2013 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior first place
first place, senior essay division
The Optimistic Rhinoceros
The day the world began to burn, nobody bothered to look. Speeches were given, or rather yelled, while smartly uniformed masses marched by on clean streets. On the outside, everyone was happy for the safety and unity their state would give them. Only later did history look back with horror and realize what suffering was caused by those first flames.
This story could relate to any number of regimes. Students of history are perpetually surprised by the similarities in between totalitarian states. In fact, the story is likely to be retold in a new country soon enough. How do populaces capitulate to the destructive force of tyranny? That is the question which Our Twisted Hero, a satirical allegory by Yi Mun-yol about schoolchildren that fall under the tyranny of a class monitor named Sokdae, attempts to answer. Yi’s question is mirrored by another author who saw his friends fall to totalitarianism, Eugene Ionesco. In Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros, the citizens of a small town in France begin to spontaneously turn into angry rhinoceroses. In the absurdity that follows, only one non-conformist named Bergenger is left in a sea of pachyderms. Rhinoceros symbolizes the failure of citizens to stand up to the rise of fascism and Nazism in the 1930s. Although Rhinoceros and Our Twisted Hero were written at different times and on different sides of the globe, the situations they pose are similar.
In both works, the characters have analogous rationales for supporting totalitarianism. In Our Twisted Hero, the students’ reasons for supporting Sokdae are simple. As Han Pyongt’ae puts it, “system of enforced allocation meant our class had more perks than any other class. For example, the walls were crammed to overflowing with expensive frames. With him as captain, our team won every contest with other classes” (30). In Rhinoceros, the town’s citizens become rhinoceroses out of an urge for unity. They want to fit in, and know that they would be ostracized if they did not. Historically, these justifications accurately represent the emotions of citizens under a burgeoning totalitarian state.
In addition, the totalitarian states’ downsides in both Hero and Rhinoceros are disregarded. Except for Pyongt’ae and Berenger, everybody in Hero and Rhinoceros capitulates to the demands of the state. Sokdae’s subjects allow themselves to be beaten and robbed. The French townsfolk allow themselves to turn into rhinoceroses, heralding an end to their humanity. Subjects in both stories surrender their human rights in exchange for perceived security and the comfort of unity.
Of course, the positives to each story’s totalitarianism quickly become overshadowed by the negatives. There is some irony that in Hero, Sokdae’s subjects allow Sokdae to thrash them just so that smaller students do not similarly harm them. In Rhinoceros, the townsfolk end up losing everything they loved — art, music, and sitting around on Sunday afternoons in small cafés — in their effort to preserve those very loves. In the end, when students in Sokdae’s class get the opportunity to throw off their shackles, they respond with such vigor and become so involved in their attempt at redemptive democracy afterwards that one must question why they put up with totalitarianism in the first place.
Why do humans capitulate? Perhaps Pyongt’ae’s insight into the ‘real world’ is accurate: “I took a step back and managed to see the world more clearly…Here Om Sokdae began to reappear from the dim past. In a world like this, Sokdae would certainly become class monitor again — of this I was sure” (122). Berenger similarly finds himself questioning whether he should become a rhinoceros and capitulate. All seems lost for both Berenger and Pyongt’ae.
But these stories are not about capitulation. Our Twisted Hero highlights the optimistic rebellion that is necessary for the advancement of the human condition. Even through its injustices, Hero is ultimately a book of triumph. Pyongt’ae gets beaten down by Sokdae, but his spirit never truly dies. If Pyongt’ae did not fight for so long against Sokdae and plant seeds of doubt, even a change in teachers probably could not have broken Sokdae’s grip on the class.
Pyongt’ae closes with the line, “In the end, I shed a few tears, but whether they were for me or for , whether from relief for the world, or from a new pessimism, I still really don’t know” (127). Although Pyongt’ae regrets the toll which his fight took on him, he cannot help but realize the benefits for the world at large.
Rhinoceros closes similarly. In the last, emotional lines of the play, Berenger decides, “Against everyone, I will defend myself! I am the last man; I will stay to the end! I will not capitulate!” In Berenger’s resilience, too, lies humanity’s hope.
We currently face many challenges to the prosperity of humanity. However, that a class of schoolchildren could overcome the seemingly inescapable tyranny of Sokdae; that millions of Koreans could persistently fight for what they knew was right; these are testaments to the existence of something greater than the unity totalitarianism promises. This something is the ultimate unity of the human spirit.
Yi Mun-yol’s allegory could relate to any country in any time; past, present, and future. Without people like Berenger or Pyongt’ae, society is lost. That is why these stories are optimistic. The only way forward, we learn, is to struggle against that which is unjust. Currently, we are faced with international struggles that are to be decided by people like those in Pyongt’ae’s class. But when I look at the news and am deluged with pictures of the struggles in Syria, Egypt, and North Korea, I am filled with not just grief but also hope. I trust in my brothers and sisters, no matter what country or race, to fight for the virtue which they deserve. I remember that for every Sokdae that threatens a peaceful world, there will be a Pyongt’ae to combat him, and a Berenger to fight even when nobody else will.
I know that their struggles, too, shall pass.