and Romanticised Spectatorship in Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’. (2024). Postgraduate English: A Journal and Forum for Postgraduates in English, 45.