Study Guide

The Orphan Master's Son Versions of Reality

By Adam Johnson

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.