The Marriage Proposal and the Mysterious Rescuer – Mujŏng (The Heartless), Part 3


This post will wrap up our look at Kwang-su Yi’s novella Mujŏng (The Heartless).  As the old woman and Hyŏng-sik race to P’yŏngyang  to stop Yŏng-ch’ae from committing suicide, Hyŏng-sik remember how he was nearly raped by a group of peddlers when he had first come to P’yŏngyang as a boy after his parents had died and considers how he and Yŏng-ch’ae had similar problems.  He and the old woman arrive at the police station in P’yŏngyang, where Hyŏng-sik had sent a telegram before they took the train, asking them to find Yŏng-ch’ae and prevent her suicide.  The policeman whom he approaches first seems a bit surprised by his inquiring about a woman, and when another policeman come out to answer their question, he dashes all of their hopes by dropping the telegram in front of him, stating that too many people came to the city to find one woman, especially since the telegram hadn’t given any description of her.

In despair and looking for a meal, the old woman takes Hyŏng-sik to a kisaeng house, though he is reluctant to enter such a house of ill-repute.  When he sees a young girl at the door and how innocent she looks, even like Elder Kim’s daughter, he is reassured and allows them to persuade him to enter.  As they make him comfortable, Hyŏng-sik is careful to use the honorific language with the young kisaeng, though socially it was wildly inappropriate.  The old woman had finally gotten used to his unusually respectful tone and pure interest in the women and even was starting to find it acceptable.  Hyŏng-sik notes with approval the warm, familial relationship the women in the kisaeng house had toward one another.  He is even ashamed when he sees their tender reaction to the old woman’s story about Yŏng-ch’ae’s problems, realizing he didn’t really consider kisaeng to be truly human.

As the women decide on what to have for breakfast, Hyŏng-sik gets philosophical about how quickly they blame karma on Yŏng-ch’ae’s sad state:

They think that all sad events that arise in society are the karma of a former lifetime, and are beyond our control….They put the responsibility for everything on ‘karma from a former life,’ and ‘destiny,’ and not human beings.  Karma is responsible (and not the old woman, Yŏng-ch’ae or Kim Hyŏn-su) for Yŏng-ch’ae having become a kisaeng, and having been raped by Kim Hyŏn-su, and drowning in the Taedong River….In their view, there are no particularly good or bad people.  Everyone just lives according to their karma from a former life, and their destiny. (Mujŏng, p 209)

Hyŏng-sik goes out walking around P’yŏngyang with the young kisaeng Kye-hyang to find Yŏng-ch’ae.  They arrive at the graveyard for criminals, and Kye-hyang takes him over to the graves of Yŏng-ch’ae’s father and brothers.  She had come with Yŏng-ch’ae before she left for Seoul and promised Yŏng-ch’ae she would care for the graves as if they were her own father and brothers.  Hyŏng-sik reflects upon how his mentor Scholar Pak had died and his school closed, but now his ideas were flourishing everywhere.  He doesn’t understand it, but instead of feeling like weeping over his mentor’s grave, he feels happy.  He thinks Yŏng-ch’ae must not have come here, there are no signs that she has, and he returns to the kisaeng house, assuming Yŏng-ch’ae is dead.  He then returns immediately to Seoul, his emotions in a jumble, having a vision of God creating the world and humans out of clay.  He then feels guilty for not looking harder for Yŏng-ch’ae.

When Hyŏng-sik returns to school, he sees Dean Pae is still there.  When he gets to his class, his students grill him on where he has been the past few days, and when Dean Pae enters, they have a quick discussion of how Hyŏng-sik has been in the company of kisaengs and had followed Kye Wŏr-hyang to P’yŏngyang.  Furious at their insinuations, Hyŏng-sik goes to leave, but Dean Pae stops him to taunt him a little.  Hyŏng-sik considers how some of the other teachers are in Dean Pae’s faction, not his, at the school.  He debates submitting his resignation, thinking fondly about his students and the school grounds.

Deciding he’ll never teach again, he goes to the boarding house and announces to the landlady his intention to become a Buddhist monk.  The landlady chides him for his seriousness, and when she hears Yŏng-ch’ae has probably killed herself, she blames him for not realizing Yŏng-ch’ae was in love with him when she came to visit him that day but let her run off without comforting her.  He is appalled that he had not thought of it.  If he had taken her in immediately, she would not have been raped.  He realizes his thoughts about Yŏng-ch’ae were all wrong the entire time, even when he went to look for her, and that he considered her a burden, appearing at the moment he had met Sŏn-hyŏng and all of the promise for the future she brought him.

