2019 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Adult second place
Examining the Social Implications of Capitalism Through "O. Cuniculi"

As humans, we often perceive ourselves as above the systems we utilize. Though we inhabit a capitalist society, we refuse to believe we have been consumed by the exploitative attitude inherent to this economic system. Rarely do we admit that the pervasiveness of capitalist thought has caused us to economize what should never be quantified: the value of living entities. Through “O. Cuniculi,” Pyun Hye-young examines how capitalism informs our social behavior. By portraying the repetition of societal issues, she challenges readers to reappraise their personal agency and empathic ability in a society that often perceives its inhabitants more as objects than as humans.

Pyun emphasizes that contemporary capitalism has translated into the way people view other living entities. Towards the beginning of the story, the protagonist muses, “With the economy always uncertain and hard times never far off, even family members could look disposable” (6). His observation reflects the economic mentality through which people view even their closest companions. When reflecting on the abandonment of pets, he explains that with the prospect of financial hardship, “parents couldn’t stomach the thought of spending a decade caring for a rabbit” that does “nothing but chew hay” (6). Rather than appreciating the animal for its inherent value, people ascertain its utility in relation to their personal gain. Upon determining that the animal is not a material asset, they discard it.

The exploitative attitude used to evaluate others perpetuates the contemporary perspective of humans as disposable entities. When describing the nature of office work, the protagonist’s superior states, “you’re a hunting dog” (8). This degrading metaphor elucidates the objectification of humans in contemporary society, one strengthened by the instrumentalist paradigm used to view individuals. Rather than an appreciated member of his office community, the protagonist is merely a tool used to find data. Later in the story, as he observes the absence of his former superior, the protagonist realizes that “just because the section leaders was different did not mean anything had changed” (16). The section leader is swiftly replaced by another individual. No effort is made to determine his whereabouts; he is simply another component of a larger system who, having done his job, now has no purpose and consequently does not matter.

The treatment of individuals as instruments contributes to their passive role in society. This dehumanization reduces individuals, perpetuating the distorted perception that people should conform to established patterns of behavior, as opposed to generate their own opinions. When acclimating to his office job, the protagonist becomes confused by the nature of his work. Rather than guiding him, the protagonist’s superior states, “Only three-year-olds ask how to do something before trying first. They whine to be spoon-fed” (8). By stifling the protagonist’s questions, the superior perpetuates a culture of oppressive conformity. The protagonist’s abandonment of his rabbit can be explained through similar terms. Despite his criticism of discarding pets, he chooses to “ruthlessly abandon once his time up” (11). His behavior demonstrates his belief that he does not have the power to alter the pre-established pattern of abandonment, a mindset strengthened by the paradigm of humans as homogenous beings rather than individual thinkers. The cyclical nature of dangerous social patterns reinforces the lack of agency with which people in the protagonist’s society live. Despite having experienced confusion when adjusting to office life, the protagonist fails to guide his younger colleague when he encounters these same challenges. Instead, he repeats the exact behavior of his superior, realizing that he “was saying the same things his own superior had told him” (17-18). The parallelism between these two interactions demonstrates the passivity with which people witness social issues, a behavior exacerbated by the paradigm of humans as thoughtless instruments. Rather than challenge questionable dynamics, Pyun’s characters internalize them, ultimately perpetuating the behaviors they once perceived as problematic.

Through her portrayal of the exhibitionist man, Pyun emphasizes the difficulty of expressing individuality in a society fixated on conformity. The exhibitionist, a rather disruptive character in an otherwise coherent narrative, “ran around stabbing people in public with a knife” (13). It is particularly noteworthy that the exhibitionist possesses the most personal agency out of all Pyun’s characters. In a society that treats its inhabitants as mere means to an end, the exhibitionist challenges conformity by harming others. Pyun deliberately makes the socially disparaged exhibitionist the single character who attempts to subvert societal stagnancy. In doing so, she accentuates the struggle of expressing individuality in a socially acceptable manner.

Despite the bleak society she renders, Pyun implies the potential for social change through glimpsed moments of human connection. When he first gazes into the rabbit’s eyes, the protagonist is filled with “relief at the thought that he was not the only one in this world with eyes red from exhaustion” (5). Though the protagonist possesses a dismally monochrome lifestyle, spending “most of his day in silence,” he momentarily sees himself reflected in another living being (9). During the exhibitionist crisis, the protagonist similarly yearns for human connection, remarking that being alone in a time of heightened danger “was intolerable” (15). However, his most emphatic revelation is his concluding remark: “The world is full of abandoned pets” (20). Through this culminating epiphany, the protagonist realizes that his angst, one generated from impressions of abandonment, anonymity, and a lack of fulfillment, are not unique. Rather, in the capitalist society he inhabits, it is something that all humans experience.

Through “O. Cuniculi,” Pyun admonishes of the dangers of allowing capitalist thought to dehumanize our perception of other individuals. Pyun’s is a story particularly immediate in today’s sociopolitical landscape fraught with hyper-polarization: In a time when empathy is a rare quality, Pyun cautions readers against rendering the world solely through what is safe, convenient, and personally accessible. We reserve the power to see ourselves in others and, if we truly desire change, are collectively obligated to act on this realization of shared humanity.