Family: The Decline of the Patriarch, the Rise of the Matriarch

Trauma, or the Mother as Origin

I think it is no coincidence that the most notable Korean novels on the theme of family have the mother narrative at their core. A mother’s worldview and the values she instills in her children play a defining role in a child’s life. What is the image that comes to mind when we think of mothers? One who protects me, one who will stand by me to the end, one who will sacrifice everything for me. We have been harboring so many selfish prejudices and unjust fantasies of what a mother should be. People often forget that a mother is also a woman, a human being, someone’s daughter, and someone’s wife. People tend to seek relief from the duties of reciprocal relationships in this world by expecting to take and not give back in mother-child relationships.

Our lives consist of being born into a family, creating a new one, and saying goodbye to each member as we grow older and die. The coining of the term, “single-person family” is a testament to how quickly the concept of family is changing today. As the institution of family begins to shrink and disintegrate, people develop and yearn for increasingly romantic and idealistic conceptions of happy families. While it appears as though the family is disintegrating, family is still the most basic building block of society, as well as a source of literature from which literature is born.

Kim Won Il, The House with the Sunken Courtyard

Kim Won Il’s The House with the Sunken Courtyard is a story of a family that loses the father in war. Gilnam, who is forced to take on the role of head of the household at an early age, is groomed by his mother’s authoritarian childrearing. As a child, he must become class monitor or an honor roll student. As an adult, he must become a judge, a doctor, or a wealthy man. This pressure to follow the elite path all the way to the top is an obsession that fuels the success stories of postwar Koreans. All communication with the father is cut off, and the once left-wing father becomes a myth. The mother’s maternal instincts turn controlling and disciplinarian, revealing a healing and protecting nature in an extreme form. For the mother, the son becomes a male figure that rises to fill his father’s shoes. To teach his son that the city is a ruthless place, Gilnam’s mother sends her son on a paper route rather than sending him to school. She adds coldly, “I don’t care if you become hired help at a tavern or a peddler” if he cannot handle a paper route. It was a simpler time when “more pain, more gain” made logical sense. There was nothing more important in life at the time than eluding the grasp of poverty, so the mother naturally taught her son nothing other than survival skills. Gilnam’s mother habitually tells him, “You are now the eldest son of a family without a father. In this world, poverty is the worst sin of all. You know how cruel the world can be to people like us, don’t you?” The House with the Sunken Courtyard portrays the origins of the deep-seated Korean idea that being a classically filial son means being class monitor, valedictorian, and then judge or doctor.

Park Wansuh, Mom’s Stake

Park Wansuh’s Mom’s Stake is set in the distant past when people bought into the idea that anyone who tries can succeed. We see a mother who sees her child’s success as her own success. The mother, who received no education herself and lost her son in the war, seeks to vicariously make all her dreams come true through her daughter. This novel depicts an uncanny portrait of motherhood as a symbol of control and oppression and well of frustrated dreams. The maternal instinct rears its head in the worst form as the mother forces her daughter to be an educated woman and marry a rich husband.

One of Park Wansuh’s talents is her stark uncovering of the unexpected yet fatal wounds and filthy desires hiding behind the happy façade of the middle-class family. The ugly selfishness and materialistic desires lurking behind the perfect housewife façade keeps the tension taut in Park’s novels, which always revolve around the mother figure. Park seems to be gifted in depicting her ambivalent feelings toward her mother who grew up too soon in the throes of war and then lost her husband and son to yet another war. Her life as a lonely widowed mother and grandmother was much longer than her life as a free, young lady. Mom’s Stake is a story of a daughter who belatedly understands her mother by enduring the same pains, which only a mother can understand.

Shin Kyung-sook, Please Look After Mom

Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom is the number one best-selling Korean novel of the past decade. A story about a mother who disappears one day after a lifetime of sacrificing herself to keep the family together, Please Look After Mom created a “Mother Syndrome” in Korea and put the issue of defining “family” on the table. Lately, Korea has seen an increase in the nu...