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