Study Guide

The Orphan Master's Son Freedom and Confinement

By Adam Johnson

Freedom and Confinement

Part 1, Pages 34-62

The Captain was older. He'd been a heavy man, but he'd done some time aboard a Russian penal vessel and that had leaned him so that now his skin hung loose. You could tell he'd once been an intense Captain, giving clear-eyed commands, even if hey were to fish in waters contested by Russia. And you could tell that he'd been an intense prisoner, laboring carefully and without complaint under intense scrutiny. And now, it seemed, he was both. (43)

The marks of captivity—physical and psychological—don't fade from the characters in this work. But there's another curious observation about confinement in this passage: that even when freed, the prisoner remains captive in some way. The Captain shows this in his fear of transgression, of doing anything that will land him in prison again. His final words to Jun Do in the prison camp (just get out) bring this home.

The life of a fisherman was good—there were no endless factory quotas to fill, and on ship there was no loudspeaker blaring government reports all day. There was food. And even though they were leery about having a listening officer on board, it meant that the Junma got all the fuel coupons it needed, and if Jun Do directed the ship in a way that lowered the catch, everyone got extra ration cards. (44)

Jun Do's sense of freedom is defined negatively—by what it is not—rather than by any qualities exclusive to liberty. For him, the space and quiet just to think, to shape himself without scrutiny from a higher power, to have basic necessities for survival, is the clearest sense of freedom in the world.

Part 1, Pages 62-75

He could hear the ocean out there, feel the offshoreness of it in the air on his face. And yet, when he sat on the pitch, he could make out none of it. He'd seen the sea in daylight, been upon it countless times, but what if he hadn't? What might a person think was out there in the unfathomably grand darkness that lay ahead? (67)

Earlier, Jun Do thinks about the freedom offered by the sea, which has no border or nationality—or at least, less of each. But there is a flip side to the "spontaneous" nature of the ocean: it can't really be fathomed. This moment in the darkness on the sea reminds Jun Do that they are out there, alone. He does understand what is out there beyond the darkness, and yet there is a claustrophobia about this observation that can't be denied.

"I'm just saying, I'm a guy who's got a lot to lose." The Second Mate paused, choosing his words. "But you, you got no one. You're on a cot in the kitchen of a monster's house... if you'd just punched that American in the face," he said, "you'd be in Seoul by now, you'd be free. That's what I don't get. If a guy has no strings, what's stopping him?" (70)

The Second Mate's astute observation makes us think: what makes Jun Do tick? Why does he feel compelled to return, as Gil does not, from Japan? There's never really a clear answer to this question. Maybe he wants to find his mother in Pyongyang, or maybe he believes the propaganda that he's heard his whole life about other countries. It's also entirely possible that Jun Do is naïve. As with many other characters in the work, he has not yet plumbed the unique depths of misery that his country has to offer.

Part 1, Pages 144-155

How to explain his country to her, he wondered. How to explain that leaving its confines to sail upon the Sea of Japan—that was being free. Or that as a boy, sneaking from the smelter floor for an hour to run with the other boys in the slag heaps, even though there were guards everywhere, because the guards were everywhere—that was the purest freedom. (154)

Jun Do believes, as many do, that you can't really experience something fully without have experienced its opposite. So good cannot be known fully without evil, wealth without poverty. In this case, Jun Do wants to tell Wanda that perhaps she doesn't know what freedom really is, because she's always been free. Freedom without risk, he thinks, is no kind of freedom at all. He later changes his understanding of what it means to be free.

Part 2, Pages 293-305

When a person was caught trying to escape, he was buried to his waist at the water's edge and at dawn, a slow, almost endless procession of inmates filed by. There were no exceptions—everyone had to throw. If your toss was lackluster, the guards would shout for vigor, but you didn't have to throw again. (296)

There's really nothing further to say about the barbarism of this practice in Prison 33, but Jun Do's presentation of the story is interesting. The victim is not the only one who is constrained in this scenario; the other prisoners are compelled to do something they likely don't want to do. Prisoners have one avenue to exercise their free will in this matter: they can throw hard, or not. We wonder if this small choice was given to them merely as an additional torment?

"In prison, they kept us right at the edge of starvation. You could still do work, but you couldn't think. Your mind would try to retrieve a thought, but it wouldn't be there. There's no sense of time when you're hungry. You just labor until it's dark, no memory." (295)

The physical confinement of prison life doesn't even touch the experience of the prison camps of North Korea. They also practice a passive form of mind control there through starvation. The idea that a person can be trapped in his or her own mind through outside manipulation is the founding concept of torture, especially as practiced by the Interrogator. Playing with a prisoner's memory and ability to reason is a surefire way to ensure docility and minimize escape attempts.

Part 2, Pages 327-347

... she was the one that rowed all night, without the horizon to steer toward or the sun to mark her progress. She was forever bound to the other rower, yet completely alone. She labored forward solely on duty, her body bowing to the oars, but her mind, the broadcasts she made, never had a woman sounded so free. (341)

Jun Do notes the strange paradox of the night rower. There's no denying that both rowers are tethered not only to each other, but also to their craft. It's truly a place of confinement. The night rower takes to wandering in her mind, creating strange aquatic societies and so on, completely untethered to reality. As admirable as Jun Do finds it, this inability to engage with the reality surrounding her might have been the beginning of her trouble.

Returning the Dear Leader's gaze, Ga felt no fear looking into the eyes of the man who would get the last word. In fact, Ga was oddly carefree. I'd have felt this my whole life, Ga thought, if you had never existed. Ga felt his own sense of purpose, he was under his own command now. (438).

Jun Do/Impostor Ga finally feels free, but it's a pyrrhic victory. He's under his own command because Sun Moon and her children are free, and he's willing to sacrifice his own life. It's not the kind of freedom that we would choose, but there it is. He also makes the astonishing observation about the power that one person can wield and how the agenda of a brutally centralized government can determine every aspect of an individual life.

Part 2, Pages 388-407

"I'm going to re-create one of my grandmother's songs. In America, I will discover the missing words, and this song, it will be about him. It will contain everything of this place that I could never utter, every last bit of it, and I'm going to sing it on the state channel of America's central broadcasting division and everyone will know the truth of him." (394)

Sun Moon's idea has revolution written all over it—she's certainly ready for independence and freedom of speech—but she's still sadly confined to her ideas of what a state should be. She wants to rely on the centrality of a government that controls information (the "state channel of America's central broadcasting division") so that she can force people to listen to her message. We hope that she figures out how everything works in the U.S. of A. so that she can get that message out there.