ABSTRACT

Popular love stories of seventeenth-century Korea often depict characters physically and psychologically suffering from irresistible desire and painful separation, but the interpretation of the characters’ sickness and consequential death tends to yield different and even competing understandings of love and the body in literature. In these stories, the lovesick characters are victimized by this sickness, but the symptoms tend to eulogize the power of passionate love to override the mind and physical body. Lovesickness thus carries a political message of resistance or social protest through the medium of the physical body. At the same time, lovesickness is regarded as a form of Confucian sin and a violation of filial piety. In this chapter, the gendered notion of “dying of love” is used to examine a fictional work, “Unyŏng chŏn” (“Tale of Unyŏng”), and to explore the complex negotiations between personal desire and cultural values. This study places lovesickness and gender at the center of the discussion of how male and female deaths are represented in seventeenth-century texts to reveal the link between female suicide and the cult of female martyrdom. The discussion aims to provide a more nuanced picture of the deaths of lovesick women in these stories—upheld as virtuous acts—and contends that female death is a site of dynamic interaction between passionate love, the body, and Confucian doctrine.