Where are the origins of Korea’s Modern Literature? (Part 3)


In this final installment we finally turn to what is considered to be Korea’s first “modern novel”: Yi Kwangsu (1892-1950)’s The Heartless (Mujŏng 1917). By many scholars this literary work is regarded as the culmination of developments that started around 1905 with the growth of newspapers, which in turn stimulated the production of the first attempts of modern literature. Writers Yi Injik and Yi Haejo are regarded as the frontrunners in this period. Later their works were categorized as “New Novels” (Shinsosŏl), a genre seen as a transitional stage between classical and modern literature. The vernacular that was used in these novels had not been standardized yet, and the plots resembled the good-versus-evil approach of traditional literature. Also they made more use of allegories, so that it could not be regarded as “realistic” fiction.

After the annexation of Koreaby Japanin 1910, many newspapers were shutdown and the literature that was being written reverted back to the more traditional melodramas and pulp fiction that it had seen earlier. Only Ch’oe Namsŏn (1890-1957), the founder of the influential journal Boys (Sonyŏn 1908-1911) and Youth (Ch’ŏngch’un 1914-1918), attempted to keep publishing “New Novels” in this period (which for the severe repression of the media is usually called the Dark Period (암흑기)).
It was in these journals that Yi Kwangsu published his early experiments with the new literature that he envisioned.

Yi Kwangsu

Yi Kwangsu in 1941

His vision onKorea’s literature was expressed in an article entitled “What is Literature?” In it he says that “the spirit of the nation that has been transmitted from the time of our ancestors…will be the center of literature.” After stressing that literature should stress and reinforce the nation, he criticizes Confucianism, by saying that this ideology had hampered Chosŏn’s modernization, because of their emphasis of 知 (지, knowledge) and 義 (의, will), while neglecting 情 (정, individual emotions). He continues that “in the West great literature could be produced because they had the freedom to express their thoughts and emotions.” He called for a literature rooted in Western realism and stressed that literature should fulfill human emotions and that it must take its material from daily life. Therefore, In his own literature he tried to make the nation visible to the reader. The task (or function) of literature in his view was to preserve that nation and ensure its continued survival.

Michael Shin, in an article on Yi Kwangsu and his novel Mujŏng titled Interior Landscapes: Yi Kwang-su’s “The Heartless” and the Origins of Modern Literature, focuses on the trope of landscape and the concept of interiority in Yi Kwangsu’s early works in order to decode the secondary narrative that is embedded within his stories. Interiority, he explains, is not the same as identity, but a form of identity: identity as an unchanging essence. Accordingly, the descriptions of landscape therefore can be seen as a metonym for Japan. Thus when the protagonists in Yi Kwangsu’s stories move to a new landscape it can be read as the search for an interiority that expresses an identity different from that of the colonizer’s.
The interesting feature of creating this sense of interiority is by using linguistic effects that are borrowed from the vernacular. It is the “neutral” forms of expression that give the illusion of realism to the stories. For Shin the term minjok (민족, usually translated as nation) in Yi Kwangsu’s novel The Heartless, was the name given to this intangible and mysterious “reality” of interiority. With this theory in mind, Shin analyzes the short stories written by Yi Kwangsu before The Heartless as attempts at finding interiority. He therefore notes that the protagonists in his stories are usually students who feel lonely and who aspire to write, but find themselves in desolate landscapes.

Mujong cover

Cover of Yi Kwangsu's most famous novel The Heartless

The Heartless was serialized in the Maeil Shinbo (매일신보) newspaper beginning January 1, 1917, and was an immediate sensation. People walked for miles to get their daily copy. The story itself is about a love triangle between the schoolteacher Yi Hyŏngshik and two women: Yŏngch’ae who became a Kisaeng and Sŏnhyŏng a daughter of a minister. He eventually marries Sŏnhyŏng, since her father had arranged and expected this from him by allowing him to teach English to his daughter, and also with the hopes that they could both go to theUS for studies. The story is quasi-historical with its setting being just before the formal annexation ofKorea. (Yi Kwangsu himself saw this period, the end of the Russo-Japanese war, as the beginning of modern literature)

The coup the force of the novel (where ‘the nation is made visible’) is in Yŏngch’ae’s story of how she became a Kisaeng. This story serves to awaken Hyŏngshik and Sŏnhyŏng to their interiority. At the end of the story Yŏngch’ae goes to Py’ŏngyang to commit suicide, and Hyŏngshik, after hearing of this plan, pursues her. The novel ends when the three of them meet each other on the train. (Hyŏngshik is then engaged to Sŏnhyŏng, but not in love with her) Here Yŏngch’ae tells of her sad story that stirs them both. A heavy rain forces them to leave the train, after which they find shelter in an inn. Here Hyŏngshik is completely awakened and tells the guests that they all should strive to create a better Chosŏn.
For Shin this aspect of the novel shows that “Yi Kwangsu’s novel is intricately linked to modernity since it enabled readers to visualize an emerging national community.” I find this last argument debatable, however, since more recent studies have argued quite convincingly that a sense of a national (“Korean”) community can be traced back to the Chosŏn period, and even as far back as the Koryŏ period.