Family: The Decline of the Patriarch, the Rise of the Matriarch

  • onNovember 9, 2014
  • Special Edition 2011
  • byKim Won Il

Trauma, or the Mother as Origin

I think it is no coincidence that the most notable Korean novels on the theme of family have the mother narrative at their core. A mother’s worldview and the values she instills in her children play a defining role in a child’s life. What is the image that comes to mind when we think of mothers? One who protects me, one who will stand by me to the end, one who will sacrifice everything for me. We have been harboring so many selfish prejudices and unjust fantasies of what a mother should be. People often forget that a mother is also a woman, a human being, someone’s daughter, and someone’s wife. People tend to seek relief from the duties of reciprocal relationships in this world by expecting to take and not give back in mother-child relationships.

Our lives consist of being born into a family, creating a new one, and saying goodbye to each member as we grow older and die. The coining of the term, “single-person family” is a testament to how quickly the concept of family is changing today. As the institution of family begins to shrink and disintegrate, people develop and yearn for increasingly romantic and idealistic conceptions of happy families. While it appears as though the family is disintegrating, family is still the most basic building block of society, as well as a source of literature from which literature is born.

Kim Won Il, The House with the Sunken Courtyard

Kim Won Il’s The House with the Sunken Courtyard is a story of a family that loses the father in war. Gilnam, who is forced to take on the role of head of the household at an early age, is groomed by his mother’s authoritarian childrearing. As a child, he must become class monitor or an honor roll student. As an adult, he must become a judge, a doctor, or a wealthy man. This pressure to follow the elite path all the way to the top is an obsession that fuels the success stories of postwar Koreans. All communication with the father is cut off, and the once left-wing father becomes a myth. The mother’s maternal instincts turn controlling and disciplinarian, revealing a healing and protecting nature in an extreme form. For the mother, the son becomes a male figure that rises to fill his father’s shoes. To teach his son that the city is a ruthless place, Gilnam’s mother sends her son on a paper route rather than sending him to school. She adds coldly, “I don’t care if you become hired help at a tavern or a peddler” if he cannot handle a paper route. It was a simpler time when “more pain, more gain” made logical sense. There was nothing more important in life at the time than eluding the grasp of poverty, so the mother naturally taught her son nothing other than survival skills. Gilnam’s mother habitually tells him, “You are now the eldest son of a family without a father. In this world, poverty is the worst sin of all. You know how cruel the world can be to people like us, don’t you?” The House with the Sunken Courtyard portrays the origins of the deep-seated Korean idea that being a classically filial son means being class monitor, valedictorian, and then judge or doctor.

Park Wansuh, Mom’s Stake

Park Wansuh’s Mom’s Stake is set in the distant past when people bought into the idea that anyone who tries can succeed. We see a mother who sees her child’s success as her own success. The mother, who received no education herself and lost her son in the war, seeks to vicariously make all her dreams come true through her daughter. This novel depicts an uncanny portrait of motherhood as a symbol of control and oppression and well of frustrated dreams. The maternal instinct rears its head in the worst form as the mother forces her daughter to be an educated woman and marry a rich husband.

One of Park Wansuh’s talents is her stark uncovering of the unexpected yet fatal wounds and filthy desires hiding behind the happy façade of the middle-class family. The ugly selfishness and materialistic desires lurking behind the perfect housewife façade keeps the tension taut in Park’s novels, which always revolve around the mother figure. Park seems to be gifted in depicting her ambivalent feelings toward her mother who grew up too soon in the throes of war and then lost her husband and son to yet another war. Her life as a lonely widowed mother and grandmother was much longer than her life as a free, young lady. Mom’s Stake is a story of a daughter who belatedly understands her mother by enduring the same pains, which only a mother can understand.

