Alienation and Introspection; The Crisis and Loss of Identity

  • onOctober 27, 2014
  • Vol.2 Winter 2008
  • byKim Seungok

Every individual possesses a unique identity and that fact alone makes him an independent being. At the same time, the individual’s tangible lifestyle is deeply tied to the society to which he belongs. Therefore, his individuality is not formed autonomously or independently, but rather worked out in a social group setting. An individual’s identity was somewhat fixed and stable in traditional society because the social structure established the boundaries of thought and action, thereby clearly imposing a social role on the individual. Through this process, the individual is born as a member of a collective body and lives as a part of the stable world. However, as a result of changes and expansions in the social structure and the accelerating complexity of the modern age, issues of identity have become increasingly more unstable and fluid. Faced with structural changes in the mechanized and uniform modern indust-rial society, individuals have no choice but to feel alienated.

In the Korean context, one observes that society in the modern era has undergone a period of structural change through colonization and war, as well as the process of transforming into an industrial state. The individual has become alienated, symbolized, objectified, and deconstructed, owing to the social system, group mentality, and the mechanism of industrialization. Thus, the individual is hurried away from the core of his life, incurring internal dissociation. This is the state of ontological alienation. Such ontological modalities of the individual were formed through symbolic individual characters in Korean literature.

The process of alienation – the diminished and reduced individual – signifies the position of the symbolic individual in modern society who has attained universality in concrete works of fiction. Moreover, it could also be understood as a sign of the degradation of the individual’s value in society. The fictional characters are depicted as victims of the fissure between the individual ideal and the social reality. In such situations, the individual’s experience of absurdity, like the crisis or loss of identity, is an experience of existence itself.

The alienation of fictional characters in modern Korean novels can be summarized as a process of the loss of identity. The condition of the once individual character becoming adapted to his surroundings can be described as the condition of losing his identity, which in the end leads to a decisive obstacle in terms of self-actualization. The urban human relationships in Kim Seungok’s novels are good examples that illustrate
how individuals’ modalities of the self become anonymous. Kim’s superb works of short fiction are fine, astute observations of the huge changes put into full-scale operation by industrialization, urbanization, and modernization. Since signs of change were most conspicuous in the city, it is no wonder that his works are filled with city dwellers. Seoul- 1964 - Winter presents a microcosm of urban human relationships.
Through this work, the author not only clearly and vividly visualizes human relationships amidst the huge changes of urbanization, but also provokes the reader to consider how they differ from the old agrarian community.


1 The Walls of Rumor
Yi Chong-Jun, Yolimwon, 1988, 392pp., ISBN 89-7063-159-3
2 Garden of Childhood
Oh Jung-Hee, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd. 2002, 295pp., ISBN 89-320-0987-2
3 Seoul - 1964 - Winter
Kim Seungok, Malgeunsori, 2008, 142pp., ISBN 89-8050-164-1 03810
4 There, a Petal Falls in Silence
Ch'oe Yun, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd. 2006, 311pp., ISBN 89-320-0578-8
5 The River
Seo Jeong-in, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd. 2007, 336pp., ISBN 89-320-0837-X


Seo Jeong-in’s portraits of the hollow every day and the bleak psychological descriptions of the fictional characters stuck in it penetrate into the heart of modern society. Through commonplace scenes, his novella “The River” exposes the fragmented daily life from a cynical perspective. One side of this cynicism turns into a blunt critique of philistinism in works like Najudaek.

Such extreme aspects of alienation display the tendency to isolate an individual’s life into the deep interior. Therein lies the reason that the individual character’s life, at odds with the world, is so often revealed as being closed off from the outside world in Oh Jung-Hee’s novels. Another characteristic of Oh’s novels is that the characters in discord cannot reconcile with their painful pasts. The characters, for instance, all bear scars: the youth without a father (Woman of the Toy Store and Garden of Childhood); the death of the mother, the elopement of the hunchback sister and the death of a boy (Sanjo); the death of her parent during war (The Soul of the Wind); and the death of an only child (Bronze Mirror). In Oh’s fiction, the wounds of characters who suffer because they are trapped in the past signify the individuals who carry Korean society’s historical scars of war and poverty.

