Study Guide

The Orphan Master's Son Themes

  • Versions of Reality

    In the world of The Orphan Master's Son, actual reality is unimportant; all that matters is what the official story is.

    Johnson shows us a North Korea that advances its agenda by suppressing individual desires and the right to self-determination. Here, the individual is not important; the story created for him or her is. Citizens are conditioned to accept that truth is relative, reality is negotiable, and survival is directly related to adaptability to the official story.

    This is true not only on the national level. Characters also learn to tell stories about their lives in order to survive the soul-crushing choices forced on them by hardship. The better story—which is always more glorious than reality—lets characters give up personal responsibility and hide their pain.

    Now, in this world, when stories fail, there truly is hell to pay. As Jun Do tells us, the ghosts of a very real and horrendous past have a habit of finding you even if you try to ignore them.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. Why is storytelling so powerful in the world of this book? How does storytelling make things happen here?
    2. What purpose does altering reality serve for the state? What about for individuals?
    3. Sun Moon has a strong response to the movie Casablanca. What is her reaction? Why do you think she was so moved by this film?
    4. In what ways is the avoidance of reality constructive in this work? In what ways is it destructive?

    Chew on This

    Although the Dear Leader uses propaganda to shape life for his citizens, he finds himself caught in an alternate reality of his own making at the end of the work.

    Johnson uses another dream world—that of Casablanca—to help Sun Moon awaken to the reality of her life in North Korea.

  • Suffering

    If you've spent any time with Greek tragedies, you might come to the conclusion that suffering helps us gain knowledge and grow as individuals and as a society.

    Well, maybe that's true in a fairly normal society, but the society in The Orphan Master's Son is anything but normal. Jun Do tells Sun Moon a truth that she doesn't want to hear: suffering, at least in their context, is pointless and lonely. Jun Do also understands that suffering can be provoked quite easily: it only takes the will of one person to inflict torments galore on an entire nation.

    Ultimately, the characters have to construct new versions of reality to preserve themselves from the intensity of the anguish they experience at the hands of a state that seems to value misery above all else.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. How do the characters in The Orphan Master's Son view suffering? Do they have a common understanding of its purpose and how to deal with it?
    2. Why does the Interrogator feel that his work is more humane than that of the Pubyok? Is he right?
    3. What is the most painful thing for Jun Do to endure in this book?
    4. Why do you suppose that certain characters (like the family in the woods outside the Martyrs' Cemetery) deny their own misery?

    Chew on This

    Suffering serves no particular purpose in this book, except to show how much it can alter a person's humanity.

    Physical pain is seen in this book as an opportunity for spiritual growth and an outlet through which personal identity is discovered and shaped.

  • Family

    When Jun Do sees the hallway full of family pictures in the Senator's home, he makes an important discovery: families can be happy. It's revolutionary for this orphan not only to see generations intact, but also to imagine a place where a family can thrive without prison camps, abandonment, disappearances, spousal reassignments.

    Family ties aren't just something that the state manipulates in order to regulate the behavior of its citizens? Who knew?

    It doesn't take Jun Do long to figure out that everything he'd come to accept about family in The Orphan Master's Son just isn't right. His quest for self-knowledge—especially his desire to find his mother—becomes a desire to establish a proper family, to be good husband. It's ironic that he begins this process by killing Commander Ga and ends it by losing Sun Moon and her children to the place that showed him what family could be.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why does Jun Do insist that he is not an orphan? Why does he believe that the Orphan Master is his father?
    2. Why are orphans shunned in Jun Do's country?
    3. In what ways is the parent-child relationship complicated in the world of this book?
    4. In what ways do other relationships in this book replace familial ties? Are these substitutions successful?

    Chew on This

    Jun Do refuses to believe that he's an orphan in order to justify his ruthless actions toward the other boys in the orphanage.

    Comrade Buc's wife's making of the white suicide dresses may be kind of morbid, but it's also a sign of her great love for her daughters.

  • Politics

    The political life of North Korea revolves entirely around the will and whim of one person: the Dear Leader. Kim Jong Il does his communism Stalin style: he's a total dictator, and in his system, power and wealth are concentrate in a centralized state that has noooo problem terrorizing its citizens to keep control. In The Orphan Master's Son, Johnson gives us a glimpse of what life under such a system can be like, and he shows how an idealistic form of communism can quickly devolve into a totalitarian dystopia.

    There's no place at all for the individual in this system, except as that person fulfills the needs of the state. Characters like the Interrogator, who believe in the most idealistic tenets of communism, suffer catastrophic breaks from their society when reality sets in. The truth quite literally destroys them.

    Questions About Politics

    1. What does the Interrogator mean when he criticizes the state for "...the ultimate perversion of the communist dream..." (401)?
    2. In what ways are the characters in this novel at odds with the state? In what ways are they complicit in fulfilling the state's agenda?
    3. How is it possible for Jun Do to become Commander Ga? Why does everybody play along?
    4. Why does Jun Do's story about the shark attack fall flat with the Americans? What are the differences between the two political systems that make this story a no-go on American soil?

