Posted on 12 April 2010.
In a post long ago, I briefly laid out some of the historical reasons that Korean modern literature is relatively agency-less; that its characters react to society rather than the Western style model of spurning society, or going it alone. As a result of this model, the anti-social hero is almost completely missing from Korean literature and the tragic hero is even less evident. Even in works in which the hero does try to go it alone, the results and even the attempts themselves, are often indifferent in nature. The “lone” hero is normally trying with all his or her might to return to the bosom of society, and often their attempts at going solo, seem tepid at best.
Unfortunately, in that first post, I didn’t clearly lay out the literary evidence supporting my claim about agency, heroism, and Korean literature. In this post I will return to that, and briefly sketch a historical analysis of Korean modern fiction (with one classical example). Then I will suggest the theoretical underpinnings of this reality, split into several posts.
The exemplar classical version of the Korean hero as non anti-social, non tragic, might be Hong Gildong in which the main character does run away from his family. Of course he is chased out by social pressures (which operate through his father) and in the end of course returns to his family. He is by no means a tragic hero and even though he temporarily deserts his family and then culture, all the while is fighting within and against it in order to make it better. In addition, his greatest accomplishment in his role of “hero” is reconstitute the state he is missing, but in a new land.
In modern fiction of the colonial period, the same tendency occurs – heroes are few, and even the “tragic” ones (Yi Sang’s The Wings) are more confused and oppressed than anything else. What heroes there are, tend to be nationalized ones. As Korean.net sums the first decade of the 20th century:
Many of the early novels at this time were focused on enlightening the people for the new era, leading to the publication of many biographical novels such as Aeguk-buin-jeon (Tale of the Patriotic Lady, 1907), by Jang Ji-yeon, Eulji Mundeok (General Eulji Mundeok, 1908) by Shin Chae-ho, and Geumsu Hoe-uirok (Conference of Animals, 1908) by An Guk-seon.
In the latter part of that decade sin-seoseol, or the “new novel,” did begin to introduce a bit of “western” approach to literature, but whatever opening that might have represented was immediately shut by the historical fact that Japan colonized Korea.
For the next 38 years, all fiction revolved around the nation and while heroes may have been loners, or even victims, they were all essentially manifestations of the Korean national will for independence.
The same was essentially true after independence and the Korean War. Literature focused on the trauma of social order collapsed, whether that order be the collapse of traditional farming life, the horrors of a nation split in two (separation literature – pundan munhak), or the injustices of rapid and forced industrialization. Alienation features heavily in these stories, but in general the alienation is the actual “star” of the book, and the character is only reacting to it. As an example, Choe In-hun’s Gwangjang (The Plaza, 1960) portrayed the torture, rootlessness and frustrations of a symbolic intellectual, Yi Myeong Jun, caught between “the plaza” of North Korea and the “back-room” of South Korea. Yi can’t deal with this reality, decides to emigrate, but in the first steps of that process, kills himself. He can’t stand to stay in Korea, neither can he stand to leave it. This hero is not anti-social, in fact it is his state outside of society that drives him to suicide.
Even in a book as tragic as Cho Se-hui’s The Dwarf, in which the main character arguably does make an error based on hubris, attempting to live as a ‘normal’ man, the stakes are small and in the end it is the inevitable asocial status of the dwarf that drives him to his death. The image of the dwarf, perched on a factory chimney, attempting to “reach” the moon with a paper airplane or small ball, before plummeting to his death, is indeed a tragic one, but it is one arrived at by social mechanisms rather than as a result of any particular action of the dwarf.
Other works that might lend themselves to an “agency” reading include The Last of Hanako, by, Choe Yun, or I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Kim Young-ha. yet on close inspection both seem to fall away from agency, although I’ll have to think more carefully about Kim’s work. In any case, I would be interested in a reader pointing me to a Korean work of modern fiction that features a conventional, Aristotelian tragic hero, or evidence of radical agency. Until then, the following quote from “Asian Info” will give a hint as to where this blog will find the basis for Korea’s “anti-hero” literature:
Early Korean literature was heavily influenced by Shamanism, Buddhism and Confucianism. The early literature, which began as an oral tradition, depicted a love of nature and man and held that man was a part of nature. Good was rewarded and evil was punished and values like loyalty to the King, filial piety, respect for one’s elders, true friendship and chastity were emphasized.