Kafka’s Prisons

Four stories by Frans Kafka: “Metamorphosis,” “In the Penal Colony,” “A Report to the Academy,” and “The Hunger-Artist.”

What struck me in all the Kafka stories was not the absurdity, but the recurrence of themes like imprisonment and how one lives in such a state. The prison-like complexes of average life are exposed when bizarre types of prisons and slavery crop up to juxtapose them in Kafka’s stories.
In “Metamorphosis,” Gregor’s job is like slavery, and his family is fully dependent him (making them slaves to him as well). Once he transforms, he becomes a prisoner in his own room, being fed scrapes and regularly terrifying his family. Gregor is so mentally imbedded in his job that his transformation doesn’t worry him; he frets endlessly about making it to work on time even while he’s a monstrous cockroach, which shows how institutionalized he is to his financial situation. A reality-altering existential crisis can’t even shake his devotion to his job that he hates. He becomes completely dependent on his family just as they used to be on him, but they express no sympathy for him, only reasoning their mercy with that he used to be Gregor. This reversal exposes their dwindling humanity, which is ironic when Gregor is the non-human creature in the story. His humanity remains intact on the inside, and it only leaves him as his family shows less mercy throughout the story.

“In the Penal Colony” also features themes of imprisonment but more directly in the character of the condemned man, who must be strapped down and tortured to death. The reversal of roles is also a big part of the story, as it was in “Metamorphosis.” The officer is a proud supporter of the torture device and the philosophy of its use, and when the sentence is laid upon him, he proudly becomes its last victim. It seems senseless to us, but it means very much to the officer, and that’s another important theme of these works.

These characters are convicted in every sense of the word: characters are very dedicated to ideals and goals while also being prisoners sentenced to death and despair. The hunger-artist lives in a cage that he chooses to maintain as his livelihood, and he eventually dies for it. The ape in “A Report to the Academy” tells the story of being in a cage and dedicating himself to discovering how to be free, but in a truer sense. The ape is a prisoner of his lower faculties and becomes free when he develops into his humanity. The defining moment is when he downs a bottle of rum and speaks his first word of English. Rum is a substance capable of imprisoning men, and it ironically frees the ape. But he’s just entered a different kind of prison when he identifies with humanity. These characters are in physical and psychological prisons that blend during the absurd stories.

It’s interesting how Kafka explores these different types of prisons, sometimes using characters that either choose to inhabit them or aren’t even aware. The condemned man in “In the Penal Colony” doesn’t know his sentence and isn’t even afraid of the machine that will execute him. He is curious about the machine and hardly struggles when he is strapped into it. The officer represents the reverse when he willingly climbs in despite there being no sentence against him. Kafka understands that many things imprison humanity, and even when we yearn for freedom, it’s only an illusion or an escape into a different kind of prison. Death is the only thing that sets Gregor, the officer, and the hunger-artist free. The mysterious plane of existence that is non-existence is the only unexplored frontier, and many of Kafka’s characters escape from life into it.