On the other hand, So-nyo,7 the mother in
Both of these stories that focus on mothers have the same tales of intense regret and loss. The stories are also mainly written from the points of view of daughters. The central emotional states explored in the representations of both mothers are disillusionment, discontent, sadness, frustration, guilt, and melancholy. A-jeong, the daughter in
She finally confesses that “now I’ve lost mom.” Stage directions describe A-jeong’s feelings toward her mom as those of irritation, annoyance, nervousness, disillusionment, displeasure, embarrassment, doubt, and scorn. Throughout the play, A-jeong’s feelings of revulsion towards her mom are repeatedly transformed into reproachful, cruel remarks attacking her mom and leaving A-jeong herself perplexed and low spirited.
Chi-hon, the high-strung novelist daughter in
To Chi-hon, her mother is a spiritual harbor, to whom she can return at any time and receive comfort. In that harbor, Chi-hon can also let go of all emotional residue. Chi-hon talks to her sister in sorrowful recollection after her mom’s disappearance. She says, “There’s been no need to find her because I think Mom is and will always be with me in the place where I want her to be.” After her mother disappears, Chi-hon loses that harbor of consolation. In the empty place, Chi-hon constructs a holy place of remembrance, a place where she can cleanse her soul of sins against her mom by remembering, imagining, and recreating the sick, pathetic, holy mother, the mother who is fragile enough to fall apart, ill enough to fall down, lonely enough to weep, fearful enough to escape, old enough to disappear, but who can accept reality as it is and embrace everyone as they are. It is only after her mom disappears that Chi-hon realizes that “once, my mom was a young girl. I guess she was frequently fearful and found it hard to live as a mother, bearing a heavy burden on her shoulders. She is not as strong a person as we think she is . . . . so weak that she can disappear all of a sudden like this.”
Yet So-nyo is not a woman without desires. Her secular desires are slightly revealed in the memories retold by her family members and So-nyo’s ghost. Beneath the image of the selfless, holy mother considerate of others, considering herself a sinner, and enduring the lies of her unfaithful husband and harsh sister-in-law, So-nyo feels strong desires for self-fulfillment, decoration, and sexual love, desires that she cannot fulfill in her time (between the 1960’s and the 1980’s) and in her environment (a poor farming area in South Korea). Because of this, she vicariously fulfills her desires though her successful daughter, who was sent to Seoul for further education when she was 15 years old. She enjoys listening to stories told by her daughter; she transforms her secret romantic desire for Eun-kyu Lee (the local man she secretly loves), the only person who knows how weak she is, into spiritual love: she gives comfort to him, helps his family, and is consoled by him whenever she feels depressed, oppressed, or dejected. So-nyo does not have the power to defy the traditional motherly role imposed on her and is therefore forced to control and hide her private desires. She is only belatedly understood as a weak, sick, desirous mother. In regret, Chi-hon expresses her wish that she could listen to her mother’s personal stories, take her mother’s hands, embrace her so that she could cry in her arms like a child.
The two daughters in both stories are self-conscious, enlightened writers critical of Korea’s patriarchal society. This aspect is clearly revealed when A-jeong criticizes the sacrificing mother and the insurance sales queen, of whom she is writing an autobiography, as a “megalomaniac.” It is not clear whether Chi-hon is conscious of feminist issues, but by becoming a successful novelist, she fulfills her dream and thus retains her mobility and a measure of independence. With her belated understanding of her mother, Chi-hon realizes that she, unlike her mother, enjoys the honor of being an intellectual woman writer. Yet both daughters are still subconsciously dependent upon the fantasy of complete gratification in their concept of an ideal mother, a product of the patriarchal order. Both A-jeong and Chi-hon still desire a fantasy mother in a contemporary world where she cannot live. In this aspect, they are the very examples of the children in Julia Kristeva’s theory of motherhood. According to Kristeva, it is not the mother herself but the memory of the absolute woman, who is imagined in our traditional representations of motherhood (“
It is noteworthy that not only the daughters but also the mothers, in these stories, eagerly want to have their own absolute mothers. A-jeong, the daughter in
Unlike A-jeong’s mother, Chi-hon’s mother So-nyo does not initially express her wish to have her mom, but in the final scene, it is revealed that So-nyo does always wish to be beside her dear mother and to be comforted by her. In the final fantasy scene, So-nyo’s mother (Chi-hon’s grandmother) is stroking her injured feet after taking off her blue plastic slippers. After death, her (So-nyo’s) spirit returns to the bosom of her mother and hears words of comfort from her. So-nyo responds to her mom, saying, “Did you know that I wish you, my mother, were always beside me?”