Sin Ŭ-son arrives, and Hyŏng-sik asks if he can borrow some money to go look for Yŏng-ch’ae’s body and give it a proper burial.  As he prepares to go, Elder Kim’s church pastor arrives to talk with Hyŏng-sik.  After an awkward start, the pastor tells Hyŏng-sik that Elder Kim needs his daughter to be engaged before going to study in the United States, that both husband and wife would go together so she wouldn’t have to be alone, and that Elder Kim wantsHyŏng-sik to be her husband!  He reveals that the English lessons were just an excuse to have a marriage meeting so his daughter could assess Hyŏng-sik.  Torn about continuing his plans to look for Yŏng-ch’ae’s body and dropping everything to immediately speak with Elder Kim about the engagement, he decides it was lucky that Yŏng-ch’ae died when she did.  He would even be able to study in the US as had been his dream.

He agrees to go to dinner with Elder Kim, but hedges on discussing the engagement.  Sin Ŭ-son and the landlady urge him to say yes to the engagement.  Ŭ-son takes charge and tells him he can do no more for Yŏng-ch’ae because she is dead and that if he had stayed at the school, Dean Pae would have had him run out in revenge for getting him in trouble for helping sexually assault Yŏng-ch’ae.  After all, Hyŏng-sik had followed a kisaeng, which makes him look bad no matter what the reason.  He won’t let Hyŏng-sik continue to look for Yŏng-ch’ae’s body.

Next, Hyŏng-sik is at dinner with Elder Kim and Pastor Han, discussing the marriage.  He accepts awkwardly.   Sŏn-hyŏng is then brought in to discuss their plans.  The reader discovers that Sŏn-hyŏng is rather ambivalent about taking him as her husband.  It has only been a few days since he began to teach her English.  I’m kind of surprised the author is taking this to an almost deus ex machina plot twist with an arranged marriage as the ideal, since according to the introduction he was rather strongly against arranged marriages and had bad memories of his own!  Didn’t the pastor say at the boarding house that this was supposed to be a free marriage with Sŏn-hyŏng checking him out during the lessons?  But that doesn’t seem to be the actual case here.  Sŏn-hyŏng tells Sun-ae that she feels she has to marry him if her father wants her to, and otherwise she has no opinion of him since she doesn’t know him at all.

The author notes here that Hyŏng-sik is in love with her only because he thinks she’s pretty and states outright that it is superficial and that this whole plan of Elder Kim and the others was shallow.  They pray over it, Elder Kim asks his wife one question about it, she acquiesces, and they declare the engagement settled.  Somehow they think they are being very hip and modern by doing all of this, though it clearly is an arranged marriage in the old style.  Hyŏng-sik only agrees to the engagement when asked because he is strictly adhering to Sin Ŭ-son’s instructions to him.  Sŏn-hyŏng is equally hesitant in answering yes to the engagement when asked.  An argument then starts over when they should get married.  Should they get married before they go or after they finish their studies in the US?  They determine it will take five years or more for them to become PhDs, and everyone is either coming to opposite conclusions while the couple themselves are non-committal:

Sŏn-hyŏng laughed inwardly, and said nothing.  The pastor felt somewhat chagrined.  There were no reasons for them to be married now, and no reasons for them not to be married now.  If the marriage were arranged without any particular reason or conviction, then how could there be any reason or conviction in carrying out the wedding?  The betrothal had been carried out as though it were child’s play, and in a similar manner, it was decided that the two would be married after they finished their studies.  Everyone nevertheless thought they had carried out the proceedings most rationally.  They believed they had been guided by the Holy Spirit.  It was dangerous business. (Mujŏng, p 259)

Back at the boarding house, the landlady and Sin Ŭ-son are horrified to hear they will marry after they finish studying.  Hyŏng-sik dismisses Ŭ-son’s questions about what the two will study or his observation as to how suddenly they will have to leave to begin studying in the fall.

Chapter 86 takes up the thread of the story where we left off with Yŏng-ch’ae.  On the train, as she plans to drown in the Taedong River, a Japanese woman aids her as she tries to get coal dust out of her eye.  As the woman helps her wash her face on the shaking train, Yŏng-ch’ae is reminded of her dead sister.  The women take an immediate liking to one another.  The Japanese woman gives her meat and cakes as they talk.  It is clear from their conversation that the Japanese woman thinks Yŏng-ch’ae is a student and doesn’t recognize that she is a kisaeng.  The Japanese woman is a student studying in Tokyo, and she’s traveling with her brother who is sitting nearby.  Yŏng-ch’ae breaks down and tells the woman that she is going to kill herself.  Alarmed, the woman makes Yŏng-ch’ae explain what has happened.

