Seong-Kon Kim


Seoul National University

Love and Death in the Korean Novel: Korean Modernism and Yi Kwang-su's The Heartless

Early twentieth-century Korean literature was nurtured by modernism, which came to Korea through Japan. This cultural/literary movement fostered "new culture" (sinmunwha) and "new literature" (sinmunhak). Although many Western literary movements, such as modernism, naturalism, realism, and Marxism, were introduced to Korea, modernism especially appealed to the Korean mind because it coincided with the modernization of Korea after. Modernism provided Korean writers and readers with insights that enabled them to realize their colonial predicament and explore the means of dealing with the situation. In its broad definition, modernism was a revolt against tradition and the conservative, realistic worldview.

Yi Kwang-su was an agonizing intellectual and writer who felt an urgent necessity for the Korean people to break from the premodern Confucian past and explore new possibilities to suit the complex modern world. He used modernism to enlighten the Korean people, urging them to break free from the chains of the dark past, improve the bleak present, and seek a bright future. Although modernism per se was not compatible with Enlightenment thinking, Yi modified modernism to suit his purposes and used it as a tool for enlightenment.

In his first novel, The Heartless (1917), which is generally known to be the first modern Korean novel, Yi Kwang-su presents the story of a young English teacher who has become an enlightened man after studying in Japan and agonizes over a decision between two women, one a premodern kisaeng and the an educated modern girl. In order to exhibit the problems of Korean society and unfold his idea of modernization, Yi presents his characters as personifications of different social norms, worldviews, and cultural phenomena.

Critics have asserted that The Heartless is a simplistic novel of enlightenment, but a close reading reveals rich symbols and metaphors that reflect the themes of the novel. Yi Kwang-su is undisputedly known as the father of modern Korean literature and the practitioner of Korean modernism and modernity. Yi boldly adopted colloquial expressions and a modern narrative technique suitable for depicting and wrestling with the complex issues of modern man. Yi, however, has not been the subject of public acclaim that should be his due. He has been branded as an unpardonable pro-Japanese intellectual, completely ignoring his outstanding anti-Japanese career and his invaluable contributions to modern Korean literature.