2015 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior second place
second place, senior essay division
In the eyes of an innocent young girl, the world is a mix of confusion, bewilderment, and misunderstandings. It is a world in which a woman feels humiliated for being called a “widow,” and one in which heartfelt relationships fail due to societal oppressions and restraints. It is the world of South Korea in early 1900s, where western influences and modernization was blooming in the cities and where Ok-hui, the young narrator of Chu Yo-Sôp’s “Mama and the Boarder,” lives in. By using Ok-hui and her innocent voice to narrate his story, Chu not only heightens the emotions of vulnerability and mysteriousness in the widowed mother’s affectionate relationship with the visitor in her house, but also sheds light on the restricted nature of the Confucian South Korean society.
Ok-hui’s naive interpretation of her surroundings may initially seem bewildering to the audience, as they seem to contradict the actions the characters actually take in the story. However, as the plot progresses, it becomes evident that her mother and the visitor in her house are sustaining a fragile, yet emotionally intimate relationship through allusions to eggs, letters, and red faces. Consequently, Ok-hui becomes an essential tool in stressing the discreetness of their love. By characterizing their blushes as “angry” expressions and constantly misinterpreting their feelings, Ok-hui intensifies the enigma of her mother’s relationship and accentuates their internal struggles and dilemma by offering a completely contradictory, delightful voice into their story. Through Ok-hui’s naive understanding of the complications of human relations, the story’s concise plot becomes an extensive observation of love, pain, and the fragility of continuing such emotions.
Furthermore, Ok-hui’s innocent and pure voice stands out from the story’s deep connections to societal norms and pressure, revealing Chu’s attempt to critique the nation’s continuing attachment to orthodoxy and Confucian traditions that destroy the flourishing of human emotions and criticize innocence. Although both the mother and the visitor share and recognize their affection through hidden letters and the secret encounter at the church, they ultimately sacrifice their love to abide by the social traditions of the nation and its strict guidelines to Confucianism and preserving family relations. Especially at a time when remarriages, especially by a woman, was considered unconventional and unorthodox, their relationship is dealt with great caution. It is through Ok-hui’s pure and innocuous thoughts that such anomalies emerge from the text; her straightforward and honest remarks to the visitor, such as when she hopes that he would be her father, are only responded back with “red” faces and discomfort. What should have been a fruition of a heartfelt relationship ends in a painful separation, and the naivety of the narrator reveals that it is not their true emotions, but the norms of society that drive her mother's relationship to a stop.
Authors often use characters who are not affected by societal values and who are able to express their opinions with piercing clarity and honesty that they consequently reveal the faults of a society to the audience. One of the predominant examples of such usage is shown in J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” a coming-of-age story of Holden Caulfield and his aimless journey in New York City to figure out himself and the world around him. Throughout the story, Holden meets and talks to many of his acquaintances as he travels around the city in an attempt to resolve the clash between his resistance to adulthood and the natural process of becoming one.
Although Holden is neither as naive nor as young as Ok-hui, he is still considered an outsider in the materialistic and superficial society of “adults” and is unable to assimilate himself to the world he is required to confront with. Through his ardent refusal to accept his growth into an adult and the struggles and the discomfort he faces as he attempts to “act” like one, the audience realizes the faults of the society in its heightening obsession with materialism, capitalism, and appearance.
Furthermore, Phoebe Caulfield, Holden’s sister, adds further insights that are as innocent as Ok-hui and more thoughtful than any other character in the novel. When she meets troubled Holden and joyfully rides on a Merry-Go-Around near her school, she reminds him through the ride that childlike innocence always returns back to its place, just like how the Merry-Go-Around in rotates once and comes back to its initial position. Similar to Chu for using Ok-hui, Salinger uses Holden and Phoebe as symbols of naivety and resistance to the norm to bring out the failures of their society and its pressure for children to accept immorality for apparent satisfaction.
In pursuit of status and acceptance, people often forget to question whether the rules that they are following, or the practices considered the “norm” in their society are actually righteous or not. The voices of Ok-hui, Holden and Phoebe are all examples of such “questions” that need to be asked. For the sake of following what is pragmatic and “normal,” Ok-hui’s mother lost her love, and Holden’s acquaintances are indulged in wealth and superficiality. In times of such oppression and anomie, Chu and Salinger reveal the true faults that are rooted in the society through their dichotomy with innocent, rather "abnormal" narrators. The question, asked by Chu in 1935, and Salinger in 1951, is now asked to the modern generation. It is through the reflection on these stories that they must consider what is truly righteous for themselves: the pursuit of what is only shown through the surface, or what is actually underneath.