|Existential Reality and Aesthetic Epiphany
The pictures were done by pencil on charcoal paper.
(1) In the preface to "The Wild Geese," a collection of the stories he had written prior to the 1945 liberation, Hwang Sun-won says that the only works that could come out in the open during the dark days were "The Star" and "The Shade." He said. "lt was ironic that the star that comes out only in darkness and the shade that is made only against the light could have seen the sunlight."
His remark is a comment not only on the situation he was then in but also indirectly on his literature. In his 1957 autobiographical first-person narrative, "Tomorrow," written when he was recognized as a major writer, Hwang calls himself "a romanticist." His literary world is imbued with symbolism which in turn is closely connected with romanticism. But his symbolic world is not an abstract one alienated from reality, but rather a world deeply rooted in naturalistic reality and existentialism.
In other words, Hwang's literature contains symbolism,
existentialism, and naturalism rooted in stark reality. This quality shows
itself in the imagery of "Lithography Etched in Darkness," in which absolute
human values and a concomitantly ideal aesthetic order are simultaneously
pursued as if they were eternally glowing stars in chaotic darkness. However,
in the 1970's, Hwang's works were criticized as an "an undesirable literary
example" for their lack of historic consciousness and awareness of reality.
(2) In this essay, his major works will be reviewed with the purpose of literature, that is instead of being isolated from reality, a wholesome one steeped in symbolism, naturalism, romanticism, and existentialism.
In his early short stories such as "The Star," "A Country Boy," "Chicken Rites," and "A Shower," Hwang deals with adolescent boys and girls. Their world, however, is not an Eden but a gloomy naturalistic world overshadowed by fear and death. In other words, these stories, as some critics point out, do not depict a fantastic world of children's tales, but symbolically express the experiences of the adolescent whose world gradually falls from idyllic to brutal. As critic Yu Jong-Ho says, "The Star," Hwang's most representative work, "catches in his refined sentences the delicate psychology of a boy who fixates on and idealizes his dead mother, hates his sister who seems to destroy his mother's image, and awakens to the idea of beauty and the beast. The boy resists favors offered by his sister, the object of his hatred."
"The Star" is a story of the initiation of a boy whose beautiful invisible world, symbolized by his dead mother, is being destroyed by his visibly ugly sister. The boy feels disillusionment, anger, and resentment. He also undergoes the shocking experience of his sister's marriage and death, thus learning life's vicissitudes and mortality. On the surface, "A Country Boy" seems to be the story of one boy, told emotively in lyrical description, but it is universal in meaning in terms of the boy's initiation into life's basic structure. The story is told in the form of a folktale as a grandmother tells a story to her grandchild. She tells of a legendary "flower-like maiden" in a fox's hide to the boy who munches on acorns as a bear does for its hibernation. He in turn speaks of his dream that he has one snowy night in which he says he watched in horror his father fight a tiger. These two stories are not meaningless nursery tales but "living stories" foretelling various difficulties the boy will face in the future.
One of Hwang's major works, "A Shower," also seems at first glance to be a story of subtle feelings between a boy and a girl on the verge of falling in love. It seems to belong to the same category of adolescent initiation stories. It is for this reason that one should look carefully into the fusion of symbolic structure and imagery. The story begins with a scene in which the protagonist boy happens to catch sight of the great-granddaughter of Mr. Yoon, a minor scholar-civil servant. The girl is perched on a stepping-stone in a stream playing with the water. She begins to wash her face, then suddenly stops to scoop up a handful of water as if trying to grasp her face reflected in the mirror-like water. In a moment, she picks up a pebble from the bottom of the stream and throws it at the boy with a cry, "You fool!" She acts as if she wants him to recognize her but is too shy to say so. The next moment she runs into the thick reeds now basking in the autumn sunlight. The next day the boy comes back to the stream but there is no sign of the girl. From that day on, the boy develops a habit of rubbing the pebble. One day, the boy tries, as the girl did, to take hold of his face mirrored in the stream and finds her face reflected in the back of his. Embarrassed, he runs away but trips over a stepping-stone. With his nose bleeding, he disappears into the buckwheat field.
