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Star-crossed lovers go against norm in late Joseon

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Published : Sept. 30, 2011 - 18:54

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Lost Souls
By Hwang Sun-won
(Columbia University Press)

Late author Hwang Sun-won’s short story “Lost Souls” is a lot of things. It’s a story of star-crossed lovers, a literary record of Korea’s turbulent late Joseon period, as well as a tragic case of two innocent souls who went against everything they used to be and believe.

In many ways, it is a modernist piece of work. The young protagonists ― Sogi and Suni ― voluntarily break away from their parents, hometown, long-time friends and even superiors to become who they want to be, and to be with each other. And all this happens in the early 20th century Joseon, where strict Confucianist values, which stresses the importance of the “virtue of obedience” to one’s parents and rulers, dominated all spheres of life. 

But the novella does not romanticize the old world, where Sogi and Suni used to belong. Throughout the piece, Hwang makes it evident that both the parents and superiors of the protagonists are not worthy of their obedience ― Suni’s parents who want to sell her off for money her superiors want to simply abuse her for their own well being.

The story begins as Suni’s middle-aged male superior, Park, who has been ill for a while, gets an absurd prescription from his doctor. His body apparently has to be “warmed-up” by a young woman every night to regain its health. Everyone is convinced that it is the only possible cure, and Park ― who is also Sogi’s teacher ― orders one of his servants to bring in his daughter, Suni, to serve him every night. Suni’s father agrees, as this would bring him more money and property.

Sogi, who belongs to a higher social caste than his love Suni, decides to run off with her, knowing his parents would never approve their relationship or help him protect her from her parents and Park. The only wish of Sogi’s parents, who have an aristocratic background, is for their son to become a ranking government officer and bring honor and wealth to the family. Sogi had been bitten by his father for seeing Suni, whose status is far too humble according to his parents’ standard.

The two end up running away, and settle down in a remote town. Though they’ve betrayed everyone they are supposed to serve and obey, Sogi and Suni are almost insultingly happy. However, everything changes when Park’s son, bearing a grudge following Park’s death, finds Sogi.

As the particular time period stigmatizes Sogi and Suni as selfish, ungrateful and immoral beings who have hurt and disgraced their own parents and superiors, the story openly reveals that it is also traditional, Confucian values that rationalize the horrific and almost gruesome violence inflicted on the two. For example, Park’s son thinks there’s nothing wrong with what he does to Sogi, as the man thinks he is taking a much deserved revenge for the death of his own father.

As shown in the prescription for Park’s disease, Hwang also makes the young lovers the victim of the illogical, unscientific customs and practices of the time period, as well as its unjust social system and power structure. Filled with tragedies and misfortunes, it almost feels like the lives of the two are being punished by fate for all the “terrible, unimaginable things” they’ve done. Still, the heart-wrenching yet romantic ending can also be interpreted as a victorious one, as their endurance and bravery for each other shine throughout the book.

Born in 1915 in modern-day North Korea, Hwang Sun-won made his literary debut with a poem called “My Dream” in 1931, at age 16. He moved to Japan in 1934 and was admitted to Waseda University’s English literature program in 1936. He started writing short fiction in 1937, and published his first collection of short stories in 1940. He eventually returned to Seoul after Korea’s liberation from Japan in 1945, and became professor at Kyunghee University in Seoul in 1957.

Hwang is best known for his short stories, many of which are still widely read by Koreans as modern classics. Some of his well known works include “Rain Shower,” (1959) “Cranes,” (1953) and “Cloudburst” (1952). He is well-known for his poetic prose and lyrical depiction of human intimacy, as well as surrealist tales that deftly delve into the themes of colonialism, war and modernization of Korea.

(dyc@heraldcorp.com)