Study Guide

The Orphan Master's Son Identity

By Adam Johnson

Identity

Part 1, Pages 124-143

"John Doe? Isn't that the name you give a missing person?"

[...]

"Actually," [the Senator's wife] said, "I don't think John Doe is a missing person. I think it's when you have the person, just not his identity." (140)

Here's a telling conversation between Pilar, the maid in the Texas Senator's household, and the Senator's wife. Pilar takes the phonetic similarity of Jun Do's name with an English idiom and runs with it. What emerges is a snapshot of the hapless Jun Do, a man without a proper given name and without the ability to choose his own fate or shape his identity for himself. Jun Do's orphan's name makes a lot of choices for him in life, consigning him to crummy jobs that no one else wants and making him and outcast, since orphans are considered bad luck. The American crew hits on a sad truth to his existence here.

Part 1, Pages 144-155

"Whatever your file says about me," Jun Do told her, "it's wrong. I don't hurt people anymore. That's the last thing I want to do." (152)

In this case of mistaken identity (Wanda has misidentified Jun Do as Commander Ga, from the tattoo on his chest), we learn something about Jun Do's inner life. He's no longer the desperate orphan willing to sacrifice everyone for his own self-preservation. He's hoping to shape a new identity for himself. Ironically, the one he's assigned was not a very nice dude, either.

"None of this is his fault. He just does what he's told. You've got to understand—where he's from, if they say you're an orphan, then you're an orphan. If they tell you to go down a hole, well, you're suddenly a guy who goes down holes. If they tell you to hurt people, then it begins." (153)

Jun Do is trying to explain to Wanda how things work in North Korea: first, you start with a story from the state. Then, the citizen complies. Neither the "Minister" nor Jun Do has a say in the deception being practiced on the Americans. Notice how seamlessly Jun Do weaves his story into his defense of the Minister.

Part 1, Pages 156-175

"I was a model citizen," he told them. "I was a hero of the state," he added, and then stepped through the door in his new boots, out into a matterless place, and from this point forward nothing further is known of the citizen named Pak Jun Do. (175)

How many times have we heard this one? Jun Do is in the last moments of occupying his life as an orphan from Long Tomorrows; he's about to embark on his journey as a nameless prisoner—and then as Commander Ga. He has a long way to go before he's able to control his destiny or choose an identity for himself.

Part 2, Pages 179-193

As an experiment, the biography was a failure—where was the me in it, where was I?—and of course it was hard to get past the feeling that if I finished it, something bad would happen to me. The real truth was that I couldn't stand the pronoun "I." Even at home, in the privacy of my own notepad, I have difficulty writing that word. (188)

It's really no wonder that a man without a proper name would also have a problem finding the "I" in his own life story. The Interrogator has fallen in lockstep with party-line communist philosophy, which say that the desires of the individual pale in comparison to the needs of the state—there is no "I" in team, yo. Another problem might be his lack of self-awareness: the Interrogator seems a bit mystified as to why he should have a bad feeling about finishing his biography. He seems to forget what happens to his "subjects" when their biographies are completed.

Part 2, Pages 209-232

Seeing Comrade Buc—his smile, his thumbs-up—had opened a void in Commander Ga between the person he used to be and the person he'd become. Comrade Buc was the only person who existed on both sides of Commander Ga's void... (225)

This awkward water-cooler moment in the office has Imposter Ga wondering how to tread the fine line between believing his own charade and falling apart in front of the Dear Leader. If he's going to pull off his usurpation, he has to own it. His friendship with Comrade Buc—hatched on the trip to the U.S.—will be both valuable and devastating to him as he continues in his newly gained identity. Outside of Sun Moon, Comrade Buc and his family are his only pressure points—and the Dear Leader will have no problem pushing them.

Part 2, Pages 272-292

I suspected that Ga was the same person on the inside but had a whole new exterior. I could respect that. But wouldn't the real change be, if a person was to go all the way, to get a knew inner life? (276)

A perceptive observation by the Interrogator, who is trying to figure out just how far Impostor Ga had to go to transform his identity. In fact, it is through Imposter Ga's inner life—his memories, thoughts, personality—that we link him back to the Jun Do for whom we no longer have official records in the story. Without any recollection of his name in the narrative of the second part of the book, Johnson is able to reveal this guy's true identity quite easily in this way.

Part 2, Pages 293-305

Mongnan pulled him to her. "Your Captain fought back," she told him. "He resisted, he wouldn't let them take his identity. He died free." (297)

The Captain's attempt to escape Prison 33 reinforces what we know about his personality from Part One: he's not going to languish in prison again. With that decision made, he clings to that little bit of self-determination and refuses to allow starvation and exhaustion to rob him of his will. He dies a wretched death (at the hands of a compassionate Jun Do), but like Impostor Ga at the end, it's a death of his own choosing.

Part 2, Pages 305-327

Every consciousness has an electrical signature, and the autopilot's algorithm learns to read that script...picture a pencil and an eraser engaged in a beautiful dance across the page. The pencil's tip bursts with expression... filling the page, as the eraser measures, takes note, follows in the pencil's footsteps, leaving only blankness in its wake. (316)

The Interrogator comments on the beauty and complexity of his form of physical torture, the autopilot. This machine does what the Pubyok can't do: it erases the personality of a subject without brutalizing that person externally. It's also what makes his work more insidious. While he's squeamish about broken bones and blood, the Interrogator is entranced by the idea of uprooting a person's inner life and replacing it with... nothing.

Part 2, Pages 407-417

"This used to be a place," I told him, "where meaningful work was done. Here, a citizen was separated from his story. That was my job. Of the two, it was the story that was kept, while the person was disposed of." (410)

In an ironic twist, the Interrogator is confessor to Impostor Ga. He's got a lot of existential angst brought on by a change in his professional life—and a change in his outlook on himself and the world around him. The Interrogator realizes that the story he'd been telling about himself—that he was preserving lives, not taking them—just isn't true. And especially so in this case, when he's about to lose both Ga and his story. It's a blow to his ego that he won't be able to survive.