One Saturday the boy and girl meet again when she shows him a beautiful "silk clam." In the ensuing days they romp around the golden autumn fields and run, like the flowing water of a ditch in a field, all the way to the mid slope of a mountain. A sudden shower forces them to climb down. On the way down they take refuge in a ruined lookout and become physically close in the haystack. After the rain stops, the boy carries the girl on his back over the ditch. When they arrive at the stream, the sky has cleared.
Every day the boy comes to the stream but the girl is nowhere to be seen. After a long absence, the girl appears to tell him that she has been ill since she caught a cold in the rain. She is not well yet. She then shows him a corner of the front of her pink sweater. The little corner is stained in light green. It happened, she says, while he was carrying her over the ditch. She hands him a handful of dates she picked that morning for her family's ancestoral worship service. The next evening he sneaks into the walnut grove that he spied on earlier during the day. He wants to give her some walnuts. Shortly later, though, he is told by his family that the girl's family is going to move to Yanpyong. Disappointed, the boy lies in bed fingering a walnut when his father comes home to tell him that Mr. Yoon's family fortune has declined irrevocably and the girl has died. She is reported to have said that she wanted to be buried in the clothes she was wearing the day she told him about her illness.
This story places two adolescents against the backdrop of idyllic beauty; however, behind the facade, there lurks the shadow of fear and death, the very theme of an initiation story of naturalistic style. This theme is supported by the story's inner structure. First, the girl, a fifth grader of a rapidly declining family, is being exiled from the Eden of childhood. The season is autumn. The fields they play in are waves of white, beard-like flowers, and amid them stands a scarecrow, a symbol of death. As for the space, the golden fields reaching up to the edge of the mountain symbolize childhood while the mountain itself is an image of future hardships. The boy and the girl run wild in the sunny fields, happy and carefree, but get drenched by a fearful shower as soon as they enter the mountain. The moment they climb up the mountain, the sky suddenly turns dark with clouds and pours down "purple rain." This "purple rain" symbolizes death lurking behind the idyll, emerging to drench them. This is their symbolic experience of death:
Oh, an inky cloud looms overhead. Suddenly there is
Raindrops fall from an oak tree as we climb over the
In the above-discussed works, Hwang deals with the tragic human condition ruled by natural laws. Through his tightly constructed sentences, he not only shows man's sentimental submission to his fate but also man's will to resist and overcome it. Here Hwang creates his own symbolic literature, fusing the naturalistic human condition with the human spirit and will.
In "The Star," when the boy thinks his ugly sister ruins his "idealized mother's image," he does not accept it; instead, he rebels against it. When the sister dies as natural laws dictate, the boy feels sorrow over her death, but he does not despair. He tries to believe that her soul will turn into a star in the night sky. His love for his mother remains firm, for his mother is the home of human spirit that brings new order when darkness descends. When he denies his sister, he is not refuting the reality of her presence but rather rebelling against her transgression against social norm. Above all, what is most important symbolically is that his sorrow for his sister's death extends toward his shedding heartfelt tears for her who now lives in the starry world where his mother is. Thus in his imaginary world, he meets his mother.
This form of symbolism Hwang uses is related to the "jewel image" in his other work, "The Shade." In this story, a young painter, sitting at a dark tavern counter, tries to paint his lover who is grilling a piece of meat that a hunter brought her. He meets and drinks with a man from the south, who in turn wants to show him some precious jewels he says have been handed down through generations in his family. The man accidentally drops them, though. When they find them in the dark, they are unbroken. Here the jewel is like the star in "The Star." The moment they find the jewels unbroken, they laugh uproariously, as if they have discovered something wondrous and precious. Their laughter is akin to what the boy feels about his "mother star." The jewels and the star provide moments of epiphany:
There were tears in the young man's eyes. When the man
This kind of symbolism flows into another jewel image in "A Country Boy." It is a story of a school boy and a beautiful girl in a fox's hide, in which naturalism and symbolism are fused together in the imagery of jewels. The jewel and the star are Hwang's often used imagery of the ideal. When the school boy swallows the jewel, a concrete objectification of human soul, he comes alive, wholesome and healthy, whereas the girl degenerates into an animal. The jewel, a symbol of the human soul, has been used in Hwang's naturalistic work when he writes in a mythical form, which, of course, is part of the accumulated experience of the Korean people. When examined closely, "A Shower" is also a work in a similar vein. Hwang not only depicts naturalistic phenomenon but constructs a symbolic context as well.
