Study Guide

The Orphan Master's Son Suffering

By Adam Johnson

Suffering

Part 1, Pages 7-20

The surest evidence that the woman in the photo was Jun Do's mother was the unrelenting way the Orphan Master singled him out for punishment. 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)

Jun Do's perception of relationships highlights the misery in the world around him. He tells himself stories to account for his undeserved suffering, giving the senseless pain he feels a logical source. The denial of his orphanhood is ultimately a rejection of the needless anguish caused by a ruthless state.

Part 1, Pages 62-75

The Second Mate closed his eyes for a moment. He removed his shoes and now he had none. The look in his eyes said that the wrongest thing that had ever happened was happening right now. And then the shoes slipped from his hand and into the water. He pretended to look at that horizon so that no one would see his face. (64)

The Second Mate and all the crew are victims of a communist state gone wild, in which citizens go without basic necessities and human dignity is of little consequence. Losing the swank new Nikes isn't just disappointing to the Second Mate. It also sparks some total existential angst: how will he survive if he can't even protect his feet?

Part 1, Pages 144-155

"When a tunnel would collapse, in a mine, we'd have to go dig men out. Their eyeballs would be flat and caked. And their mouths—they were always wide open and filled with dirt. That's what you couldn't stand to look at, a throat packed like that, the tongue grubbed and brown. It was our greatest fear, ending up with everyone standing around in a circle, staring at the panic of your last moment." (155)

Jun Do's description of his tunnel-warfare fears not only illustrates his fear of a miserably painful end; it also speaks to the need for human dignity and the desire for self-determination. Jun Do doesn't want to wind up a spectacle or a cautionary tale. He doesn't want the horror of being suffocated by dirt. He also makes it clear that it's not only the victim of such a thing who suffers; those who witness it are scarred, too, in a different way.

Part 2, Pages 179-193

He did as he was told and soon he was chewing a wad of them—their furry abdomens drying in his mouth, despite the goop that burst from them and a sharp aspirin taste from some chemical on their wings. His stomach hadn't been filled since Texas. (192)

Jun Do may not appreciate Mongnan's recipe for survival in the prison camp, but it's effective. We'd like to point out that it's not just the taste of furry, bitter moths in the mouth that constitutes cruel an unusual punishment. It's also the fact that Jun Do derives satisfaction from eating them because he's starving so hard.

Part 2, Pages 194-208

On his forehead and scalp were pressure marks from the screws to the halo, a device that kept a subject from injuring his neck during the cranial administration of electricity. (203)

Despite all the different forms of torture that Jun Do/Imposter Ga endures throughout his adventures, he still has to suffer through some pretty classic torture sessions at the hands of the Pubyok. In this scene, the report of his torments is kind of ho-hum: all we get is a description of the contact marks from the equipment. It's left to our imaginations to fill in the blanks concerning the "cranial administration of electricity." That's a very clean term for a pretty nasty physical reality.

Part 2, Pages 209-232

But did she think the pain in her movies was pretend, did she think the portrayal of national suffering was fiction? Did she think she could be the face of Korea that has been dealt a thousand years of blows without losing a husband or two? (220)

As the voice on the loudspeaker narrates the story of the new Commander Ga moving into Sun Moon's life, we can't help but note the authorial voice ringing through at this moment. It becomes clear, later in the book, that Sun Moon knows a lot about suffering, national and otherwise. This is also a good opportunity for Johnson to use this national voice to poke fun at the state for co-opting the suffering of its people.

In pain school, they'd taught him to find his reserve, a private place he could go in unbearable moments. A pain reserve was like a real reserve—you put a fence around it, attended to its welfare, kept it pristine, and dealt with all trespassers. Nobody could ever know what your pain reserve was... because if you lost your pain reserve, you'd lost everything. (209)

We know what you're thinking: there's a school for that? Jun Do's pain training marks him out as someone extraordinary—and also as a person who will suffer a lot during his lifetime. The "reserve" is something more sacred than the popular "happy place." It's often so well defended that even the warden or ranger of the reserve can be surprised at what he finds in the deepest recesses of this private place. The pain reserve becomes the ultimate denial of external reality, allowing the sufferer to dissociate completely with the horrible things happening to his or her physical body.

Part 2, Pages 272-292

"And your acting shows people that good can come from suffering, that it can be noble. That's better than the truth." "Which is?" "That there's no point to it. It's just a thing that sometimes has to be done and even if thirty thousand suffer with you, you suffer alone." (285)

Jun Do reassures Sun Moon that her life's work is valuable—even if it's valuable because it reveals a miserable truth. His nihilism in the face of suffering tells us that he's had great experience in this area and that he finds no value in it at all. There's nothing redemptive or useful in it for Jun Do, and it's certainly not a comfort for him to know that other people have also lived in misery. In a place where a denial of reality is standard practice, this is Jun Do keeping it real, on a high level.

Part 2, Pages 293-305

"Why wasn't it Gil?" he asked her. He was weeping uncontrollably. "The Second Mate I could understand. Even Officer So. Not the Captain. He followed every rule, why him? Why not me? I have nothing, nothing at all. Why should he go to prison twice?" (296)

It's not often that Jun Do rails against the universe for bad things happening. As one who is used to suffering, he mostly just accepts it. The loss of the Captain is a moment of awakening for him—it's when he finally understands that playing by the rules means nothing in a society built on cruelty.

Part 2, Pages 366-387

Slowly, the car backed out, and as the tires shifted from grass to gravel, he heard the grab of the road and knew that the ultimate had been taken from him. The Orphan Master had bent his fingers back and removed food from his very hand... (373).

Jun Do/Imposter Ga watches as Sun Moon rides away to the Dear Leader's side. He assumes that she is being taken as a squeeze for Kim Jong Il, and feels real pain at this. But it's an old wound, one that's deprived him of the most basic needs for survival. The seeming loss of Sun Moon teaches him that there is more to life than simply surviving.

It's also important to note the nifty overlapping of identities that happens here between the Orphan Master (the man who regulated Jun Do's early life) and Kim Jong Il (figured as a father to all orphans and yet a totalitarian head of state). With friends like these, who needs enemies?

They had only their teeth to start the cut, their nails to peel back a flap, and their little biceps to rip the branch clean. Normally, a sight like this would reassure him, make him feel comfortable. But Jun Do had seen no living boy so sinewy, and they moved faster than the Long Tomorrows orphans ever had. (170)

Jun Do had seen some pretty serious suffering in his early years, but his journey north to the Prison Camp 33 reveals a whole new level of misery to him. It's as though he's entered an alien landscape in which the children aren't really human, as though their own hunger, neediness and despair has lifted them outside human experience and transformed their bodies. It's telling that the normally stoic Jun Do is disturbed by the sight of these boys outside the gates of the camp.