Study Guide

The Orphan Master's Son Freedom and Confinement

By Adam Johnson

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.

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