When the boy and the girl run wildly in the autumn field under the deep blue sky picking wisteria-like flowers on arrowroot vines, what is the symbolic meaning of their action? Unconsciously, they are looking for something to fill their inner void. When they try to scoop their own images from the water, this narcissistic act is their pursuit of their own selfhood. When the girl picks up and throws a pebble at the boy, she seems to have found the same jewel in the boy. The fact that the girl appears beside him in the reflection supports this interpretation. The silk clam she gives him is directly related to this. The beautiful pattern on the clam symbolizes the girl's love for something essential and true. Throughout their romp in the field and on the mountain, they are looking for the rainbow of their hearts. Even though her sweater gets stained while the boy carries her, she keeps the silk clam of her love. Her death is a cruel blow dealt by nature. Yet, her wish to take the "stain" of her love to her grave shows that, though the human condition is constrained and ruled by nature, human consciousness through imagination continues to struggle to preserve human values.
(3) This combination of naturalism and symbolism shows itself more concretely in "Living with the Star" and "The Descendants of Cain", two stories of adults pitted against their social backgrounds. In Living with the Star, the heroine Komnyo, who is born into a poor family, goes through a gradual degradation from servant girl to prostitute to an old man's mistress. This degradation is due to no fault of hers but rather to naturalistic social forces. Even in the midst of a degrading life, Komnyo rises above her own self-interests and natural desires. She follows what she considers to be God's will and devotes the rest of her life to helping others in need. For Komnyo, God's will is revealed in man's humanity to men. "The Descendants of Cain" depicts how the post-liberation ideological division and its resultant brutal social milieu affect human life. Though the characters in this novel fall victim directly and indirectly to the forces of their circumstances and natural laws, as other characters do in naturalistic novels, there is a fierce struggle between different generations to restore human values in "The Descendants of Cain". Old Man Dosup of the older generation turns himself into a tool of the natural and social forces and manifests animal instincts befitting a descendant of Cain. However, his daughter Ojaknyo and son Samduk silently rebel and try with love to save people caught in the trap of nature's laws. As critic Chun Yee Doo points out, Ojaknyo and Komnyo refuse to surrender to their historical conditions. Their souls are deeply rooted in love and "strong elemental vitality." In this novel, historical conditions and human values lock horns while naturalism and symbolism are in harmony.
On the other hand, his more representative novel "Trees Stand on a Cliff" deals with a similar theme, but on a more realistic, experiential level, focusing on social realism and existential consciousness. The backdrop of the novel is a war, the most absurd human reality, which makes "Trees Stand on a Cliff" akin to naturalistic novels. The difference between his earlier short stories and this novel is that whereas his earlier works are set in natural surroundings willed by God, this novel is based on the combined forces of the absurd human condition given by God and social forces created by Man. Therefore, "Trees Stand on a Cliff" can be said to be a story of initiation of the protagonist to the hithertofore hidden brutal reality of life. Of course, the first force that destroys the dreams of Dongho and his fellow soldiers is Time. But it is the war that accelerates their destruction.
Dongho, one of the main characters, has never known life's absurdity until he participates in the war. During the war Dongho begins to learn to drink("the adult thing") and have sexual experiences. Hyuntai, who joins the army before Dongho, teaches Dongho these vices to make him a man. For a while Dongho feels guilty and uneasy toward his girlfriend Soogie, but as he experiences more "adult things" he begins to lose his innocence and integrity. Whenever his old innocent self raises its head, he drinks more and buries himself in the physical pleasures with Okjoo in order to allay his guilt and anesthetize his conscience. Finally, he confronts his corrupted self and rages against himself in order to regain his innocence:
Dongho walked on as if pushed by some unknown forces.
