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Freudian Psychology's Three Psychic Zones in Franz Kafka's "In the Penal Colony"

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 1 0

            Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” focuses upon a torture machine which Critic William J. Dodd describes as having characteristics of Freudian Psychology’s three psychic zones: the id, the ego, and the super-ego (Guerin, et al 128). Dodd supports his argument by describing the bed of the torture machine as the Id; the harrow as the ego; scriber as the super-ego. The id according to Freudian psychology is defined as being “lawless, asocial, and amoral. Its [the id's] function is to gratify our instincts for pleasure without regard for social conventions, legal ethics, or moral restraint (Guerin, et al 130). The ego, then, is defined by its duty to serve as a protection for an individual by “regulating the instinctual drives of the id” (Guerin, et al 130). The super-ego is above the ego because it must work through the ego to protect the individual and society from the impulses of the id. Freud further defines the super-ego as “the representative of all moral restrictions, the advocate of the impulse toward perfection” (Guerin, et al 131).  Robert Golding states in his analysis of Freudian psychology that the three psychic zones of the consciousness of man are formed by and through an individual’s culture. I argue, using Dodd’s description of the torture machine and Golding’s view of how a culture forms the three psychic zones of man, that the mechanical parts of the torture machine which represent the id, the ego, and the super-ego, are reflections of the individual psychic structures of the traveler, the officer, and the condemned man in Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”. I will support this argument by categorizing the condemned man as the id, the traveler as the ego, and the officer as the super-ego and by showing how their psychic zones are reflected in the torture machine’s various mechanical parts as described by Dodd. My ultimate goal in writing this paper is to illuminate how the psychic structure of a group of individuals is reflected within that group’s culture.

            Culture, according to the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary, is defined as: “the body of customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits constituting a distinct complex of tradition of a racial, religious, or social group” ().The penal colony’s culture consists of dictatorial and militarily type traditions which the condemned man can not take part of because he is driven purely by the instinctual gratification of the id. The id is lawless, asocial, and amoral as well as heedless of consequence. The id’s only concern is to offer one “instinctual gratification” (Guerin, et al 130) or instant pleasure without regard to the consequences resulting in attaining that pleasure. Critic William Dodd further defines the id, in relation to the bed of the torture machine, as “the luxuriant habitat of the unconscious life, of animal pleasures and physical warmth” (130). The condemned man is categorized under the psychic zone of the id because his only concern is to attain animal type pleasures and to attain those pleasures immediately without regard to his culture’s social conventions or legal ethics. An example of this blatant disregard occurs when the condemned man is caught and therefore condemned for not fulfilling his duty as an orderly,

You see, it is his duty to get up whenever the clock strikes the hour and salute the captain’s door. Certainly not a very difficult duty, but a necessary one, since  he needs to stay fresh in order both to keep watch and be on call. Last night the captain wanted to check whether his orderly was doing his duty. As the clock was striking two, he opened the door and found the man curled up asleep (Kafka, Corngold 41).

The condemned man shows in this instance that he values his instinctual pleasure for sleep above his duty as an orderly and above those consequences which he surely knew would come for breaking the penal colonies cultural traditions; therefore, the condemned man is the id because he discounts the consequences of attaining instant pleasure in a culture that disregards the simple pleasures of life.

The captain went for his riding crop and hit the man in the face. Now, instead of getting up and begging forgiveness, the man seized his master by the legs, shook him, and cried, ‘Throw the whip away, or I’ll eat you alive’ (Kafka, Corngold 41).

The footnotes in Kafka’s Selected Stories state that, “The German word for what human beings normally do when they eat is essen; the word for what animals do is fressen. Here Kafka uses the word fressen: the orderly, who has been treated like a dog, threatens to eat his tormentor like a dog.”(Corngold 41) The condemned man’s threat against the captain is an exemplification of the condemned man as the id. Since the condemned man does not apologize or beg for forgiveness for neglecting his duties, but threatens the captain with death for waking him from his slumber, the reader sees that the condemned man is controlled by animalistic type instincts that cause him to be chaotic and unorganized in thought just as the id is chaotic and unorganized within human consciousness (Guerin, et al 129).

 The condemned man’s chaotic thought and animal instinct constantly provoke the poor man to do whatever he can to receive luxuriant instant pleasure. Ironically enough, William Dodd describes the bed of the torture machine as a “luxuriant habitat” full of animal pleasures. As the condemned man is placed atop the bed of the torture machine the traveler disturbingly observes how the condemned man enjoys lying on the bed even though he lies within the threatening confines of the torture machine. This action of the condemned man demonstrates to the reader that the bed and the condemned man share similar ambitions and therefore share similar reflections of the id. However, the condemned man’s relief is short lived when the officer lowers the harrow (ego) on to the man’s back.