    Chew on This

    Jun Do's story of the shark attack fails to impress the American audience because the Americans do not privilege the story over the individual.

    Mongnan's vision for the future collapse of the North Korean political system is meant less to motivate Jun Do than to encourage readers that things will change.

  • Transformation

    Change is not for the weak of heart in The Orphan Master's Son. In this world, when we talk about transformation, we're not talking about touchy-feely kind personal improvement. Nearly all personal transformation in the North Korea of this novel happens through heavy suffering. Whether it comes about from the loss of an entire family, from the necessity of doing the unthinkable to survive, or from the effects of torture, the purchase of a new identity is psychologically and physically expensive.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. How does the North Korean state use stories to transform its citizens' lives?
    2. According to the Interrogator, what is the purpose of his version of torture/interrogation? How is it different from that of the Pubyok?
    3. Why do you think Johnson tells us at the end of Part I that "from this point forward nothing further is known of the citizen called Pak Jun Do" when we know that his story actually continues?
    4. Why does Comrade Buc tell the Interrogator and crew that Sun Moon "turned into a bird and flew away" rather than simply say that she defected?

    Chew on This

    The allegory of the "fatherly bear" emphasizes the necessity of surrendering personal identity in service to the state.

    Q-Kee does not undergo a radical transformation by the end of her narrative: she just becomes more herself.

  • Truth

    Ah, truthiness. You can thank Stephen Colbert for coming up with this truly ridiculous term to describe something that seems like truth but really isn't. Truthiness is "...the truth we want to exist" (source). It's based on wishful thinking. Hey, if it sounds good and feels about right, then it must be true… right?

    In The Orphan Master's Son, North Korea take "truthiness" to a whole new level. We're talking about people who are all about embracing a reality completely removed from any kind of objective truth. We see this obstinacy at highly emotional moments, when the truth has been revealed and the characters teeter on the edge of acceptance—like when the Pubyok figure out that Duc Dan's miserable fate must be true and they're all probably in line for the same, but they still just can't let go of the beautiful lie.

    Well, no wonder. The lies are totally "truthy" in the sense that they're actually sane and play on normal expectations: old people retire to pleasant Wonsan; torture victims get new lives once they've paid the price; heroes live on, honored and valued by the state. What's not to believe?

    Jun Do's experiences lead him past the glossy lies and allow him to embrace the horror of his reality. Having the truth means having access to indisputable knowledge, something that is top priority for an orphan who doesn't even know the story of his own parents. This knowledge gives Jun Do the power to change his story—and the stories of others—because he's able to scheme with his eyes wide open.

    Questions About Truth

    1. What happens when Jun Do realizes that his actions involving the orphans were not simply the product of "having no other choice"?
    2. How does the important role of storytelling in this book complicate the truth? Does it ever make the truth more visible?
    3. In what ways is the truth more destructive than lies in this book? In what ways is the truth absolutely necessary?
    4. Why does Comrade Buc get angry when Jun Do/Imposter Ga tells him of his plan to defect with Sun Moon?

    Chew on This

    Though Jun Do wants to make others face truths, his epiphany that "there's no such thing as abandonment" is just a way of deceiving himself.

    Although storytelling is a way of avoiding reality in this book, there's also a sense that truth can be found in both story and song.

  • Foreignness and the "Other"

    North Korean characters in The Orphan Master's Son often respond to foreign cultures with extreme distrust, fueled by the propaganda fed to them through loudspeakers that are hooked up in everyone's houses. When experience teaches these characters that not all is as it seems, the world opens up for them in sometimes frightening ways. In fact, the realization that the world is not the place they were taught has catastrophic consequences for many of these characters.

    Americans have more accurate information about the world—and yet there are hints that they haven't cornered the market on truth, either. Johnson likes to make fun of his American characters, too. For example, they characterize the people of most of the developing world as "dog-eaters" and thinking that they can fix everything with military power, a good chat, or Jesus.

    Still, Jun Do finds emotional depth and compassion in the Americans he meets, and there's an openness about them that is totally captivating for him. It's no coincidence that his desire for emotional intimacy happens after his visit to the U.S.—that is, after his first real encounter with the Other.

    Questions About Foreignness and the "Other"

    1. How does Jun Do begin to learn about the world outside of North Korea? How does this knowledge change his view of North Korea?
    2. How does Sun Moon define being Korean? Is she sincere when she tells the Dear Leader that only Koreans can ever understand what it's like to be Korean?
    3. How do the North Korean characters in this novel regard their own government? Which of their notions are correct? Which are incorrect?
    4. What is the general view of Americans in this work? What is Jun Do's experience of Americans?