One freezing winter night, Dongho leaves Chuparyong where his detachment is located. Over narrow mountain paths he goes on to Sodogomi to see Okjoo, only to witness her engaged in a sexual act with the head of the local youth group. He shouts at them, not because of their act but because he sees himself in it. "A human body is such an unreliable thing. This body of mine erases the dim memories of him," Okjoo used to say. Her remark is aimed at Dongho, he knew. Dongho realizes that his physical relation with Okjoo erases his dim memories of his only love, Soogie. Paradoxically, to Dongho, death seems the only escape from his self, corrupted by the loss of human values and dreams. In the total destruction that is war, death seems the only way to preserve human values and dignity. As Ernest Hemingway says, he was destroyed by the forces of the war, but he was not defeated:
It was two hours later that Dongho found the body.
What shocks Dongho more than anything else is his discovery that there is nothing reliable in this world except for the tragic existential human condition, just like the fistful of dirt that Sergeant Kim sends to his parents when he dies and the blank letter that Dongho sends to Soogie. Once, his friend Hyuntai speaks of the shock of disillusionment and self-awareness that comes from the paradox of the destructive forces of the war and the realness of one's dreams.
Dongho is a victim of this paradox. What about Hyuntai then? He has been dragged into the war ahead of Dongho. Hyuntai kills a woman in a hut during his "search and destroy" mission. He is severely wounded in the "snipers' hill" and spends three weeks in a field hospital. The awareness of the brutal and tragic human condition and the loneliness that he experiences in the war only make him seek relief in the primitive pleasures of drinking and fornification. On the surface, Hyuntai looks like a fearless courageous soldier who can overcome hardships on the war, partially due to the fact that he has been raised in an affluent home. But the truth is that he tries to overcome his fear, evade his conscience, and affirm life by indulging in drinking and sinning. But Hyuntai's momentary pleasures nearly drive others around him to the brink of death. Discharged from the army, he returns to Pusan only to resume his life of dissipation and debauchery in order to forget the wounds of the war. He forces himself upon Miran, the girlfriend of his old comrade Yoonku, which eventually drives her to death. Hyuntai not only forces Soogie to have sex with him when she comes to him to find the cause of Dongho's suicide, but also leads another woman to her death. This other woman, Keihyang, lives in mute silence in an eatery called Pyongyang in Nakwondong. Hyuntai carries on such a self-destructive life because he is not strong but hopelessly weak. His guilt over his murder of the woman in the hut cannot be exorcised by his own strength. He can resort only to chaos. His awareness of his own weakness is clearly expressed in the shocking scene just before he forces himself sexually on Soogie:
"You are the one who killed him. You made him into someone
he never was. That's why you have avoided me. You are a coward. You are
a drunkard who can't say anything unless drunk." Only her eyes were bloodshot
on her ashen face. Hyuntai felt himself becoming calm and cold. He poured
himself another drink. "You say I made him the way he became? If so, I
must have been a strong man, but you've just said I am a coward. Frankly
speaking, the reason why I became such a drunkard and a
Hyuntai turns into a cowardly drunkard because he cannot
overcome his guilt over his murder of the woman in the hut. If one looks
deeper into his psyche, however, one finds that he is unable to deal with
the forces of his circumstances, thus resorting to instinctive and destructive
behavior befitting a descendant of Cain. In Hwang's view, man causes war
and becomes wounded and scarred by it, and in order to try to forget the
pain and fear, wounds and destroys others in turn. It is the nature of
Cain's descendants, riding eternally on this vicious cycle. Hwang reiterates
this view in "The Sun and the Moon" more directly through the mouths of
the characters, but in "Trees Stand on a Cliff", he dramatizes the duality
with his supremely managed imagery.
When I went down there, she didn't even resist much. When
Hyuntai is a man who knows his problems, but does not
act upon them. When other people fail to overcome their hardships, he forgets
himself and tramples them down. He tramples the woman in the hut, Miran,
and Soogie, simply because of his hatred toward them and his own destructive
instinct. He is attracted to Keihyang because, unlike other women, she
knows how to hide her feelings and how to deal with her loneliness without
depending on others:
Translated by Choi jin-young. She is a professor of English at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. She taught for several years at a college in North Carolina before returning to Korea. She also translated into English a Korean novel by Kim won-il, The Wind and the River, and many Korean short stories.