According to Key Concepts in Literary Theory the ego “functions as one of the three divisions of the psyche and refers to the manner in which people mediate, perceive, or adapt to reality” (Julian Wolfreys, Ruth Robbins, and Kenneth Womack 36). Freud states that “the ego serves as the intermediary between the world within and the world without” (Guerin, et al 130). The reality that the penal colony exists in is quite twisted and very different from the reality the traveler exists in. The penal colony’s reality is created from the culture that exists within it; the traveler’s reality is created by another culture with different traditions which makes the traveler a great intermediary between the world of the penal colony and the world outside of the penal colony.       The traveler is categorized as the ego due to his position, both physically and mentally, between the condemned man and the officer and his position between the penal colonies reality and his own reality.

The traveler’s physical position between the condemned man and the officer forces the traveler to act as an intermediary between the two characters. An example of this occurs when the traveler asks the officer whether or not the condemned man knows his judgment:

‘No,’ said the officer intending to continue his explanations at once, but the traveler interrupted him, ‘He doesn’t know his own judgment?’ ‘No,’ said the officer again, and then paused for a moment, as if demanding from the traveler a more cogent reason for his question; then he said, ‘It would be pointless to tell him. After all, he is going to learn it on his own body.’ The traveler now wanted to remain silent, but he felt the eyes of the condemned man on him; he seemed to be asking whether the traveler could approve the procedure that had been just described (Kafka, Corngold 40).

This quote demonstrates how the traveler is trying to reconcile the position of the condemned man, who doesn’t understand the officer, with the officer’s explanation of the torture machine.  

            The harrow within the torture machine reflects the ego of the traveler not only in its physical placement between the bed and the scriber, but in its actual function as a mechanical part within the torture machine. The harrow functions as an intermediary by reconciling the scriber, which Dodd describes as the super-ego, with the bed, which Dodd describes as the id, by positioning itself in such a way that would satisfy the super-ego or scribers need for judgment and inhibit the animalistic drives of the id or bed. The traveler’s ego is then reflected within the torture machine’s harrow because each shares the desire to reconcile the judgment super-ego with the chaotic drives of those who are condemned.

            The super-ego, according to Freud, is a largely unconscious moral censoring agency (Guerin, et al 130). It is the repository of conscience and pride, and the advocate of the impulse toward perfection (Guerin, et al 130).  The officer is categorized as the super-ego because he is a man that seeks and needs perfection. The officer demonstrates this need for perfection when he handles the drawn designs of the impending judgment, “he looked critically at his hands; they did not seem to him clean enough to touch the drawings, so he went to the pail and washed them again” (Kafka, Corngold 39). The phrase “washed them again” suggests that the officer is a man of exactness and holds great respect for anything that relates to his idea of perfect law.

             Another instance in which the officer represents the super-ego is when he is describing to the traveler his position as the ultimate judge within his culture. “The matter is as follows. Here, in the penal colony, I have been appointed judge. Despite my youth. For I assisted the former commandant in all penal cases, and I also know the machine best. The principle according to which I decide is: ‘Guilt is always beyond all doubt.’() This principle by which the officer judges others is ironic because in Freudian psychology an overactive super-ego creates an unconscious sense of guilt hence the familiar term guilt complex (Guerin, et al 131). So, when the officer decides to condemn himself according to his own judgment  he is doing so because he feels guilty for not being able to save the laws of the culture which once were so prominent among his society

            The scriber mechanism within the torture machine reflects the super-ego of the officer because of its position in relation to the id and the ego. The officer is higher than the condemned man and the traveler because he is the one who understands the moral implications of his culture’s justice. The scriber is higher than the id and the ego because it retains higher morals and needs to be able to inflict those higher morals upon the one who is the id in order to protect society and itself from those things which would demoralize the law.

            The scriber’s job within the mechanical machine is to inscribe a message of morality into the victims back. The job of the super-ego is to repress the id through the ego using moral standards learned from the culture in which the id, the ego, and the super-ego exist. The job of the officer is to repress those who would disobey his law.

By analyzing Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” through a Freudian psychoanalytic lens we were able to illuminate how the mechanical parts labeled as the different zones of the psychic structure are reflections of the psychic zones existent within the condemned man, the traveler, and the officer. This illumination offers readers an interesting insight into the affects which culture has upon the human consciousness. Culture creates and shapes a people and the way they think whether they know it or not and understanding this simple insight will help to create understanding between the different cultures of people. 


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