2017 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Adult second place
second place, adult essay division
Society, Individuality, and the Trauma of War
In her exploration of Jan Man-deuk’s fraught life, Park Wan-suh constructs a narrative that simultaneously dissects the trauma of World War II and the complex dynamic between society and the individual. She traces the love of Gop-dan and Man-deuk from its mythicized beginnings to its war-torn conclusion, but it is particularly in its aftermath that her strongest commentary on the cultural scarring of wartime becomes clear. All throughout their relationship, Gop-dan and Man-deuk must manage the weight of societal expectations, from their choice to pursue one another’s affections to their unwillingness to marry before Man-deuk’s deployment. They exercised a careful agency over their fates, even when it flew in the face of such pressures. However, the war itself was pivotal for the couple, as their desire to exercise agency against these expectations - and society - was suddenly and harshly denied. Man-deuk’s eventual claim that he has gotten over Gop-dan then reads to the reader as a last, desperate grasp for control over his own life, and in ending on that note, Park reveals the extent of the suffering that war inflicts upon all - both directly and indirectly.
Park directs the reader’s attention to the influences of society at the very beginning of her account, explaining how strong the presumptions were around Gop-dan and Man-deuk’s relationship. She writes that “the expectation of marriage between the two kids was a publicly acknowledged matter,” and that there were “the elderly who delighted in imagining, with their eyes half closed, the two of them together” (154-155). Even so, she made explicit the idea that the love between the two was organic and not derived from circumstance: “For better or for worse, falling in love is beyond the scope of human intentions... Man-deuk and Gop-dan, however, did not betray the villagers’ hopes” (156). In explaining anecdotes like the banguri incident or the mud bridge, Park emphasizes a genuine chemistry between the two despite other forces that may have pushed them together; it is their choice to pursue the relationship and theirs alone.
This distinction is critical to Park’s later gestures in the story. Here, in the time of peace and idyllic childhood, Man-deuk and Gop-dan are able to ignore the whims of society and choose their own paths. Though all are aligned in the case of their love, their agency is maintained and stressed. Park continues to highlight this concept when Man-deuk is drafted into service. Rather than submit to the will of society, to the perceptions and expectations of others, Man-deuk forges ahead with Gop-dan on his terms: “But Man-deuk adamantly refused to get married. That was his way of loving her. He didn’t care what anyone else thought...” (163).
But the couple’s ability to disregard these pressures of society ends the moment the reality of the war sets in. Rumors of daughters being abducted are exacerbated immensely by more gory accounts: “Terror gripped the entire district, and families with young daughters lived in perpetual fear... They say the sight of blood can drive a normal person mad. The same can be said of bloodstained rumors” (165-166). Whether such events actually happened as told is beside the point; the effect such perceptions have on the behavior of the villagers, and of Gop-dan, is real enough. It is in this way that Gop-dan’s agency is entirely denied with the advent of the war: “I’m sure Gop-dan would rather have died than betray Man-deuk by marrying someone else. But she, too, was softhearted and incapable of ending her own life” (166). Despite her deepest wishes, she cannot resist the social pressures pushing her into her fate as she had previously. Park emphasizes this moment carefully, as it provides a parallel to the way in which Man-deuk was similarly forced into military service against his will. Taken as a whole, the arc of their relationship illustrates a vicious loss of individuality and control in the wake of armed conflict, and the end of the story reinforces this notion with powerful emphasis.
When we are reintroduced to Man-deuk years later, we find that his loss of agency has only continued. His marriage is depicted as hollow, constantly compared to what could have been by his community, relatives, and even Park: “Before I knew it, I was mentally comparing the younger Soon Ae to Gop-dan. No comparison” (171). His own wife buys into the socially constructed narrative, believing to her dying day “that her husband had never gotten over Gop-dan” (169). Nothing Man-deuk says or does can alter these conditions in his marriage, highlighting the tragedy of his circumstance. In Man-deuk’s closing monologue, he still denies any lingering feelings for his former lover: “If I did miss Gop-dan, it was because of the vague, nostalgic longing for our youth that we all have” (172). He brushes aside any possibility of forlorn love – but as he does so, his actions reveal the falsehood of his statement. We encounter him at a support event for comfort women, and his passionate desire to advocate on behalf of Gop-dan and those like her stems from a deeper emotion than he lets on.
When he finally explains that he wants “the sorrow of the escapees to be remembered along with the sufferings of the actual victims,” he is speaking as much about himself as he is about Gop-dan (173). Though he made it home alive, his emotional scarring was not counted nor considered amongst the damage that Japanese Imperialism caused. His words are a subconscious demand that the deprivation of his agency be recognized, and in the subtext of this demand, he exposes the extent of his unaddressed trauma. Park’s framing of these final moments is meant to reveal the broader societal and psychological damage of the war - of any war. Death and destruction represent the lion’s share of a conflict’s aftermath, but loss of individuality, loved ones, and control leave just as damaging a legacy. With the tragic progression of Man-deuk’s romance and life, such an insight is conveyed quite poignantly.