Mothers and Daughters: Narratives of Affection, Sympathy, Resentment, and Solidarity

  • onSeptember 25, 2020
  • Vol.49 Autumn 2020
  • bySunwoo Eunsil
ⓒ Eomju

"What makes a human being?”—a question that literature has long been exploring—is related to the context of human existence which establishes itself through relationships. From the time we are born to the time we become members of society and ultimately to the time we die, we live under the influence of other people. Since we gain meaning through our relationships with others—the relationships that are in turn shaped by our context—we and the people in our lives function as mirrors for one another.

It is in this context that we can try to understand the themes that have gained traction in Korean literature, particularly those of gender and the mother-daughter relationship. Recent mother-daughter narratives shed light on the differences in the perspectives of the mother, whose generation underwent their own gender issues within a strict patriarchal system, and those of the daughter, who watched those experiences unfold. In doing so, the narratives also make plain how (im)possible those differences are to bridge. In these narratives, the four characteristics that broadly define a mother-daughter relationship are affection, sympathy, resentment, and solidarity. In a traditional heterosexual patriarchy, a mother is defined by the role she plays as someone’s mother, wife, or daughter-in-law. The daughter observes her mother, who carries out the tasks of childbirth, childcare, housework, and care of her family. Because the daughter herself is a beneficiary of this motherly labor, both emotional and physical, she tries to muster feelings of compassion and love for her mother. However, the daughter also cannot help but be disappointed by her mother, who she sees as enslaved by the heterosexual patriarchal system. She imagines how her mother must have been in her past life, when she was merely someone’s daughter and another young woman like herself. By imagining her mother in her own position today, the daughter wrestles with the question of why—why did her mother choose this life over another? When the daughter realizes that the choices made by her mother and the resulting consequences are related to her own choices, she feels a sense of responsibility, as she sees that her mother’s life and her own lie within each other’s sphere of influence as members of the same family, as women, and as individuals. Within this emotional rollercoaster of love and resentment, mother and daughter attempt to understand one another. These attempts are significant as they force mother and daughter to reflect upon themselves from an outside point of view.


Within Each Other’s Sphere of Influence: “A Thousand Tales of Weeping Willows” by Kwon Yeo-sun

In one of the more memorable scenes in this story, the mother and daughter are shown to refer to each other not as “mom” or “daughter” but by their first names. Chaewoon grew up believing her mother would one day leave her and her family; when her parents end up getting a divorce, making her fears a reality, she suffers a panic attack—the world she depended on has disappeared for good. Feeling trapped in an unhappy marriage, Banhee, Chaewoon’s mother, would often leave home for days at a time but always come back, not because of her husband or her son but for her daughter Chaewoon. When she finally stumbles upon this realization, Banhee decides to file for divorce so as not to pass on her unhappy life to her daughter. Later, while on a short trip by themselves, the two women share how they felt on that fateful day, and reveal what it means to distance oneself in an effort to better understand each other at arm’s length. Through that scene, the reader senses that the mother and daughter are not unalike; each hopes that her own unhappiness will not be endured by the other.


Reversal of Roles: “Songs Erased from the Greatest Hits Album” by Seo Ije

As a daughter grows older, her mother’s role transitions from that of guardian in charge of raising and teaching her child to that of recipient of her grown daughter’s care. The daughter, a young woman who has recently embarked on her own professional career, begins to realize her mother has a life outside of being someone’s mom, that she is in fact her own person. The daughter wrestles with how to help her mother retrieve the remainder of a life she forfeited to live as a mother. In the story, the daughter recognizes that her mother could have chosen to live an unmoored life, free from the shackles of being someone’s mother or wife. When her mother admits that she would like to take up learning music again by going to school or if not that, then by way of private lessons, she reveals how a woman can reflect on her own life as something separate from the role that society has placed upon her. At the same time, the mother’s wish—to realize what she can of her childhood dreams this late in life—reminds the daughter how her own youth was contingent upon the sacrifice of her mother’s youth. This realization inspires a sense of responsibility and affection for her mother. As their relationship evolves and in some instances, sees a reversal of roles, mother and daughter find themselves becoming closer and more willing to lean on each other, but this time as strictly independent beings.


Inter-Dependence, Resentment, and the Wish to be Free: “The Legacy of Camilla Nunnery” by Cheon Heerahn

When discussing the feelings of affection and responsibility between a mother and her daughter, we must remember that as long as this relationship is kept within the context of a heterosexual patriarchy, it is not going to be good and healthy all the time. In this story, we meet Laura, who witnesses her mother repeatedly fail in her attempts at heterosexual romance within the traditional family context of mom, dad, and child. The story’s descriptions of Camilla Convent, a place for women who do not fall within the definition of a traditional family, are highly symbolic. Inside this convent, which is situated within a patriarchal society yet offers women a place for independent living, Laura’s mother tries desperately to return to her old life by grasping at any chance of a romantic relationship. Watching this unfold, Laura falls into a state of learned anxiety, which is also quite memorable. Laura, who is forced to endure a heightened state of anxiety due to her mother’s repeated attempts at relationships, tries to break free from this influence by killing her mother. Unfortunately, the mother-daughter influence is too great to be severed so easily. Drawing upon the literary style of a Gothic thriller, this story shows how a daughter’s attachment to her mother and her increasing anxiety are tied to a patriarchal society.


A Relationship of Solidarity: “Taking the Wheel” by Jo Woori

In this story, mother and daughter accept the peculiarities in their lives as something to come to terms with, instead of as reasons for debating what constitutes a form of life within the universal/general discourse. The themes are composed of the characters’ attitudes toward women and gender and to the extent that they are shaped by relationships rather than by the different events that occur in their lives. The daughter and protagonist of the story, who is queer, has relationship troubles with her partner. She goes to stay with her mother to ride out the storm, and it is there that her mother suggests she take up driving lessons. As we tag along with the daughter, her mother, and Geumja, the mother’s Chinese-born friend, on their driving lessons with a male driving instructor, the story focuses on the female gender. Through the mother and Geumja, readers are made aware of the different layers that make up the experience of particular women—that of older female worker and female immigrant worker employed in Korea. Through the daughter’s relationship with her queer partner, we are made to consider how we engage in solidarity with one another through love during times of inevitable conflict. In these ways and more, the story reveals the possibility of gender solidarity by encompassing the various women living within the social periphery.


I once heard that while sons want the same moms in their next life, daughters hope their moms will not come back as their mothers ever again, even if it means they don’t get to have a next life at all. This difference in perspective is due to the heterosexual patriarchal system. Within this system, the traditional family unit of mother, father, and children faithfully carries out the “normal” family ideology. And within this unit, the mother must play a certain role. The daughter’s observations of her mother’s reasons for existence inspire critical thinking on the issue of gender. Stories that attempt to feel out these issues are more than just fiction. The fact that so many stories focus on the mother-daughter relationship while each describing a different approach urges readers to think about the kind of life we should strive for by better understanding gender issues and relationships among women.


Translated by Amber Hyun Jung Kim