    Chew on This

    Jun Do's perception of Japan and its citizens stems from his own sense of depravation rather than from his direct experience of the place.

    Dr. Song's interpretation of American political behavior is included to point out American failings rather than to highlight willful manipulation of facts on the part of the North Koreans.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    Yeah, this is North Korea, folks: personal freedom is not a thing. Every aspect of an individual's life—schooling, work, sex, death—is a gift from the state. It comes as no surprise, then, that beautiful young women are parceled out to the military elite, or that orphans are used for the least desirable jobs. But the brutality and pervasiveness of confinement in this society is a real stunner. Imprisonment and torture become the norm, whether a citizen has served the state well or not.

    And in The Orphan Master's Son, we find out that it's never enough to just imprison the body: terror and starvation are used to shackle the mind and sense of free will. Controlling the feeling of freedom allows the state to shape identity as well as expectation, as we see from the Interrogator's narrative. Jun Do, who feels free only because he cheats confinement, can't conceive of a life free from tyranny.

    … Until he plays his last card against the Dear Leader, that is. At that moment, he realizes that freedom—for him at least—really is just another word for nothing left to lose.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. How does Jun Do define freedom? Does it change over the course of the book?
    2. Why does Sun Moon appear not to understand why people are stealing flowers from the graves of the martyrs? Why does she deny her beginnings to Jun Do/Impostor Ga?
    3. Why does the Interrogator make the decisions he does at the end of his narrative? What does he want to escape or gain?
    4. Who do you think has a more accurate sense of what it means to be free, Wanda or Jun Do?

    Chew on This

    Freedom can only truly be felt by people who have been confined.

    In this book, the North Koreans' idea of freedom is limited by the language available to them from communist rhetoric.

  • Identity

    In The Orphan Master's Son, Jun Do is introduced to us as a boy without choices. Abused by the Orphan Master and facing a life of hardship, he makes some pretty questionable moral decisions to preserve himself. Like, you know, he sends other boys to their deaths. When depressed by the memories of boys lost, he's all, "What choice did I have?" It's not until Jun Do begins making choices—rather than backing into them—that his inner life blossoms and his identity forms.

    It's no coincidence that the development of real relationships plays a critical role in this process. When Jun Do becomes part of the crew and again when he connects with Sun Moon, he sees the importance of self-determination. And ironically, taking on Commander Ga's identity shows Jun Do's desire to create his own life story.

    It's also no coincidence that the Interrogator—who has no connection to anyone—literally has no personal identity. Untethered, he begins to doubt even the story of his birth. The Interrogator can hardly be blamed for his predicament. In a place where personal identity morphs to fit the needs of the state, it's kind of miraculous that characters like Jun Do, the Captain, and Comrade Buc learn how to run off script at all. For these characters, the desire to assert their individual desires ultimately outruns their determination to survive.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How does life in Kim Jong Il's North Korea affect the development of personal identity for the characters?
    2. How important is Jun Do's identity as an orphan? In what ways does it affect his life, relationships, and choices throughout the book?
    3. In what ways does Sun Moon's persona change throughout the book? Is there anything surprising about the development of her character?
    4. Why does the Interrogator have a hard time writing his own biography?

    Chew on This

    The Interrogator becomes fascinated with Impostor Ga's story because it is the story of how an individual forges a life outside the guidelines of the state.

    Sun Moon never moves past the role of the "Great Actress," even in her decision to defect to the United States.

  • Love

    In The Orphan Master's Son, Jun Do begins life as an orphan, unloved and expendable, and spends a good part of his time floating around without anything to lose. But at the moment when the Captain tattoos the face of Sun Moon on Jun Do's chest, an idea takes root in his heart. He begins to wonder what it means to have people care about.

    While he focuses his curiosity on romantic love at first, he doesn't stop there. He understands that loving people (and being loved) forms an important part of character and identity. Without love, he is nothing, like the Interrogator. But when he makes crucial connections, his life takes shape and opens up to the possibility of something greater.

    His plans may never be realized as he wants them to be, but he still gets the opportunity to choose love over obedience to the state. And that, to riff on a phrase from the immortal Pink Floyd, means one less brick in the wall.

    Questions About Love

    1. What does love mean to Jun Do while he is at the orphanage? How about later, when he meets Sun Moon?
    2. How does the Dear Leader conceive of love? Why does he want the American rower to fall for him?
    3. In what ways is the Interrogator's quest for love surprising? Or do you think his mystification about love is unsurprising?
    4. How does life in a tightly controlled state change how love is perceived and expressed, according to this work?

    Chew on This

    Although The Orphan Master's Son deals with the national tragedy that is North Korea, it's really a love story at its core.

    As Jun Do's singing of "The Yellow Rose of Texas" to Sun Moon proves, the expression of passionate love is not really possible in Johnson's version of North Korea.