Study Guide

The Orphan Master's Son Love

By Adam Johnson

Love

Part 1, Pages 7-20

It could only mean that in Jun Do's face, the Orphan Master saw the woman in the picture, a daily reminder of the eternal hurt he felt from losing her. Only a father in that kind of pain could take a boy's shoes in winter. Only a true father, flesh and bone, could burn a son with the smoking end of a coal shovel. (7-8)

This is Jun Do's first and overriding concept of familial love: it equals suffering and distress, and all injury has to be re-scripted to feel less psychologically painful afterward. Jun Do's determined to find the silver lining in the especially cruel treatment he encounters at the hands of the Orphan Master. He creates an alternate identity for himself—though it does him no real good. He's still conscripted into orphan's work, and he finds himself living out the identity of a person who is fully expendable—until, of course, he meets the love of his life.

Part 1, Pages 34-62

Jun Do was thinking about all the popular definitions of love, that it was a pair of bare hands clasping an ember to keep it alive, that it was a pearl that shines forever, even in the belly of the eel that eats the oyster, that love was a bear that feed you honey from its claws. Jun Do visualized those girls: alternating in labor and solitude, that moment when the oar-locks were handed off. (48)

Jun Do has no practical experience of love, so when the Second Mate asserts something about true love, he goes through his mental catalogue to see if it rings true. His metaphors kind of make us wonder about the society he grew up in: all of the comparisons he lists are full of danger, promising injury, even while beauty is present. Jun Do's image of the American rowers working together seems like a more appropriate metaphor of enduring love.

Part 1, Pages 62-75

And then the idea of a portrait, of any person, placed over your heart, forever, seemed irresistible. How was it we didn't walk around with every person who mattered tattooed on us forever? And then Jun Do remembered that he had no one that mattered to him... (72)

In one of the most poignant moments of the book, Jun Do questions if the endowment of a tattoo would place Sun Moon in his heart for real. It's a naïve and vulnerable moment for him—especially in front of his crewmates. It's also a little soul-crushing when he has to be told it's all for show, and he realizes just how alone he is in the world. And yet the tattoo does do something kind of magical for Jun Do, as it puts him in the position to be closer to the beautiful Sun Moon.

Part 2, Pages 272-292

Around Sun Moon, blossoms open, the petals spreading wide to reveal hidden pollen pots. Commander Ga dripped with sweat, and in his honor, groping stamens emanated their scent in clouds of sweet spoor that coated our lovers bodies with the sticky seed of socialism. Sun Moon offered her Juche to him, and he gave her all he had of Songun policy. (292)

Wow, where to start with this one? First, we can tell that the author was having a super sweet time writing this passage. The Propaganda Boys' version of Impostor Ga and Sun Moon making love is working overtime on the communist metaphors, showing that even the most intimate of moments can be co-opted by the state. The high ridiculousness of the euphemistic language shows how ludicrous it is to control every part of an individual citizen's life. Not to mention that it makes for really bad fiction.

It didn't matter to me that he had probably killed the woman he loved. How had he found love itself? How had he pulled that off? And had love made him become someone else, or, as I suspected, had love suddenly appeared once he took on a new identity? (276)

The Interrogator is a card-carrying member of the Lonely Hearts Club, and it seems that the only confession he's really interested in from Impostor Ga is how to pick up girls. But in all seriousness, this is less about love and more about having a personality, an identity to offer another person. Without that—since the Interrogator is really without identity—he understands that he will never be able to make someone love him.

Part 2, Pages 327-347

"She's read every word I've written," he said. "That's the truest way to know the heart of another. Can you imagine it, Ga, if that syndrome is real, an American in love with me? Wouldn't that be the ultimate victory?" (330)

The Dear Leader confesses his "feelings" for the captive American rower and hopes that Stockholm syndrome is a real thing. Johnson depicts Kim Jong Il as a delusional schoolboy who flatters himself at every opportunity, completely and deliberately oblivious to the world outside of North Korea. His idea of love is equally without basis in reality: the American rower is being forced to transcribe his works during her captivity. She has no choice in the matter. If he's waiting for Stockholm syndrome to kick in, he better have a sackful of patience.

Part 2, Pages 366-387

"A name isn't a person," Ga said. "Don't ever remember someone by their name. To keep someone alive, you put them inside you, you put their face on your heart. Then, no matter where you are, they're always with you because they are a part of you." (379)

Impostor Ga is doing his best to impart useful wisdom to Sun Moon's children, who have become attached enough to him to want to reveal their proper names to him. He tells them that their relationship is really beyond simple names. In that sense, Ga is advocating a kind of psychological tattooing of a loved one's identity directly onto the heart. It's a nice metaphor for the lasting impression this family has made on his memory and identity.

... Ga watched how the candlelight played on their faces, how Sun Moon's eyes lowered with delight, how the children relished their mother's attention, and how they kept trying to outdo one another for it, and how, as a family, they turned that melon to rind, saving the seeds in a small wooden bowl... (369)

This is familial unity and love as it should be, not as Jun Do first conceived of it while trying to make the best of the miserable Orphan Master's abuse. It's ironic that this shining moment should be unreal—this is not his family, and he is not Ga—but it's the best that this orphan can do. Yet through his naiveté and desire to be a good husband and father, Impostor Ga has made this family his own and created this moment of happiness for all of them.

Part 2, Pages 388-407

"They're about a woman whose beauty is like a rare flower. There is a man who has great love for her, a love he's been saving up for his entire life, and it doesn't matter that he must make a great journey to her, and it doesn't matter if their time together is brief, that afterward he might lose her, for she is the flower of his heart and nothing will keep him from her." (396)

Impostor Ga interprets the words of "The Yellow Rose of Texas," which he has just sung for Sun Moon. He doesn't know all the words, and we suspect he knows little of the background of the song, but that doesn't matter. Sun Moon wants him to sing a love song that is true and isn't Party-affiliated. Jun Do hits the nail on the head here, and it's exactly what Sun Moon wants to hear. Both of them are looking for real intimacy with another person—something not planned by the state. This spontaneous and strange song choice speaks about love in such a way that Ga can apply it neatly to their situation.

Part 2, Pages 417-438

It was suddenly so clear, everything. There was no such thing as abandonment, there were only people in impossible positions, people who had a best hope, or maybe only a sole hope. When the graver danger awaited, it wasn't abandoning, it was saving. (429)

Because Ga now has something to lose, he's beginning to make some profound discoveries. In this case, he's seeing that sometimes the most hurtful behavior has a legitimate motivation. This epiphany comes courtesy of his own planned abandonment of Sun Moon and her children to their fate in America so that he can save Comrade Buc's family. Despite his humble beginnings as an unloved orphan who had nothing to lose, Impostor Ga now finds himself in the position to behave selflessly—and to understand the hold that true love can have on a human soul.

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