READING BETWEEN THE LINES
The Sorceress is a gripping story of a cursed family. A family whose only mistake in earning the curse was to have a father that was a gambler and died before his time. After the father's death the mother and daughter, having no means of support, rely on the handouts of others until the daughter also helps to propagate the curse by becoming an unwed mother. The family is forced to move and after the mother's death, the daughter (Eulhwa), eventually becomes a shaman. Eulhwa bears another child out of wedlock, this time a girl, and after several years the boyfriend too abandons them; but not before the girl is struck by illness and the son is sent to become a monk.
It sounds like a serious tragedy, but in reality it is closer to a satire of Lilliputian proportion. The names and places however are different. Instead of attacking the King of England and his outrageous policies the author attacks a host of subjects; the most obvious being that of superstition. The poor characters in the story are hounded by the ignorant and superstitious horde that are the common Korean people of the early 20th century. As in any tragedy there are heroes but they are subdued and far from being free of human flaws. The author continues his ruthless assault on the character of Korea itself, it's habits and institutions. He then turns his attention to the West as he mocks, although not as severely as superstition, Christianity. Not satisfied there, he continues to discredit the basic tenet's of Confucianism. Throughout the story there is but one ray of light, one bastion of innocence; Wolhie, the daughter of Eulhwa, is an uncut piece of jade. A piece of jade that has, as yet, been unspoiled by the pressures surrounding her. And there is also a war, a war of ideologies, symbolizing a similar struggle in Korea, to see who will control this precious uncut stone called Wolhie.
As the story opens we are treated to the image of Wolhie, who's "face, neck, shoulders, waist, legs, in fact her appearance as a whole could not be more exquisitely beautiful." Even "sacred and sublime". Wolhie's appearance represents the beauty of the nation, but only that part of it that is innocent and unspoiled.
Wolhie though, is surrounded by decay. As the son, Yongsul, plods back to his hometown in search of his mother he is assaulted by the horrors of rotting human waste at the corner of every yard, a toilet in the village hall encrusted with flies and at last the crumbling wall of his mother's house; which may as well be the crumbling of the society she lives in. The house itself is a picture of decay, surrounded by overgrown weeds and debris. Even as a ten year old boy Yongsul was disillusioned by the monks in the temple who just ate, slept or were occupied with their own business.
Yongsul, on the other hand, is a living representation of the west with his western style clothes, bag and boots. As he approaches the crumbling house his image frightens young Wolhie. The image this presents is clearly a metaphor for the western encroachment upon the innocence of Korea. And just as the many Christian missionaries to Korea had been intending to do, Yongsul too, vows to convert his poor ignorant mother and sister "little by little".
Was the curse against this pitiable family brought upon them by the early death of the father? The author thinks not! The author blatantly attributes nearly every turn of events in the story to superstition. The superstition of the ignorant citizens who treat Eulhwa's mother badly, in spite of her hard work. Oksun (Eulhwa's name before she became a shaman) too is treated badly as a second wife and is blamed for the death of her older husband/master by the husband's family. After that she is forced out of the house and nearly cut off from support, again, the author is dehumanizing the common people. But all is not hopeless, he lets us know that there is still some good, it is the exception and not the rule, but the husband's eldest son cares for Eulhwa and helps her to get a new house. A house know one else wants to live in because of the superstitions surrounding it.
Finally this prevailing superstition is responsible, not just for a person's mistreatment, but for a child's death when Granny Taeju kills a young boy and cuts off the tip of his finger to try to improve her divining abilities with a spirit link to the otherworld.
At first look, the author would have us believing Christianity is a saving grace. An enlightened code with no vices. Indeed when Yongsul inadvertently saw his sister's naked body he was quick to drive the thoughts from his head and pray. Even the founder of the church, Elder Park, in the face of superstition, accepts Yongsul while knowing that his mother is Eulhwa the local shaman.
Elder park and Yongsul seem to have the same agendas, it is the betterment of life for the ignorant masses. Elder park plans to achieve it through education while both he and Yongsul want to eliminate superstition. Yongsul actually adopted Christianity because of it's rejection of heathen idols whereas Buddhism doesn't.
The author clearly favors Christianity over Buddhism and Shamanism. He does however take a jab or two at Christianity. When Youngsul is trying to decide whether or not to go to his newly discovered father's house to live, Elder Park, who is supposed to be a pillar of Christian morality, urges him to go. Although Elder Park claims otherwise, he is in effect asking him to abandon his mother and sister; the two people Youngsul wants to help most. Later when Youngsul catches his mother trying to burn his bible he becomes a raging madman "Unbeknownst to himself Yongsul kicked open the door and ran out shoeless from the stone step to the kitchen." He is now acting like his mother when she is possessed by the spirit and he is also clearly worshipping his precious bible. Indeed he is quite hypocritically performing the same idol worship that he claims to be adamantly against.
"...Yongsul could not bear to leave his bible in her hands...He leapt into the kitchen and shouted at the top of his voice. Mother! What have you done with my bible?" Again, the author is exposing the chinks in the Christian armor. If indeed, Christianity were so strong the confidence that comes from strength would allow Yongsul to ignore his mother's acts against what amounts to nothing more than just a little book. In fact, Yongsul's frequent loss of temper throughout the story is evidence of his failure to gain complete peace of mind through his faith.
Confucianism too, is not to be spared in the authors relentless attacks on anything resembling a religion. When Yongsul's natural father discovers that the fine young lad at church is his real son he quickly arranges a meeting so he can restore his true son to his rightful place in the family records. I don't think so! And neither does the author! This is the same family who literally drove Oksun and her mother away from their neighborhood when their son impregnated young Oksun and was unwilling to face up to the responsibility of what had happened. This is the same father who for twenty years made no attempt to find his "beloved" son who's mother lived in a village a mere eight kilometers from his house. Yes, this is the father who only wanted to meet his son because his wife was unable to bear him a son and the family was in jeopardy of not being able to carry on it's name. If indeed the wife had given birth to a son Yongsul would be ignored and even barred from making contact with his father had he tried. The author is clearly not impressed with this confucian creed.
Elder Park's father treats his son (Elder Park) very badly, but fully in line with the accepted standards of confucianism. The author kills him off to make his point. Along with the death of the father we can see the dying of the old institutions and the acceptance of the new.
When Wolhie is in danger of being sent to master Chung's house as a second wife Yongsul of course tries to stop it, but Eulhwa reminds him that "When a man reaches thirty he must keep a concubine or fear losing face." Here lies exposed another principle of the confucian influence.
The theme of this story is one repeated over and over again in Korean literature in stories like "The Rock" by Kim Dongin and "The Fire" by Hyun Jin Kun. It is a condemnation of the foul aspects of the society. Unlike these other stories in which the solution is presented as death or cleansing fire, this story has another facet. There is a battle raging in "The Sorceress". A battle between superstition, Confucianism and Christianity. Although Christianity is presented as being less than perfect Kim Dong-ni offers it up as a viable alternative to the fallacious beliefs that abound and in so doing expresses his support for the western influence. The combatants in the battle, Eulhwa representing a history of Shamanistic beliefs, and Yongsul representing the encroachment of the west and it's Christian influence, are faced off against one another fighting for control of the prize. A shapeless piece of unformed clay that encompasses both the innocence and the future of a nation. All contained in the divine form of Wolhie.