2015 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior first place
first place, senior essay division
Ignorance Is Bliss
In a complex and befuddling world, the most complicated ideas become easier to understand when viewed from an innocent perspective. Authors often use children or ingénues, such as Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, as narrators and protagonists to simplify the puzzling and sometimes alarming concepts of good, evil, and the disputed territory in between these two extremes. The short story “Mama and the Boarder” uses this commonly recurring literary motif in the form of Ok-hui, a six-year-old girl describing the romantic tension between her mother and a friend of her deceased father’s. Although Ok-hui observes the physical cues of the boarder and her mother, she does not understand the emotions behind them. However, she displays reliability in her factual account of events, enabling the reader to draw conclusions based on her descriptions. In "Mama and the Boarder," the naïveté of Chu Yo-Sôp's juvenile narrator creates dramatic irony through her ignorance of the suppressed romantic desires of her mother and the boarder; however, her blatantly honest tone provides the reader with glimpses of their feelings for each other, revealing the conflicting themes of love and duty.
Narrator Ok-hui does not understand the physical reactions of the mature characters, often misinterpreting the emotions motivating their actions or facial expressions and contributing to the literary device of dramatic irony. After the boarder leaves, Ok-hui notices the pallor of her mother’s skin: “But look at Mama’s face. Look how white it is! I don’t think Mama feels very good” (19). She notices the alteration in her mother’s countenance, but her limited knowledge of the world prevents her from identifying the cause of her supposed illness. Ok-hui’s youth restricts her ability to understand the mature concepts of love and the social judgment her mother would encounter if she married another man. Her puerile egocentrism impedes her ability to empathize with the emotions of others and distinguish cause and effect. After Ok-hui steals flowers from the garden at her school, she avoids confessing her theft by telling her mother that the boarder sent them, misinterpreting the cause of her mother’s reaction. She says afterwards, “I told myself it was a good thing I’d fibbed about the uncle and not told her that I’d brought the flowers myself” (10). Her relief at escaping punishment reveals her misinterpretation of the source of her mother’s reaction as well as the emotion behind it. Although her mother’s response arises from her embarrassment at receiving a gift from the object of her affections, Ok-hui mistakes her words and actions for anger toward the sender of the flowers. She does not realize her mother’s internal conflict as she struggles to reconcile her desire to pursue a relationship with the boarder with the duty she feels towards her daughter and her own social status. Her attempts to balance her desire for romantic love and her desire to protect her daughter and herself from scorn and critique necessitate the naïve narrator, a device used to highlight the absurdity of the social standards during the time period of the story, especially regarding women and marriage.
The unreliable narrator appears in numerous literary works in various forms, including the Naïf, whose limited or immature perception creates dramatic irony in which the narrator provides details that allow the reader’s knowledge of the story to surpass their own. Notable examples of this type of narrator include Huckleberry Finn from the book of the same name and Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, both of whom share similarities with Ok-hui in voice and style. Although Scout narrates the book as an adult, she recalls her childhood memories in the remarkable detail characteristic of naïve narrators, mimicking Ok-hui’s style of speaking and her inability to integrate pieces of information. Just as Scout remains preoccupied at the beginning of the story with her fantasies about Boo Radley and neglects her father’s monumental undertaking in court, Ok-hui reveals details that enable the reader’s comprehension of the situation between her mother and the boarder, but she cannot synthesize a conclusion based on these pieces of evidence. Additionally, both characters face the prejudice and injustice of their respective societies, albeit unknowingly in Ok-hui’s case, becoming unwitting pieces in the social machine that will soon taint the innocence that features so prominently in the text. Set during the same time period, these two young girls face the same trauma and bitterness that 7,000 miles of physical distance and 100,000 years of evolution could not erase: the detrimental effects of blind acceptance of generalizations and biased preconceptions that provide the hallmark of the human race. The authors of each of these pieces use their narrators to create satires of social regulations, encouraging people to contradict prejudice and oppression and instead form a society of harmony and acceptance.
Therefore, Chu Yo-Sôp's innocent narrator in “Mama and the Boarder” obliviously describes the relationship between the two adults of her household by providing the reader with details that contribute to the themes of love and duty. Ok-hui’s inability to understand complex emotions facilitates her misinterpretation of characters’ body language, allowing the reader to extrapolate upon the events she describes in order to discover the underlying plot. Ok-hui’s youth and ignorance demonstrate the sophisticated themes of the narrative: her juvenescence shows the maturity of the story and the author’s faith in the ability of the reader to draw conclusions about the plot based on Ok-hui’s naïve observations. The author operates under the assumption that, despite Ok-hui’s misinterpretations of the motivations inciting the actions of characters in the story, the reader will use the information she provides to visualize the circumstances in each scenario. The dramatic irony created through this literary construction satirizes the rigid social laws governing gender roles and familial duties that existed in Chu Yo-Sôp's Korea, a world that compelled a woman to choose between her child and her lover: a world that forced her to decide which type of love to lose.