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Kafka, Camus, and Colonial Justice

Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

Franz Kafka and Albert Camus took issue with the nature of colonial expansion. They display their distrust for colonial institutions and repulsion at its dehumanizing effects in their literature. The colonial justice system in particular suffers from their scrutiny as its fraudulence and brutality is brought to the forefront.

The horror and cruelty of the justice system and the execution device does not escape the explorer in Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.” The absurdity of the condemned man’s crime is obvious. Failure to salute the captain’s door on the hour strikes the reader as functionless, yet in the prison colony it is grounds for execution (145-6). An equally disturbing fact is that the one character with the common sense and moral position to prevent the execution—the explorer—lacks the will to act on his convictions. Hearing the situation, the explorer eases his conscience by “reminding himself that this was in any case a penal colony where extraordinary measures were needed and that military discipline must be enforced to the last” (146). By not acting, the explorer becomes a silent accomplice to the officer’s execution of a man who has committed no understandable crime.

Because of the dangerous environment—a prison colony in a foreign land—the officer believes it is necessary to abridge the traditional judicial process.

If I had first called the man before me and interrogated him, things would have gotten into a confused tangle. He would have told lies, and had I exposed these lies he would have backed them up with more lies, and so on and so forth. As it is, I’ve got him and I won’t let him go. (146)

The justice system had become and impediment to the aspect of punishing, so the old Commandant and officer simply threw it away. The officer justifies the abbreviation by saying, “Guilt is never to be doubted. Other courts cannot follow that principle, for they consist of several opinions and have higher courts to scrutinize them. That is not the case here” (145). Extreme conditions call for extreme measures is the officer’s understanding. The penal colony is so removed—physically and socially—from civilization, that new rules must be created to maintain order. The question of guilt or innocence is deemed too expensive a luxury, so it is thrown aside in favor of expedient judgment, leading to punishment.

Albert Camus, Nobel prize winner, half-length portrait, seated at desk, facing left, smoking cigarette

Albert Camus, Nobel prize winner, half-length portrait, seated at desk, facing left, smoking cigarette

The Trial of the Stranger

Camus is no friendlier to the colonial justice system. In The Stranger Meursault’s trial is a joke. The matter of his crime—shooting and killing an Arab on the beach—is hardly ever mentioned after it is established as the event that brought him to court (88). No Arabs are called as witnesses, nor is the victim addressed as a human being during the trial. The murder of an Algerian does not seem to be a serious crime, and the trial only gets attention from the press because summer is a slow season for news (84). Since the Arabs have been dehumanized by the French Imperial mind-set, it is difficult for the court to take seriously the act of murdering an Algerian.

As the trial goes along, the prosecution shifts the focus of the case from murder to Meursault’s character or seeing lack thereof. In a statement that has nothing to do with the murder, yet essentially condemns Meursault, the prosecutor exclaims, “the day after his mother’s death, this man was out swimming, starting up a dubious liaison, and going to the movies, a comedy, for laughs” (94). Since the Arab is not important in terms of the trial, Meursault’s character, not his actions, must be called into question.

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Meursault notices that in the prosecutor’s closing arguments focus disproportionately on Maman. He explains, “It was then that [the prosecutor] talked about my attitude toward Maman. He repeated what he had said earlier in the proceedings. But he went on much longer than when he was talking about my crime” (101). He does not seem to be on trial for killing the Algerian any more, and Meursault is not the only one to notice. Camus writes, “[My lawyer] shouted, ‘Come on now, is my client on trial for burying his mother or for killing a man?’ The spectators laughed” (96). The truth is Meursault really is sentenced to death because he did not cry at his mother’s funeral, not for killing a man. Since the prosecutor convinces the court that Meursault is responsible for the death of his mother, his crime is magnified beyond the murder of an Algerian on the beach.

Both Kafka and Camus level damning accusations against what passes for justice in the far reaches of an imperial colony. Because they are so far removed from the centers of power, where watchful eyes can keep them in line, institutions become easily corrupted and lose their true purpose. The officer of the penal colony sacrifices human dignity and the judicial process in favor of expediency and order. Meursault’s killing of another human will not get him convicted, but not conforming to socially appropriate actions, like crying at his mother’s funeral, gets him sentenced to death. The real reason for the existence of these institutions is to serve its human creators. When this reason is lost, men become slaves and victims of their own creations.


Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Trans. Matt Ward. New York: Vintage, 1988.

Kafka, Franz. “In the Penal Colony.” Trans. Will and Edwin Muir. Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories. Ed. Nahum Glatzer. New York: Schocken Books, 1971.

© 2013 Seth Tomko


Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on July 06, 2013:

Thanks for reading and commenting, lions44. Orwell had a passion for social justice, especially concerning imperialism, so I believe you're right. I'd suggest looking at post-colonial literature from Africa and Ireland, or the magic realism from South America for more on this subject if it interests you.

CJ Kelly from the PNW on July 05, 2013:

Great article. Always loved The Stranger. I would add Orwell's Burmese Days as another novel dealing with colonial justice (albeit to a lesser extent). But you can't go wrong with Kafka or Camus.

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