The individual in Ch’oe Yun’s novels, who retreats into the interior, also displays the tendency to obsess only about the past. The recurring flashbacks are both evidence of the fear of psychological trauma and self-confirmation of someone who has given up on life. The May 1980 Gwangju uprising is the subject of There, a Petal Falls in Silence. Even though the shock of the historical events is repeated and ruminated on in the consciousness of the fictional character, direct and clear references to the actual event are continuously withheld because the events are approached from the interior perspective of a young girl who has been damaged and shattered while experiencing an extremely inhumane and violent situation. Such self-confirmation whereby she relieves her agony, incorporates the position of the author, who does not forget the past easily and intends to work out a suitable rationalization.

In short, the modern Korean novel embodies concerns about how to salvage the ontological significance of the individual when a genuine connection to the world becomes impossible. As previously discussed, this issue originates, above all, from an understanding of reality after experiencing the Korean War, the April 19 uprising, and the May 16 coup. By showing the process whereby issues of alienation and interior exploration are expressed through the rough tides of war and ideology, scenes of poverty, hunger and death, Yi Chong-Jun’s works turn into a philosophical inquiry about language and the artistic spirit, thereby setting an important precedent for modern Korean novels.

In The Wall of Rumors, Yi not only explores the lost self, but also attempts to investigate the relationship with the external enemy that it confronts: the existential conditions. Anguishing over the reason that the protagonist of The Discharge has to suffer from madness, having lost language and even desire, the novel focuses on the problem of language. In particular, in light of Yi’s contemporary society in which language had been degraded to a corrupted tool by the ruling ideology under the Yushin regime, his anguish over language goes beyond mere literary allegorical significance. Seeking the lost language is the task undertaken by a series of introductions to sociolinguistics, including the novels, The Wall of RumorsWandering RumorsHe is Writing His AutobiographyDomination and Liberation, and Empty Room. These works reflect Yi’s view that language has moved away from the essence of existence and the reality of life, and begun to degrade into a uniform utility and a violent, heteronomous order.

Furthermore, in his work Southern People, Yi seeks an order of liberation, an order of freedom that not only keeps itself from betraying the reality of life but also unites language and life to create a new order of life. Through the world of pansori, Southern People (adapted into the film Seopyeonje by Im Kwon-taek), represents a literary space where, at a point of climax where the national language and image have been sublimated, there is the possibility of transformation into a creative eastern aesthetic of life without separating the world of language, the word, and life or causing tension. As demonstrated by Yi’s works, the world of an artist represents the maximum value of his effort to overcome the sense of loss and defeat through introspection. For a true artist wholly manifests his life through the horizon of his works. 



Kim Seungok
1941 –
Born in Osaka, Japan, Kim grew up in Korea after returning to his homeland in 1945. A leading writer of the 1960s, he is the author of Journey to Mujin and Seoul-1964-Winter. Around the time of the Gwangju democratization movement in 1980, he discontinued his novel serialized in a newspaper and gave up writing.

Seo Jeong-in
1936 –
Born in Suncheon, Jeollanam-do (province). His leading works include The River, Scissors, Moon Palace, and Evacuation. He is recognized for his ”realism of word and sound,” his distinct literary style, and elaborate composition.

Oh Jung-Hee
Born in Seoul. Her well-known works include Woman of the Toy Store, Garden of Childhood, and Bird, many of which have been translated into English, French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Chinese, and Japanese.
Ch'oe Yun
1953 –
Born in Seoul, Choi is a novelist, a literary critic, and a French literature scholar. Her leading works include There, a Petal Falls in Silence, The Grey Snowman, and The Last of Hanak'o, which have been published in English and Spanish.

Yi Chong-Jun
1939 – 2008
Born in Jangheung, Jeollanam-do (province), Yi is the author of Seopyeonje, Io Island, The Wounded, and Festival, many of which have been translated into English, German, Italian, Turkish, Chinese, and Japanese. After he died of cancer last summer, he was posthumously awarded the Geumgwan Order of Cultural Merit by the Korean government.