The White Book is a novel written in 2016 by a South Korean writer, Han Kang. The unique and unconventional way of narration that is usually used by the author ensures the popularity of her books that are recognizable in different parts of the world (Hartanto 265). In 2018, the novel was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize. The book represents an autobiographical fragment of the author’s life when her newborn sister dies two hours after her birth. Through her narration, Kang makes the baby be a part of the author’s experience and gives her a new life that exists only on the pages of the book (Levy). Kang draws a parallel between the history of her country and her sister, comparing the process of destruction of her motherland during the war with the death of her sibling. In this paper, the main ideas of the novel will be provided. In addition, the unique way of narration that allows the author to describe the life and death of her newborn sister will be discussed. Also, the evidence that supports the thesis statement will be presented.
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The story begins with a description of the author’s thoughts about white objects. Thus, the author writes about a white door, a blank page, and the snowy city of Warsaw (Kang 10). It is not just a random choice of objects that are used to start the narration. The whole novel is written through the prism of the color white, which is a symbol of grief in Korea. The author explores the tragedy of her family and her personal feelings through the letter that she is writing to her sister, who will always be two hours old. She transfers the readers to the past, the hard time of violence and brutality when her parents were young.
It is difficult to describe the plot of the book because the way of the author’s narration differs from the conventional forms of writings that are usually used in literature. The book is divided into many short chapters that narrate various subjects, such as wintertime, war, or the death of the author’s sister. However, all the stories have something in common, namely, they describe white things and do not have protagonists. Instead, Kang uses the words “I” and “She,” referring to the narrator and her newborn sister. This method of writing ensures smooth transitions from the thoughts of the author to the narrative about her sister.
All the stories create one main theme of the whole book, which is mourning. The author intertwines people’s feelings about the death of their family members with the description of the feelings of the inhabitants of the city, which is destroyed by military actions. Even though it might seem that the whole idea of the book is about the short life of the author’s sister, in reality, the narrative also has a political connotation. Thus, wartime is not described just to support the author’s thoughts about mourning. It is pictured in a detailed way to open another line of narration. Kang not only demonstrates the consequences of World War II but also goes to the time of the 1980s when the Gwangju Uprising occurred in her native land. She examines occupations, political demonstrations, and deaths of civilians. Therefore, her mourning is closely connected with the mourning of hundreds of other humans who lost their relatives during the military incidents that occurred in her country.
One more theme that is explored in the book is the idea of resurrection. Describing the grief of her family, the author also gives some information about the future time of her parents. Thus, they overcame the difficulties related to the war and the loss of their daughter and managed to survive and raise another child. Similarly, the destroyed cities of the author’s motherland were rebuilt after the war, and the lives of the citizens returned to their regular daily routine. All these events symbolize the endless flow of life, which, however, may end and then start again. Therefore, even though in general, the author tends to recall negative incidents, eventually, Kang highlights that there is always a new beginning and hope for a better future.
Another remarkable detail about The White Book is that it highlights the idea of forgetting. The author emphasizes that it is not possible to survive and continue living without forgetting the negative moments of life. However, she does not concentrate on the sentimentality or emotional state of human beings. Instead, Kang focuses on exploring and analyzing people’s lives and the way they deal with unfavorable circumstances. In her attempt to analyze people’s experiences, the author managed to divide the earth and the sky, life and death, and grief and recovery. At the same time, the author demonstrates that all these things, being different, cannot exist separately. Similarly, the lives of human beings cannot have only happy moments. There is no happiness without mourning, and there is no beginning without the end.
Therefore, Han Kang is a skillful writer who created a truly unique composition that can be considered as both a novel and an essay. The experimental way of narration allows the author to transfer the main ideas and thoughts of her writing using symbolism. This technique does not require the author to explain every detail of her narration. Instead, it allows the readers to interpret the information and make a conclusion about the primary ideas in their way. This type of writing is usually aimed to attract intelligent readers, who can see symbolical meaning and find various connotations of the narration.
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Another writing technique that is used by the author is the utilization of epithets. Thus, Kang uses strongly marked and catchy descriptive adjectives explaining that her migraine pain is “agonizing,” and her feeling of a thrill is “vertiginous” (Kang 8). While all these small details might seem unnecessary for the readers, exactly these elements help to build an engaging and exciting narrative. Epithets used by Kang ensured the creation of emotional and lyrical composition, which attracted the attention of the world literary community.
