Alienation and Introspection; The Crisis and Loss of Identity

Korea experienced a period of social change during the process of industrialization. During this time, the individual was gradually isolated and diminished by society’s organizations, the collective masses, and the mechanisms of industrial development.


Every individual possesses a unique identity and that fact alone makes him an independent being. At the same time, the individual’s tangible lifestyle is deeply tied to the society to which he belongs. Therefore, his individuality is not formed autonomously or independently, but rather worked out in a social group setting. An individual’s identity was somewhat fixed and stable in traditional society because the social structure established the boundaries of thought and action, thereby clearly imposing a social role on the individual. Through this process, the individual is born as a member of a collective body and lives as a part of the stable world. However, as a result of changes and expansions in the social structure and the accelerating complexity of the modern age, issues of identity have become increasingly more unstable and fluid. Faced with structural changes in the mechanized and uniform modern indust-rial society, individuals have no choice but to feel alienated.

In the Korean context, one observes that society in the modern era has undergone a period of structural change through colonization and war, as well as the process of transforming into an industrial state. The individual has become alienated, symbolized, objectified, and deconstructed, owing to the social system, group mentality, and the mechanism of industrialization. Thus, the individual is hurried away from the core of his life, incurring internal dissociation. This is the state of ontological alienation. Such ontological modalities of the individual were formed through symbolic individual characters in Korean literature.

The process of alienation – the diminished and reduced individual – signifies the position of the symbolic individual in modern society who has attained universality in concrete works of fiction. Moreover, it could also be understood as a sign of the degradation of the individual’s value in society. The fictional characters are depicted as victims of the fissure between the individual ideal and the social reality. In such situations, the individual’s experience of absurdity, like the crisis or loss of identity, is an experience of existence itself.

The alienation of fictional characters in modern Korean novels can be summarized as a process of the loss of identity. The condition of the once individual character becoming adapted to his surroundings can be described as the condition of losing his identity, which in the end leads to a decisive obstacle in terms of self-actualization. The urban human relationships in Kim Seungok’s novels are good examples that illustrate
how individuals’ modalities of the self become anonymous. Kim’s superb works of short fiction are fine, astute observations of the huge changes put into full-scale operation by industrialization, urbanization, and modernization. Since signs of change were most conspicuous in the city, it is no wonder that his works are filled with city dwellers. Seoul- 1964 - Winter presents a microcosm of urban human relationships.
Through this work, the author not only clearly and vividly visualizes human relationships amidst the huge changes of urbanization, but also provokes the reader to consider how they differ from the old agrarian community.


1 The Walls of Rumor
Yi Chong-Jun, Yolimwon, 1988, 392pp., ISBN 89-7063-159-3
2 Garden of Childhood
Oh Jung-Hee, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd. 2002, 295pp., ISBN 89-320-0987-2
3 Seoul - 1964 - Winter
Kim Seungok, Malgeunsori, 2008, 142pp., ISBN 89-8050-164-1 03810
4 There, a Petal Falls in Silence
Ch'oe Yun, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd. 2006, 311pp., ISBN 89-320-0578-8
5 The River
Seo Jeong-in, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd. 2007, 336pp., ISBN 89-320-0837-X


Seo Jeong-in’s portraits of the hollow every day and the bleak psychological descriptions of the fictional characters stuck in it penetrate into the heart of modern society. Through commonplace scenes, his novella “The River” exposes the fragmented daily life from a cynical perspective. One side of this cynicism turns into a blunt critique of philistinism in works like Najudaek.

Such extreme aspects of alienation display the tendency to isolate an individual’s life into the deep interior. Therein lies the reason that the individual character’s life, at odds with the world, is so often revealed as being closed off from the outside world in Oh Jung-Hee’s novels. Another characteristic of Oh’s novels is that the characters in discord cannot reconcile with their painful pasts. The characters, for instance, all bear scars: the youth without a father (Woman of the Toy Store and Garden of Childhood); the death of the mother, the elopement of the hunchback sister and the death of a boy (Sanjo); the death of her parent during war (The Soul of the Wind); and the death of an only child (Bronze Mirror). In Oh’s fiction, the wounds of characters who suffer because they are trapped in the past signify the individuals who carry Korean society’s historical scars of war ...