The Twilight Years

The Elderly in Literature: Towards a New Literary Possibility

from the wall sculpture, War & Women's Human Right Museum

What does it mean to be old? The elderly live in weak bodies that are biologically incapable of reproduction, do not participate in the economy due to their loss of productive capacity, exist as surplus beings that await aging and death, and have grown all too familiar with feelings of isolation and loneliness. Perhaps this is why they have remained in the background instead of taking the center stage in Korean literature. The elderly have been portrayed as peripheral figures and treated like objects. This socially disadvantaged group needs protection from their family and society. In literary works, they often lack a sense of identity and serve as mere props that illuminate the problematic reality around them, or as objects deprived of the right of self-determination. As a result, the elderly have existed as objects and not subjects both inside and outside of literature. 

Since the 2000s, writers who began writing in the 1950s and 1960s grew older, and Korean literature began featuring the elderly as narrative subjects. These characters are an autobiographical reflection of the writers themselves, and offer an intimate look at the ecology of old age. At the same time, these writers are fully aware that they are peripheral figures isolated from society. Because they have acknowledged the fact they are no longer at the center of society, they are able to deliver a more realistic view of the problems faced as marginalized beings. What allows them to adopt a more comprehensive approach is that they have lived through turbulent times including the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, the April 19 revolution, October Yushin, and the Gwangju democratic movement. As such, the elderly can provide insights by bringing a modern perspective to the past or applying traditional principles to the future.

With their vast experiences and multifaceted approaches, Park Wansuh and Kim Won Il are prominent writers of literature concerning the elderly. The two writers are particularly interesting as their works are an inquiry into the problem of elderly women. The existential condition of being female and old holds special meaning in Korean society, which is still deeply influenced by its history of wars. A young girl dragged off to the battlefield and forced to become a comfort woman, a wife who is widowed after losing her husband in war, a woman who sells her body to foreigners to make a living in a place where men are left dead or paralyzed—these are women who have been colonized by Korean men, in addition to enduring Korea’s history as a colonized nation. A literary survey of elderly women who have survived the Japanese occupation and years of war will allow a physical embodiment of the ironic reality in a private, public, and historical manner. Park Wansuh and Kim Won Il, both with their unique styles, have examined the past and present of Korean society by dealing with the status of elderly women.

1. Kindhearted Bokhee
Park Wansuh, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2007, 302p, ISBN 9788932018140

2. The Loneliness of You
Park Wansuh, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2000, 303p, ISBN 9788936436520

3. An Illustration of a Dim Day
Park Wansuh, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2002, 356p, ISBN 9788932013312

4. Summer of Revenge
Park Wansuh, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2006, 470p, ISBN 9788954601931

 Since early on, the late Park Wansuh (1931~2011) attached importance to elderly women in her novels. In "A Pasque-Flower on That Bleak Day" (1977), an old woman voluntarily enters prostitution when the U.S. soldiers who invade the town demand a young bride to fulfill their sexual desires. It tells the story of a wrinkly old woman selling her body to soldiers in order to protect the virginity of young girls and to maintain gender order. The book reflects the tragedy of the Korean War on the surface, but upon closer examination, we find a crude message that exposes the wretchedness of an old woman’s body. This was followed by "Grandma Judy" (1981). The protagonist, Grandma Judy, is an attractive lady “with white and still full breasts, and a lascivious line running from her legs to hips.” Moreover, she enjoys a high social status, is happily married, and is a mother to a successful son. But in the end, she is revealed to be a concubine, and her attractive body becomes the subject of mockery. In her early novels, Park represented elderly women as possessing overly grotesque bodies to depict the tragedy of war, or through them, attacked the false consciousness of middle-class women who were financially well-off but unrefined. 

Park moves on from using elderly women as a means of exposing hierarchical and generational conflicts to placing them as the narrative subject in her collection...