[Delve] Is the “villain” of classical literature really evil?

  • onDecember 22, 2020
  • Vol.50 Winter 2020
  • byMaurizio Riotto

In this section, members of our editorial board answer questions about Korean literature culled from an open survey from our readers. Touching upon recent trends, historical antecedents, and literary devices, we hope you enjoy examining some deeper aspects of thoughts readers have had about Korean literature.—Ed.



Is the “villain” of classical literature really evil?

The plots of the classic novels follow a narrative scheme very similar to that of fairy tales, where scholar Vladimir Propp showed the existence of a common structure to all the cultures of the world. According to this structure there is a “sender” and a “recipient,” a “subject” and an “object,” a “helper” and an “enemy.” This also applies to political and religious ideologies: in Christianity the sender is God and the recipient is humankind. The subject is Jesus Christ and the object is Heaven. The helper is the Church and the enemy is the devil. In Marxism, the sender is History, the receiver is humankind. The subject is the working class, the object is a classless society. The helper is the working class itself; the enemy is the bourgeoisie. A “bad character” (real or imaginary), therefore, is necessary (despite the true nature of the character himself) in order to have a complete plot. In this way, we could say that, in the Tale of Chunhyang (õðúÅîî), the sender is the King, the receiver is Korean society. The subject is Chunhyang, the object is the fulfillment of her love and a free marriage. The helper is Mongryong (Ù”×£) and the enemy is the evil Governor Byeon Hakto (ܦùÊ‘³). Whether Byeon Hakto (if he really existed) was actually evil or not does not matter. The evil character is necessary in order to better bring out the virtues of the protagonist. To give a sensational example, in some versions of the novel Hong Gildong-jeon (ûóÑΑÛîî), where the protagonist even challenges the very state (and therefore the King), the quoted King (i.e., Hong Gildong’s opponent) is Sejong (á¦ðó), even if history evaluates Sejong to be an excellent king.

Maurizio Riotto
Philologist, KLN Editorial Board Member