Shin Kyung-sook, Please Look After Mom

Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom is the number one best-selling Korean novel of the past decade. A story about a mother who disappears one day after a lifetime of sacrificing herself to keep the family together, Please Look After Mom created a “Mother Syndrome” in Korea and put the issue of defining “family” on the table. Lately, Korea has seen an increase in the number of people who wage lonely battles to protect themselves as the societal safety net begins to disintegrate. Welfare has taken a turn for the worse, and a general anxiety that “no one is looking out for us” continues to rise. Fathers, to make matters worse, have proven unable to overcome obstacles in the face of various financial crises in recent decades, further disseminating the subconscious message that “mothers are our only hope.” Though Please Look After Mom is a controversial novel that draws a moving picture of a sad, unsettling neo-matriarchal society, some pointed out that Please Look After Mom failed to break free from a hyper-mythologized and sanctified idea of motherhood. If everyone turns to mothers for help, whom should mothers turn to? Please Look After Mom reminds us of the fact that a woman who has spent her life sacrificing herself for the family has another life we do not know about, and that mothers also need mothers and someone’s tender, loving care. Even the most ardent critics of the traditional idea of motherhood confess that they read Please Look After Mom with a tissue in hand. The mother is still very much a figure of pathos and the only one we can count on in a world where no one is to be trusted. Please Look After Mom is one of the best novels of the 21st century to explore the limits and possibilities of the Korean family.

Kim Ae-ran, Run, Pop, Run!

There are still many single mothers in Korea combating social prejudices and handling incredible workloads with superhuman patience and independence. Kim Ae-ran’s short story, “Run, Pop, Run!” is an interesting tale that opens with the first person confession of a girl raised by a single mother. The most refreshing difference between this story and all other stories featuring a single mother or, as a matter of fact, any mother-daughter relationship, is that the usual words associated with these scenarios—pity, sadness, loneliness, and pain—have no place in this story. When an unplanned pregnancy chases the frightened father away, the mother raises her child alone by driving a cab.

In place of such emotionally draining commiserations, they have their sense of humor that bonds them and keeps them going. The mother teaches her daughter not to feel sorry for herself, and that there is nothing shameful about their relationship, just as “there is no shame in buying a standing room ticket.” Instead of using strict, educational rhetoric with her daughter, she communicates with her daughter like a friend or a girl next door, keeping the humor rolling between the two. Through this story, we dream of a family relationship that inspires creations, not one in which a child runs from her parents lest the sins of the latter taints her future, or a parent worries that her child will become an embarrassment. “Run, Pop, Run!” is truly a landmark work for it depicts the first mother-daughter relationship in the history of Korean literature that is not based on resentment or pity.

Toward the Liberation of Motherhood

The economic crises have ushered in an era of neo-matriarchy where fathers have retired to the sidelines and mothers have had to summon superhuman strength to keep things running. In a society where it is becoming increasingly difficult to preserve oneself, let alone take responsibility for a child’s development, education, future, and marriage, mothers have found a way to take full control and bring in change. Past forms of motherhood such as sacrifice and healing have given way to science and methods of commanding and control. Motherhood cannot survive on a mother’s self-effacing sacrifice and a child’s obedience alone. Related or not, both parties must continue to create new lives and challenges.

From The House with the Sunken Courtyard to “Run, Pop, Run!”, Koreans have demonstrated their immutable desire to move to the capital of Seoul and to places more urban with greater cultural opportunities. The family has always been behind the desire to move up society’s vertical hierarchy. From the mother of Mom’s Stake who wants to educate her daughter and see to it that she becomes affluent, to the drama-free mother-daughter relationship in “Run, Pop, Run!”, the mother has been both a symbol of sacrifice and oppression. When we reach “Run, Pop, Run!” we encounter a mother figure who does not try to oppress or control, but is like a friend who wishes to discuss everything and meet her child eye to eye. It took 60 years to get to such a place. The key to the liberation of the family lies in the liberation of mothers. The new act of filial piety, then, is perhaps to liberate our mothers from the burdens of motherhood imposed on them.



1. Le piquet de ma mère
Park Wansuh, Actes Sud, 1993

2. Das Haus am tiefen Hof
Kim Won Il, Iudicium, 2000

3. Run, Pop, Run!
Kim Ae-ran, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2005, 268p, ISBN 9788936436902

4. Please Look After Mom
Shin Kyung-sook, Knopf, 2011