They establish that Yŏng-ch’ae did not really know if she loved Hyŏng-sik but felt an obligation to him because of her father’s subtle wish that they marry.  The Japanese woman tells her to devote herself to Hyŏng-sik only if she truly loves him, but if she doesn’t and is just taking her father’s joke about marriage too seriously, find another man she can love and devote herself to him in the same way.  They talk about Confucian doctrine, and the Japanese woman explains she has the right to choose her own husband, not accept her father’s whim.  She encourages Yŏng-ch’ae to start a new life.

They get off the train at Hwangju, where the woman lives.  She intends on introducing Yŏng-ch’ae to her family and let her stay with them.  Finally, we learn that the Japanese woman, really a Korean woman dressed as a Japanese, is named Pyŏng-uk, and her mother and grandmother don’t understand half of the newfangled ways of the modern woman Pyŏng-uk talks to them about.  The girls became fast friends since they are intellectual equals, and they do an exchange.  Pyŏng-uk taught her Western ways, and Yŏng-ch’ae taught her the Confucian classics.  Pyŏng-uk studies music, and the joke is that she will probably become a pansori singer!  Her family isn’t happy she isn’t studying something more practical.

Pyŏng-uk’s artistic endeavors show Yŏng-ch’ae that being a kisaeng is also art, though up until then Yŏng-ch’ae hadn’t really taken her artistic abilities seriously.  Pyŏng-uk is also facing parental pressure to get married and has a poor, illegitimate boy back in Tokyo whom she is in love with but whom her parents don’t approve of.  Soon Yŏng-ch’ae  discovers Pyŏng-uk is facing a lot of opposition from her father over her studies; he thinks it isn’t important for a girl to study and that she should stop going to Tokyo and just get married.  Her brother is her main champion in keeping her in school.  Father and son were also warring over their father’s plan to marry Pyŏng-uk off to some good for nothing that her father was rather impressed with and wanted as a son-in-law.

It comes out that the brother was forced to marry when he was twelve, and he can’t stand the sight of his wife, whom he hardly speaks to.  Yŏng-ch’ae gets close to the brother’s wife and is good friends with her, but she can’t deny she is falling in love with the woman’s husband, Pyŏng-guk.  Oddly, this ordeal has Yŏng-ch’ae thinking back to which man she liked when she was at the kisaeng house in Seoul, and it is Sin Ŭ-son!  Wow, what a soap opera.

Hyŏng-sik’s good fortune is now challenged with the news reaching Elder Kim’s ear that Hyŏng-sik had frequented a kisaeng house and has a bad character.  He is also told that Hyŏng-sik was kicked out of school over the incident.  They are displeased, and Sŏn-hyŏng, overhearing the whole matter, decides she is displeased with the idea of marrying him.  She actually hopes he marries Sun-ae instead.  Meanwhile, Hyŏng-sik decides if Sŏn-hyŏng ever leaves him, he will kill her and then himself.  He gets a letter from Kim Pyŏng-guk in Hwangju, explaining his marital troubles.  It turns out they were friends at school in Tokyo.

This starts a chain of interactions between the characters.  It seems everyone in the story knows everyone else, and they are destined to meet in the same place.  Pyŏng-uk takes Yŏng-ch’ae with her to Tokyo to study together, hoping to ease her brother’s remorse over falling in love with her and being disloyal to his wife, while Pyŏng-uk turns out to be friends with Sŏn-hyŏng and meets her and Hyŏng-sik on the train accidentally.  It turns out Ŭ-son is with them on the train, too, and he goes immediately to investigate when it is revealed that Pyŏng-uk is traveling with the missing Pak Yŏng-ch’ae.

Since this story is available in English, I’ll leave the ending vague since you can read it yourself.  I’ll just say that everyone’s final outcome is accounted for by the last chapter, and there are a lot of reunions.  The remainder of the novella has a lot of internal reflection anyway rather than plot development.  It is an interesting selection that shows the clash between traditional and modern Korea, if a little philosophical at times.

Part three of a three part series.

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About Lady Xiansa

Lady Xiansa is a writer, linguist, artist, and dancer. She has been a core volunteer for the Silk Screen Asian Arts Organization since 2007 and has provided content for Pitt JCS anime events since 2011. She has taught both ESL and Beginning Korean. Her novel, The Haunting at Ice Pine Peak, won the Bronze Award for Young Adult Fiction E-book in the 2016 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards.
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