Study Guide

The Orphan Master's Son The White Flower

By Adam Johnson

The White Flower

It may be weird to think about it, but the Interrogator elevates his discussion about torture to a level of elegance and conceptual beauty. He speaks of it as cathartic, as a way of exchanging one identity for another in a few easy steps. When Commander Ga mentions his friendship with Mongnan in Prison 33, for example, her name gives the Interrogator the chance to tell us about the ultimate torture experience:

... the name Mongnan meant 'Magnolia,' the grandest white flower of them all. That's what our subjects say they see when the autopilot takes them to the apex of pain—a wintry mountaintop, where from the frost a lone white blossom opens for them. (197)

The white blossom offers the Interrogator a symbol of beauty to mask the ugliness of his work, suggesting that something spiritual and utterly benign can be reached through the misery of suffering. The whiteness—which suggests innocence and purity—and the beauty of the flower make such suffering seem both noble and desirable.

On the other hand, the imagery of flowering, of blossoming after physical suffering, leads the Interrogator to speak uncomfortably about the connection to sexual pleasure felt by some of his "subjects" in the chair. Anything to transform the truth about suffering into something desirable sounds good to the Interrogator.

We see this image working overtime in the last moments of the book, when the voice on the loudspeaker urges us not to dwell on the horrendous manner of Ga's death: "Do not imagine Ga falling forever, citizens. Picture Ga in a cloud of white. See him in a perfect light, glowing like an icy mountain flower. Yes, picture a flower towering in white, so tall that it reaches down to pick you" (442).

In this case, the white flower has to be as oversized as the story of Ga's macho death scene in order to keep the audience from thinking too hard about either the plausibility of such actions or the terror that any person would have felt in Ga's position—if there were any truth in the account in the first place.