The fact that mothers as well as daughters live in maternal absence, and thus in disillusion, indicates that these women have learned the terms of the mother-daughter relationship in the given symbolic order (the patriarchal order). Mothers, as daughters, always live the melancholy of mourning, seeking their fantasy mothers in the realm of the imaginary and keeping that absence in their sick bodies, while becoming the dreamed-of-mothers for their daughters, the unique woman of absolute virtues. However, the fact that mothers become daughters who seek their own mothers itself can be a signal to re-think the mother-daughter relationship in patriarchal society, because it can blur the boundaries between mother and daughter and disrupt the location of their given identities. For example, the realization that both A-jeong’s mom and Chi-hon’s mom had been and want to be daughters leads to a shattering of the patriarchal concept of the absolute mother and to our recognizing the potential to redefine motherhood.
1This article was originally written in June 2012 as a presentation paper for the 4th Contemporary Women’s Writing Conference (June 11-13, 2012), held in Taipei, Taiwan. After my writing of the paper, Kim Ki-duk’s Golden Lion Award film Pieta was released on September 4, 2012. This film, which deals with motherhood as one of its major concepts, is another powerful indication of Korea’s recent obsession with the mother. Furthermore, the fact that the film won several international awards tells us that the obsession is not simply a Korean phenomenon but a world-wide one. 2In a special lecture (on January 14, 2013) for a seminar titled “Creating the Stories Using Korean Traditional Heritage,” hosted by the Institute of British and American Language and Culture of Chung-Ang University, Shin also emphasized that she made us hear the mother character’s inner dialogue in the first person “I” narrative to recover the mom’s lost subjectivity and to place her in the center. It is very important, she added, to write the mother’s narrative in the first person because the novel is divided into four parts, each of these parts reflecting a different character’s perspective, and the writing of at least half of the novel is in the second person narrative. 3Many people acclaimed Kim Ki-duk’s film, Pieta, for its suggestion of motherhood as a cure for people imprisoned in the brutal capitalistic system. 4The two dramatic versions are not published; I used the performance scripts for this article. For Mayonnaise, I used the premiere script and for Please Look After Mom, the revised 2010 performance (director Shim Jae-chan) script (because the playwright prefers the revised one). 5Mayonnaise has been continuously revived since its premiere; its film version appeared in 1999. Please Look After Mom also gained unprecedented popularity in 2010 and 2011 in several regions; its musical version enjoyed enormous popular acclaim in 2012. 6Rich concludes her book with a new vision of body: “There is for the first time today a possibility of converting our physicality into both knowledge and power. Physical motherhood is merely one dimension of our being. We know that the sight of a certain face, the sound of a voice, can stir waves of tenderness in the uterus . . . . We are neither ‘inner’ nor ‘outer’ constructed; our skin is alive with signals; our lives and our deaths are inseparable from the release or blockage of our thinking bodies” (284). 7So-nyo means “young girl” in Korean. 8All quotations from the play script of Mayonnaise are my translations. Because the play script was not published, I do not indicate exact page numbers. 9The mother in both the novel and the play of Please Look After Mom is represented not just from the perspective of Chi-hon, the first daughter, but from the viewpoints of all of her family members and So-nyo’s ghost. But I see Chi-hon (especially in the play text) as representative of So-nyo’s family members because Scene 10, titled “The Relationship Between Mother and Daughter,” depicts the conversation between Chi-hon and So-nyo, and in Scene 14, the first son confesses that So-nyeo regards Chi-hon as her the other self. Moreover, Chi-hon is the most self-reflective character; especially deep in her ruminations is the intense guilt that she, as a novelist, feels toward her illiterate mom, and there is thus a quiet irony in Chi-hon’s relationship with her mother. For these reasons, I will focus on the relationship between So-nyo and Chi-hon. 10All quotations from the playscript of Please Look After Me are my translations. Because the play script was not published, I do not indicate exact page numbers.
