Imagined Spaces: The Apartment in Literature

While apartments filled the physical landscape of the city, the lives of those living in these identical, stifling boxes ignited the imaginations of writers.


Is it heaven or hell? Koreans cannot ask this of the apartment because the apartment in Korea is already a permanent reality. Although the apartment is one of the by-products of the architectural nightmare that was conceived of by modern man, it was the best choice for Korea. Korea is a country that, like a mirage, was built on the ruins of the Korean War. What sustained this country was the power of urbanization and centralization. People who aimlessly moved to Seoul, a Korean megalopolis, provided cheap labor, and their residences were usually traditional houses or shacks. Residential space was always scarce. Also, the city structure, which was a collaboration of every type of residency, was impoverished. As a result of rapid modernization, traditional villages and residential space became saturated. Under those circumstances, the apartment became a middle class dream.

Of course, the apartment could not have been originally considered a normal residential space. In Jo Jung-Rae’s novel The Sloping Shade, written in 1973, the main character Bok-cheon, an old man, learns that “people live in layers on different floors of tall five or six story buildings, not just one or two story buildings,” and finds it strange that “people light fires above someone else’s head, and that someone else lights fires above another; people use the toilet and someone eats meals below them; meanwhile, people bear and raise children; people are laid over other people, and they make a home and live a life over one another.”
Soon, however, the advantages of the apartment emerged. The apartment is a housing style that nakedly reflects the speed of modernization specific to Korea. It is simply a product of historical amnesia. The square, vertical city is built where nature, wetlands, villages, and roads have disappeared without a trace. The residents moving into an apartment building are homogeneous, anonymous beings. Anyone who knows how individuals were destroyed by the impact of a foreign government system, and about the interference of community in Korean modern history, could easily assume what a relief it must have been to hide behind the anonymous space of an apartment. Once the entrance door is closed, they could protect their family with the minimum level of peace allowed to them. Moreover, as their properties became easily quantified, even their lives became abstract and nomadic. Government housing policy was always structured around the apartment, which could have a large effect in a short period of time. In doing so, Korea has become a republic of apartments.

Naturally, numerous Korean literary works find the apartments as their only habitat. The most representative work among all of these is Choi Inho’s The Flower at the Equator (1982). The protagonist of the novel is a man called by his initial, M. He starts peeking in secrecy at every move of a young woman who just moved into the apartment across from him. For more effective observation, he purchases a telescope and starts photographing her with his camera. He thinks, “If I could peek into that apartment through my telescope, I would be able to see every detail of her beautiful face and her sometimes angry or tired expressions, as if I were a pathologist, observing the multiplication of bacteria using a microscope.”

Life in the apartment is visualized in this way, and the residents of the apartment unconsciously suffer from voyeurism. The relationship between “the one who sees” and “the one who is seen” finally makes M entertain a fantasy of power. He intends to intervene and control her life. Therefore, he comes to think, “If I could make her into a plaster sculpture, if I could have her, a living being turned into an object of taxidermy, and if I could stuff her, decorate the surrounding with all kinds of flowers and colorful leaves of the trees, and lay her down around me.” What enables such voyeurism is his solitude, isolated without his family. In the short story "A Stranger's Room" by the same writer, even when a couple lives together, the ghostliness of being does not disappear. In this story, the husband who came back from a business trip slowly turns into an object while reading his wife’s letter that reveals she is having an affair.

1. The Flower at the Equator
Choi Inho
2. A Stranger’s Room
Choi Inho, Minumsa Publishing Group.
2005, 426p, ISBN 9788937420092
3. The Sloping Shade
Jo Jung-Rae, Hainaim Publishing Co., Ltd.
2011, 300p, ISBN 9788965740049

Let us now turn to a brief overview of novels by women, the genuine inhabitants of apartments. The images of these women were portrayed in Choi Inho’s The Flower at the Equator: “What remains are only rooms of the same standard, the spaces of the same size, the partitions of the same structure as anywhere else, and any home in the apartment. Therefore, a woman’s everyday life in this space, laughing, crying, eating, being in love, talking, making love, loathing, and wailing, is merely an apparition, such as a shadow play featured on a screen.”

Park Wansuh’s short story "The Resemblant Rooms," published in 1974, is probably the first fiction that dealt with the space of the apartment and women’s lives. This residential space that was sought out of an expectation of a convenient life is soon regarded as an object of disgust. In the story, life is compared to that of a “prisoner serving a life sentence.” One night, the protagonist in the story goes to the apartment next to hers while the woman next door is away, visiting her parents. She then has sex with the man next door, who was asleep. However, because everything there is just like her own place, it does not even occur to her that she is committing adultery.

Since 1990, the apartment in novels has spread its roots deeper in women’s lives and started to take a bleaker tone. In Jon Kyongnin ’s novel The Woman Herding Goats, the protagonist keeps calling to ask about the price of a house by the river. However, she and her friends are not able to escape the ap...