Study Guide

The Orphan Master's Son Flame

By Adam Johnson

Flame

We learn that Jun Do has had some interesting professional training in his life, including "pain training." While Johnson never gives us the entire backstory on why Jun Do received such torture management training, we do get Jun Do's memory of his "pain mentor," Kimsan, and Kimsan's technique:

"There was the flame, small and hot at its tip. There was the glow, warm on their faces. Then there was the darkness beyond the glow. Never let pain push you into the darkness, Kimsan said. There you are nobody and you are alone. Once you turn from the flame, it is over." (86)

Kimsan presents the flame to Jun Do as something inherently good and bad, a source light and warmth but also something that can sear and destroy. The focus of Jun Do's training is on partitioning—the ability to cordon off the pain (the part immersed in flame) and live in the life-giving warmth from the more benign glow of the candle.

Kimsan recommends careful control over the pain response so that only the beneficial aspects of fire are experienced: "In the candle's flame, the fingertip hurts, though the whole rest of the body is in the warm glow of its light. Keep the pain in the fingertip and your body in the glow" (86).

The dangerous flame is not only representative of pain that can be inflicted on Jun Do; it's also a way of acknowledging his own force, the potential that he has to damage others. While he is being beaten, Jun Do notices that every punch is also causing pain to his torturer. He recalls Kimsan's words and understands that the relationship between flame and person is always relative: "You are the flame, Kimsan said. The old man keeps touching the hot flame of you with only his hands...and look how it burns him" (87).

It's a useful image for Jun Do, but it only goes so far. There are things about the flame and the glow that Kimsan never taught him—like what to do when the pain is gone (89). When the torturer stops playing games with Jun Do, he has to face the present situation without any techniques to guide him. In essence, he has to face reality. When that happens, he finds that he can't untangle truth from fiction and that everything about the Second Mate—the truth and the fiction—has wounded and confused him, leaving him in darkness.

Then there is the strange experience of living in the glow, those moments when pain is furthest from Jun Do's mind. But pleasure and intimacy are strange animals for him, and he finds that all the official training in the world can't prepare him for them. The image of the glowing flame returns as he spends a last night together with Sun Moon and her family, singing:

The boy's voice was clear and trusting, the girl's was graveled with growing awareness. Combined with Sun Moon's longing, a harmony arose that was nourishing to Ga. No other family in the world could create such a sound and here he was, in the glow of it. (417)

The orphan Jun Do finally understands what it is to live in the warmth of family. It's this glow that he carries with him when he's subjected to his final trials at the hands of the Pubyok and the Interrogator.