Analysis of Cho Se-hui’s The Dwarf

A Little Ball Launched by a Dwarf, by Korean author Cho Se-hui (1942–2022) is a collection of 12 sequential stories, including such diverse titles as “Knifeblade,” “Moebius Strip,” “A Little Ball Launched by a Dwarf,” “Spaceship,” “On the Footbridge,” “The Cost of Living,” “Mr. Klein’s Bottle,” “God Is Guilty Too,” and “Spinyfish Headed for My Net.” This collection of interrelated stories challenges and redefines the limits of the novel. The work was translated into English in 2002. With great use of irony, these stories manifest Cho’s sharp criticism of the modern democratic and capitalistic society, an economic system in which the have-nots are structurally destined to be ruled, exploited, and defeated.

The title story follows the frustration and anger of a dwarf’s family in the 1970s. The father, named Kim Bool-yee, is a 46-inch, 70-pound dwarf who has been trying to make a living doing all sorts of manual labor and currently works as a plumber. The mother works at a printing factory, and two sons, Young-su and Young-ho, who were once honor students, have quit their school and now work at the factory to ease their parents’ financial burden. The daughter, Young-hee, is very pretty and devoted to her parents and brothers. This poor but loving family of five have managed to live in a humble shanty in a slum area of Seoul named Haengbok (Happiness)-dong and Nahkwon (Paradise)-ku. These overstated names poignantly suggest not only the hellish struggle that the family members have to wage in order to survive but also the tragic ending they will suffer in return for their efforts to be happy. The story is narrated by the three siblings, Young-su, Young-ho, and Young-hee, and each brings social charges against inhumane, capital-oriented rich land developers and speculators, incorporating intellectual, humanist, and feminist point of views.

Cho Se-hui

In the first part, Young-su presents the government’s inhumane, cruel treatment, which drives out the poor and powerless from their homes with a disguised policy of improving the slum area with a new housing project. One day his family receives a demolition notice from the government, though they are also given a ballot for a new apartment house that will be built in the same slum area. Most of shanty residents in Haengbokdong, however, decide to sell their rights to rich land speculators and move to a less-expensive area called Seongnam because they cannot afford the new apartment expenses. Young-su’s family also decide to sell their right, but his father Kim Bool-yee and sister Young-hee have a hard time digesting the shock that they have to leave their home and start their lives all over in a strange place. In particular, Kim Bool-yee, who has long been depressed by the guilt of not supporting his family due to his weak health, finally becomes deranged and disappears: He has been talking of becoming a circus hand like his friend, and when he hears the family’s decision to move, he decides to search for a circus company to make his fortune. Young-hee, who wants her family to live in the new apartment house instead, goes to the rich land speculator who bought her family’s ballot, without telling her family. Unable to find his father and sister, Young-su and the rest of the family finally move to Seongnam and start their illegal residence there.

In the second part, Young-ho tells the tragic story of his family after the move. His father, Kim Boolyee, falls off the roof of a brick-making factory; the accident happens while he is trying to shoot a small iron ball on a paper plane toward the moon. Youngho’s mother, after her husband’s death, tries to make a living but becomes depressed by the prospect that they will never get out of the cycle of poverty and suffering. Young-ho’s older brother, working at a printing house, joins the labor union but is accused of being a communist and beaten harshly by the managers. His girlfriend, Myong-hee, who became a caddy at a golf course, is raped and commits suicide. Young-ho, watching his unfortunate mother and brother, decides to stick to his underpaid job at a small electricity shop and becomes the family’s most substantial supporter.

In the third part, Young-hee, who had gone to the rich land speculator and became his secretary and lover, finally retrieves her family’s ballot for the new apartment house. She then runs away from the man she has hated and returns to her shanty house with a fully paid contract for the new apartment. However, despite her self-sacrificing efforts for her family, she learns from a neighbor that her father has died and the rest of her family has moved elsewhere. Shocked and frustrated, she faints and falls into a deep sleep. In her dream, she meets her brother and cries: “Kill the villains who call my dad a dwarf!” There the sequence of stories forming a novel ends.

This heart-wrenching story of the poor family of a dwarf has resonated in Korean society since its publication. Kim Bool-yee starts to lose his mind after he hears from a neighbor that if someone works hard, abides the law, prays faithfully, and still finds an unfortunate life, he should leave this dead, indifferent world and move to the moon. Taking these words literally, he begins to dream of life on the moon, and whenever something goes wrong, he goes outside and shoots a small iron ball high into the air. Even though he sees all of his balls fall back to the earth, he keeps shooting and dreaming. One day he climbs up on the chimney of the factory where he had once worked in order to stand closer to the moon. There he makes a last but his most passionate try to launch his dream up to the moon, but this time, like all of his past iron balls, he falls down to the earth—and dies.

Perhaps the dwarf’s wish to live in a place where he is not discriminated against gets justly rewarded. However, the fact that his small, ordinary dream is presented as something impossible to realize on the planet Earth, and possible only on the distant moon, poignantly suggests the deteriorating living conditions of the poor, powerless people in 1970s Korean society. The author Cho wanted to give a warning sign to his society: The story of the dwarf Kim Bool-yee remains a sad portrait of those countless poor urban laborers whose dream of educating their children and living a happy life with their family members continues to be dwarfed if not totally eclipsed by the rich and powerful.

Choi Gap-jin. “A Study of Hwang Suhk-young and Cho Sehee.” Woorimalgeul 24 (Winter 2002): 149–164.
Kim Woo-chang. “History and Human Reason: Twentyfi ve Years Since Cho Se-hee’s A Little Ball Launched by a Dwarf.” Dongnam Uhmunnonjip 7 (1997): 51–76.
“On Cho Se-hee.” Jakgasehgye (special edition) 7 (1990). Shin Myung-jik. The Dream of Impossible Subversion. Seoul: Shiinsa, 2002.
Yee Kyong-ho. “Interview with Cho Se-hee.” Jakgasehgye 54 (Autumn 2002): 18–35.

Categories: Korean Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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