The two dramatic works more forcefully cut the endless cycle of the patriarchal mother-daughter relationship by representing the grotesque bodies of the mothers. Unlike the original novels, the two dramatic adaptations physically portray the mother with performing bodies on stage, and this physicality can help disturb the audience into passing beyond the boundaries of articulation toward deeper regions of resistance or protest. A-jeong’s mother’s hair covered with mayonnaise in
Yet this repulsive body of the mother with mayonnaise and excrement is a kind of Kristeva’s abject which is “ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable” (
On the other hand, the pathetic mother, a disoriented figure in blue plastic sandals in
Unlike the horrible mother in
Like the repulsive body of A-jeong’s mom, however, So-nyo’s wounded feet are also representative of the abject body, the repulsive embodiment of a masochistic mother who is tied to suffering, illness, sacrifice and downfall. The wretched representation, so utterly degraded by a limping leg, a pus-filled wound, worn out slippers, rags, and tangled hair, emphasizes the exceeding poverty, weakness, and sickness that evoke both an excessive concern and an excessive pity (too excessive to feel pleasant). The dirty wounded body “swarming with flies” that “is too miserable to look at” (which Chi-hon and her elder brother in Scene 2 are hearing from the eyewitnesses and which the audience sees in the final scene) is the abject similar to “a wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat” that Kristeva describes, a border in which “[one] live[s], until, from loss to loss, nothing remains,” and an in-betweenness which disturbs identity, system, order, drawing attention to the fragility of the law” (
At the same time, without threat, the wounded, abominable, abject body shows what So-nyo withstands with difficulty, what is rejected from her life, admonishing the characters and the audience for their fault in not acknowledging her desire for rest, comfort, pleasure, sexual love, and embellishments. The body, beyond the unpleasantness of abjection, comes so boldly up against the imperative ideal as to make impossible that the audience should maintain the status quo idea of motherhood.
It is significant to note that So-nyo the ghost is visible only to the audience; she is invisible to her daughter and her family members. It means that So-nyo’s daughter, Chi-hon, and So-nyo’s other children are excluded from those who are enlightened to see that the absent, ideal mother is a mere fantasy. In this sense, Chi-hon is similar to A-jeong who is more conservative than her mother in her pursuit of the ideal mother. Chi-hon is different from A-jeong in that she expresses her belated love and respect for the lost mother and makes an effort to remember her mother. However, Chi-hon also recalls her mother as the sacred one who sacrificed her life for her children. In this myth-making process, Chi-hon, like A-jeong, supports and upholds the patriarchal symbolic order, which mystifies mothers. On the other hand A-jeong’s and Chi-hon’s mothers, through their disgusting, horrifying bodies, the abject bodies that threaten patriarchal law, express their disruptive forces to shatter what Lacan calls the Law of the Father. Caputi’s summary of Kristeva’s abject can be accurately applied to the embodiment of the two mothers:
In an interview (conducted by me on June 18, 2012), playwright Ko Yeon-ok emphasized that she changed the sacred mother represented in Shin Kyung-sook’s original novel,
In both of these Korean plays, Kristeva’s crucial concept of motherhood as defined “
Generally the original novels
11For the domestic and foreign critical receptions of Shin’s novel, see Lee Hyung-jin’s article, “Perspectives of Translation Evaluation in the Book Reviews of Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom.” 12See NPR Fresh Air broadcast for Maureen Corrigan’s decidedly negative review of Shin Kyung-sook’s novel Please Look After Mom.