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Korea – Telling Tales Analysis – AQA Anthology

John McGahern was an Irish novelist and short story writer. ‘Korea’ was first published in 1969.

In Korea, the boy’s father talks of having fought in the Irish War of Independence. This war occurred between the Irish Republican Party (IRA) and British forces between 1919 and 1921.

The story is set in the 1950s when the Korean War was happening. American soldiers entered the war to help South Korea stop the invasion of the communist North Korean state.

Plot summary

An unnamed boy and his father, a fisherman, sail in a boat. The father speaks of witnessing two executions in 1919 as part of the Irish War of Independence. The boy notes that this is the first time his father has talked about the war. He presumes that this is because the boy is now an adult and will soon be doing something different with his life.

The boy tells his father that he will decide on his next steps after seeing his end-of-school exam results. The father suggests that he go to America, where there are more opportunities. He even says that he will pay for his son to go there.

While considering this option, the boy overhears his father talking to a friend about the possible financial gains of him joining the army. The two men discuss how the American government gives monthly sums to families of American soldiers fighting in Korea. They also get a lump sum of ten thousand dollars if the soldier dies.

Realising that his father wants him to be called up to the American army to gain money, the boy feels betrayed. He now feels that he knows his father better than ever.

Characters

The Boy

The boy is on the cusp of adulthood, having finished his school. While he awaits his exam results, he continues to help his father in his fishing business. He is keen to learn more about his father and is intrigued by his war story.

When he finds out about his father’s ulterior motives suggesting he go to America, he feels hurt and betrayed. This is a moment of growing up for him, and also growing apart from his father and any sense of duty he feels towards him.

The Father

The boy’s father is a fisherman. His trade is struggling because of new laws that limit how much he can fish, which worries him. He has always been silent about his experiences in war, which he finds painful to talk about.

He says that telling his son about the execution “disturbed” him greatly. It is even more shocking that he knows how awful being a soldier is. Yet, he seems to contemplate the idea of his son ending up in Korea to fight in the war there, possibly for financial gain.

Language, Structure and Form

  • McGahern tells the story with a first-person narrative from the boy’s perspective. This is effective as we only learn about his father’s cruel intentions when the boy overhears him speaking, making it a great shock. We also hear the boy’s inner monologue as he reacts to this. He is suspicious of his father as he watches him, “as closely as if I too had to prepare myself to murder.”
  • The reader is told the story of the execution in the boy’s words rather than the father’s dialogue. This perhaps tells us of the story’s profound effect on the boy. Also, his father refuses to analyse the moment beyond stating what happened. Therefore, there are some parts of the story in which the boy adds his own commentary, such as, “it must have been because of the hands in the pockets.”
  • There is a foreshadowing of the father’s betrayal. When talking about his future, the boy notes of his father: “there was something calculating in the face; it made me watchful of him as I rowed the last stretch of line.” His instinct tells him to be suspicious of his father’s motives in the discussion, but he cannot guess how cold his father’s thoughts are.

Themes

Growing up

The boy is on the brink of adulthood, awaiting his exam results. There is uncertainty about his next phase of life. He tells his father that good exam results will mean he’ll “have choices”, but with poor results, “I’ll have to take what I can get.” His father then offers him the opportunity to go to America, which adds another option – and more uncertainty.

Any remaining sense of childhood, and his role as a son, is destroyed by his father’s shocking betrayal. He realises that this is the end of his respect for his father, and the moment his “youth had ended.”

Family loyalty

What makes the father’s betrayal all the worse is that we see the boy’s loyalty and love towards his father. He is angry about the fishing restrictions and what this will do for his father’s livelihood. He is also filled with the “guilt of leaving” and worries about the financial impact of his father having to hire someone to replace him.

The father plans to send his son to America out of his desperate financial situation, hoping that he will be called up to the war in Korea. This shock causes the boy to feel a “splintering” of his “self-esteem” as he realises how little love his father shows towards him in this plan. Ironically, he says he has “never felt so close to him before”, as he understands him through adult eyes rather than the naivety of childhood.

The brutality of war

The cruelty of the father’s plan is made even more plain by his descriptions of the horror of war. The image of the boy’s execution, as he “tore at his tunic over the heart”, is heartbreaking. It profoundly affects the father, who tells of having a flashback to this moment on his honeymoon. He sees flowers blowing in the wind, reminding him of the buttons on the executed boy’s tunic bursting open. This shows how even pleasant, happy images become tainted by memories of war. He also admits to his son that he thinks about the war more the older he gets.

We then see the consequences of a later war as we hear about a local man killed in Korea. The fact that his father sees this as a financial opportunity only adds to the sense of inhumane brutality that comes about because of war.

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