2015 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior third place
NOT a Happily Ever After

Having received education in Korea, Japan, China, as well as the U.S., author Chu Yo-sop adopted a perspective much more liberal than that of most Koreans in the first half of the 20th century. During his study in Stanford University, Chu saw the radical and open culture of Americans in the Roaring Twenties- the flappers, modernism, consumerism, Model T automobiles, and jazz. His eye-opening experience in the States resulted in a critical view of Korean culture, which repressed adventure and entertainment characteristic of the Roaring Twenties. Such culture was a reflection of Korea under Japan’s tyranny, during which many Koreans were suppressed and stripped of their rights.

Chu implicitly criticizes the cultural limitations of South Korea in the 1930’s through a young narrator named Ok-hui, “the widow’s girl,” in his masterpiece, “Mama and the Boarder” (1). His story tells of a young widow and a boarder who confirm their love for each other, but restrain their passions due to social expectations of widows in traditional Korean society. Chu utilizes a first-person narration through an immature 6-year old girl who is yet unaware of the unspoken rules of society, which bashed romantic ventures of widows, to condemn the conservative nature of Korean society. The use of Ok-hui as the narrator emphasizes his insightful condemnation of the cultural limitations on women and strikes readers at large because of the unexpected depth in childish narration. Complementary uses of a young narrator are also shown in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, another piece of literature that criticizes the lack of freedom for women and oppressions placed upon them. Cisneros uses Esperanza, a young girl living in a Latino barrio to illustrate such criticisms. Through these young narrators, both authors provide tacit criticisms of social limitations on women and how society renders women helpless.

Ok-hui and Esperanza both tell their story in a simple, matter-of-fact manner that strikes the audience as being naïve and immature. However, such style enhances the gravity of the issues they unwind. Chu utilizes young Ok-hui to critique the conservative Korean society in the 1930’s and implicitly tell his readers that unless a radical change within Korean society is adopted, more unhappy endings to love stories will result, such as that of Mother and Uncle. Similarly, Cisneros uses young Esperanza to describe the lives of unhappy “women by the windows” to advocate for gender equality and criticize suppression of women by their male counterparts. Because these stories are told by children, the seriousness of these issues are intensified, seemingly juxtaposing the levity of childish narration. Additionally, both authors approach criticism in ways that allows readers of all ages to easily understand social problems. However, simple vocabulary and short sentences also enable the authors to veil the true meanings and purpose of their literature, which thus let the authors escape the storm of disapproval that would have surely followed such radical thinking.

These unreliable narrators fail to grasp the whole meaning of many events that occur and to provide full insight. Although the audience recognizes the hint of romance between Mother and Uncle, Ok-hui herself completely misses this relationship. Whenever her mother and Uncle become red with embarrassment and ashamed of their feelings, Ok-hui views this as anger toward her, which creates dramatic irony because readers understand the true meaning behind Ok-hui’s observations (8). Ok-hui is an immature yet sharp observer of the emotional turmoil and conflict within Mother and Uncle, although she fails to define the specific emotion and what caused it. Too young to understand this as forbidden love, she lets readers in on a great secret. Because Ok-hui is yet unaware of unspoken social traditions that would bash her if her mother and Uncle openly expressed love for each other, she’s able to tell readers her observations without censoring herself.

Likewise, Esperanza fails to comprehend events that happen to her. While being sexually assaulted by an anonymous group of boys during a carnival, Esperanza becomes confused. Her perplexing, yet innocent narration reflects this disorientation and allows readers to realize what has happened to her, although she does not completely comprehend. This violent experience renders her frightened about sex, contrary to her previous fascination with it. Cisneros’s use of dramatic irony in this context creates a bitter anger toward women’s lack of power.

Additionally, Ok-hui’s mother views her love toward another man as the devil’s temptation, shown when she numerously repeats the line “and lead us not into temptation…” during her recital of the Lord’s Prayer (14). She also fears that she will be called a “loose woman” if she embraces her desires to love Uncle, a reflection of the attitude of many Koreans to a widow’s romantic ventures (15). Her eventual acceptance of societal principles reflect the typical fear of rejection within Korean women of the time period. Ok-hui’s mother, just like other women, has yet to realize the regret that would follow her abstinence. On the contrary, Esperanza’s mother understands the regret and foolishness of such decisions. She sings along to Madame Butterfly, an opera that tells the story of Madame Butterfly, who eventually kills herself after being abandoned by her husband. Esperanza’s mother calls Madame Butterfly a fool, condemning the lack of independence that women have. Cisneros’s comments of the helplessness of women in the barrio relate to that of Korean women in a conservative society.

The use of young, unreliable narrators is particularly clever because its innocent, yet persuasive language and style convinces readers to believe in the radical change that both authors hoped to create. In contemporary society, these issues seem irrational and unreal; however, women’s rights and independence are still issues within many countries. These works are not only significant for their accurate depictions of inequality in the past, but also symbolic of gender issues of today. Ultimately, Ok-hui and Esperanza tell us, the readers, to advocate for change and create for ourselves a “happily ever after,” instead of committing to despair and regret like their mothers and Madame Butterfly.