Study Guide

The Second Mate's Wife in The Orphan Master's Son

By Adam Johnson

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The Second Mate's Wife

Beauty Can't Save Her

The Second Mate's wife, like so many other characters, has very little to identify her—she doesn't even have a name. We know that she's an absolute stunner, which is weird for a girl who only works in a fish factory. She was consigned to her fishy fate by an overprotective father, who wanted to keep her from a life of dishonest luxury in Pyongyang. When she becomes a widow (officially, at least), she totally looks forward to rectifying that situation:

"Beauty means nothing here," she said. "It's only how many fish you can process. No one cares that I can sing except the boys who want to take my mind off it. But Pyongyang, that's where the theater is, the opera, television, the movies. Only in Pyongyang will I matter." (101)

Jun Do tries to explain that the lives of the girls who make it to Pyongyang aren't as glamorous as she's making them out to be. In fact, she might be a little more grateful to the father who tried to spare her a life as a prostitute or a barmaid—or both. But all the Second Mate's wife can see is how she's worked to exhaustion and how she smells of chlorine from taking medicine for her constant parasites.

Though she doesn't have much of an identity, the Second Mate's wife's got more depth to her than we might expect. She's more than just a pretty face. She cares for Jun Do as he recovers from torture, and she reveals to him her complex feelings for a husband she didn't choose and didn't want.

When Jun Do tells her he can't separate fact from fiction in the narrative of her husband's death, she asks him to choose the gentle version so that she can more easily cope: "'Choose the beautiful story, with the bright lights, the one where he can hear us,' she told him. 'That's the true one. Not the scary story, not the sharks'" (112).

Beauty may be paramount for the Second Mate's wife, but it only goes so far. While she dreams her dreams of Pyongyang and itches for her chance to show the world what she's got, Jun Do learns the grim truth about her future. She's not going to marry up. The old interrogator sets him straight: 'She's no virgin... Plus, she's twenty now, and headstrong. Most of the girls who go to Pyongyang are seventeen—all they know is how to listen" (105).

The Second Mate's wife has a lot of virtues—but none anybody values. Well, almost no one, that is.

An Almost Maybe Wife

Jun Do finds himself in a difficult situation in the Second Mate's house: he's attracted to his friend's "widow." As he recovers and she cares for him, Jun Do gets his first taste of intimacy, of sharing as much truth with another person as either of them can stand. He and the Second Mate's wife hang out on the roof together, talk about her ambitions, and live in close proximity.

And then there's the yellow dress. Jun Do is not impervious to the Second Mate's wife's beauty and physicality. The yellow dress she barters for symbolizes all the desire that Jun Do has for the first woman he really connects with. However, he knows she has ambitions—and that she's the wife of a fallen comrade. There are rules.

When her ambitions are dashed, however, Jun Do can't bring himself to save her by taking her as a wife. He feels that his bad orphan juju will drag her down—and he still has the mistaken idea that people can make something of themselves in North Korea if they just give it time.

The Second Mate's wife's bitter retort gives Jun Do some serious food for thought as he steps into to the next stage of his life: "You're a survivor who has nothing to live for" (115).

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