Industrialization and Democratization; A Tumultuous Era - The Literature of Melancholy and Passion

The 1970s was the most prolific period for novels in modern Korean history, as evidenced by the increase in the volume of publications, the emergence of problematic bestsellers, the revitalization of the literary media, and the high prestige of liter-ature during the decade. Above all, prominent writers like Park Wansuh, Hwang Sok-yong, Lee Mun Ku, Cho Se-Hui, and Choi Inho either entered the literary scene or published exceptional works. If the novel were a flower, this was a time when it was no longer a bud but reached full bloom. However, the 1970s was, in fact, also a strange, painful, and unfortunate period. Modernization was pursued under a mass mobilization system. While the country was able to step out of the shadow of extreme poverty, it failed to form a rational labor structure or lifestyle suitable for the ensuing economic changes. As a result of the rapid development under Park Chung-hee’s political leadership, state fetishism surged and the everyday world fell into ruin.

Moreover, the Park Chung-hee administration’s project of national modernization was promoted in a totalitarian and paternalistic way after the emergence of the Yushin system (revitalizing reforms), and therefore ushered in a dark age of politics that utterly stifled modern liberation ideals like freedom, democracy, and benevolence. Owing to the anti-communist, authoritarian, growth-driven ideology at the time, combined with the “October Yushin,” the protagonists of the 1970s novels expressed an oppression and powerlessness akin to the sense of being crushed by monsters. However, the 1970s was also a time cohabitated by sorrow and hope, as well as depression and passion. Squirming behind the feelings of hysterical depression was a desire for freedom as well as a critical spirit resisting oppression and injustice. In the words of Kojin Karatani, “The novel was an expression standing in for political action in a time that rendered the latter impossible.” The novel was not the exclusive domain of literary youth but also a handbook of consciousness and a space of contemporary public dialogue for intellectuals.

Novels from the 1970s provided a sharp illumination of condensed modernization. In particular, Gwanchon Essays and Our Town by the late Lee Mun Ku illustrate the destructive power of modernization through the sorrows of a displaced man. Lee’s works are based on his personal life. Born into an aristocratic family in Chungcheong-do (province), he lost his leftist father during the Korean War. Then after losing both his siblings and his mother, he left his hometown as a war orphan, only to descend into the lowest urban class and return back to the countryside. Thus, through a process of exile and return, the writer experienced the violence of a modernity that eventually destroyed everything. Gwanchon Essays embodies the process by which Lee’s father, an aristocratic Chinese classics scholar of a bygone age, and the good-hearted neighbors of his youth, are damaged and trampled in the rough sea of modern history. The writer Kim Joo-young, a contemporary of Lee, praised Lee’s novel as a masterpiece that every Korean novelist wished to write but few were capable of doing, for the novel depicts the depths of Korean modernization through an astonishingly beautiful and melancholy evocation of language. On the other hand, Our Town exposes the reality of farming villages, which were exploited by cities and oppressed by the tyranny of government authorities. That is to say, the novel articulates a critical voice against government-driven modernization. Lee’s characters, who protest against the unjust world in their own ways, differ from the powerless and naïve farmers and fishermen from the Korean literature of the enlightenment; the local color has nothing to do with reactionary tastes.


1 Our Town
Lee Mun Ku, Minumsa, 2005, 435pp., ISBN 89-374-2006-6 04810
2 The Land of Strangers
Hwang Sok-yong, Changbi Publishers, Inc., 2000, 436pp., ISBN 89-364-1003-2 03810
3 Gwanchon Essays
Lee Mun Ku, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd., 2006, 399pp., ISBN 89-320-0814-0
4 A Bad Harvest in the City
Park Wansuh, Segyesa Publishing Co., Ltd., 2002, 438pp., ISBN 89-338-0027-1 03810
5 Hometown of the Stars
Choi Inho, Samtoh Co., Ltd, 1973, 310pp., ISBN 200-17-8300035-3
6 A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball
Cho Se-Hui, Iseonggwa Him, 2008, 351pp., ISBN 89-951512-0-X 03810


Lee portrays the melancholy of the modern man in the third world. His characters have been banished from the kingdom of freedom, but they wander restlessly because they can neither fully acknowledge their loss nor return to the past.

In contrast, Park Wansuh brings to light the dark side of growth by using precise language. Her primary works include the novels A Faltering Afternoon and A Bad Harvest in the City; and the short stories “The Camera and Walkers,” “Teaching Humiliation,” “Near Buddha,” “The Cries of an Earthworm,” and “Similar-looking Rooms.” Through detailed and keen observations of the every day, these works depict the philistine tendency unique to Korean society – a uniform lifestyle and a hollow spirit – and the colonized aspects of a life that has lost its vitality. In particular, Park focuses on the fact that public support for the national modernization project overlapped with envy for the sweet home and women of the materially affluent middle class. The middle-class home becomes the principal location of her fiction, and middle-class women emerge as critical narrators. The Korean War generation tried to compensate for their wounds by achieving a prosperous life. As a result, fantasies about the family and maternal ideology were reinforced. Park was a full-time homemaker until she published her first work at age 40. Based on her experiences as a housewife, she deconstructed the convention of positing the middle-class home and woman as a sanctum. The home is portrayed as a place that conceals falsehoods, while female protagonists are anxious like mental patients on the verge of hysterics, hardly warm-hearted or docile.

Hwang Sok-yong should be included on any list of prominent writers from the 1970s. He has been an unparalleled talent who declared his resistance against the abuses of industrialization and the political repression of the ...