One of the primary peculiarities of the writing style of Kang is the active usage of simile. It is noticeable from the first pages of the book when the author skillfully describes the way how she started working on the composition. Thus, Kang says that when she is trying to understand the meaning of the words from her drafts, the sentences “shiver out like the strange, sad shriek the bow draws from a metal string” (Kang 8). The same technique is used when Kang compares bands that were wound around her sister with snow or the shape of new life moments with a bead of blood (Kang 8). All the mentioned techniques define the writing style of the author and help Kang to transfer all the details of her memories and life experience to readers.
Indeed, Kang is a talented writer who managed to resurrect the events of the past and current times and draw a parallel between the history of her family and motherland. The author compares the incidents that happened to her parents with the historical events that occurred in Korea, and the way the state overcame the hard times. She continues her narration revealing the similarities between the way her family managed to survive and how her native country came to prosperity. It is interesting to notice that even though the book is divided into many chapters, the ideas described in them are closely connected.
Thus, the short period of life of the author’s sister and the time before the war are described similarly. In this case, the author pays attention to the feelings of the individuals who experience the fear of loss and hope that they can avoid death until the last moment. The mother of Han Kang begs her baby to stay alive but understands that there is nothing she can do to prevent her from dying. Interestingly, the inhabitants of the cities where the war was about to start had similar thoughts and hopes. Also, they are in the same helpless position as the mother of Kang. Therefore, this is the first link that draws a connection between the two primary incidents described in the book.
The second evidence that proves the connection between the history of the author’s family and motherland can be found in the characterization of the consequences caused by negative circumstances. Thus, the author sees the country during and after the war as a destroyed and depressive land inhabited by unhappy humans who struggle to survive. The writer, however, does not focus on the emotional well-being of its citizens. Instead, she concentrates on the appearance of the streets in the cities after military actions, deserted land, and dilapidated buildings. The feelings of the mother who lost her child have the same connotations. A woman, who lost her child, feels frustration, emptiness, and devastation. Therefore, the author drew a parallel between the emotional state of the mother who lost her baby and the appearance of her motherland, which lost her inhabitants and prosperity.
The process of the mother’s recovery and rebuilding of the state after the war also has many similarities. Thus, Kang asserts that her mother and father never forgot her older sister, and always remembered every minute of her short life. Similarly, the events of wars always stay in the history of countries. The knowledge about military actions, the number of people who died during wars, and their consequences are transferred from one generation to another. However, even though the author’s parents never forget about the pain they felt after their daughter had died, they could find enough power and energy to raise the family. They gave lives to other children and were capable of experiencing happy moments. Equivalently, the homeland of Kang managed to continue its existence, welcomed new citizens, and erected new buildings and new lives on the ruins left after the war.
Thus, the author demonstrates that the experience of one person or a group of people can be very similar to the experience of the whole country in a historical context. The writer narrates the main sources of pain in the life of her family and draws a parallel between two events that may seem different at first sight. In general, the composition can be considered as drama rather than just a simple compilation of entertaining stories. However, as the narration develops, it is noticeable that Hang reveals the way individuals can deal with grief. She gives readers the hope that people can still be happy despite all the difficulties they experience. There is always a chance to survive and overcome even the most destructive and painful moments in humans’ lives. White color, in this case, serves not only as a symbol of grief but also as a symbol of a canvas. Every person is free to draw on this canvas whatever he or she wants and make his or her life bright and colorful.
Therefore, it can be concluded that The White Book is a truly unique composition, which highlights the concepts that are always topical for human beings. Thus, the main ideas of the book turned out to be mourning and resurrection. The author also emphasizes the importance for people to have the ability to forget negative circumstances and move forward. The uniqueness of the book is ensured by the extreme openness and sincerity of Hang. She talks about two things that left a significant impression on the life of her family members, namely, the death of her sister and the war in her homeland. To better explain her emotions and feelings, the author draws a parallel between the history of her country and her sibling. She demonstrates similarities between two different events, namely, the war in her motherland and the death of her sister. As a result, the author showed that in both situations, people have fear and feel helpless facing death. Similarly, in both scenarios, life continued even though the mentioned events remained part of history.
Hartanto, Erika. “Reading Han Kang’s Human Acts: The Process of Remembering and Forgetting the Memory of the Past South Korea.” Proceeding Icon-ELite, vol. 1, no. 1, 2018, pp. 265-270.
Kang, Han. The White Book. Translated by Deborah Smith, Hogarth, 2016.
Levy, Deborah. “The White Book by Han Kang Review- the Fragility of Life.” The Guardian. 2017, Web.