48 pages 1 hour read

Cho Nam-Joo, Transl. Jamie Chang

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982: A Novel

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2016

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Summary and Study Guide


Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is a best-selling novel by Korean writer Cho Nam-Joo that addresses themes of Sexual Harassment and Gender Discrimination, Motherhood and Career Trajectory, and Shared Experiences Among Women. Published in 2016, the novel resonated with readers due to its publication during Korea’s #MeToo movement and in the wake of a high-profile act of misogynistic violence. The book became a flashpoint for conversations about gender inequality in Korean society. Translations into 18 languages demonstrated the resonance of its themes globally. Cho studied sociology and later wrote for a television program based on current events. She grounds her fictional narrative in a wealth of statistics and labor data—complete with footnotes—to create a hybrid form that is both creatively imagined and research-supported. In 2019, the book was adapted into a critically and commercially successful South Korean film.

This study guide refers to the English translation by Jamie Chang, published in a paperback edition by Liveright in 2020.

Plot Summary

Kim Jiyoung is a new mother living in Seoul, South Korea, with her husband Daehyun. Jiyoung starts behaving strangely one morning, reciting a rhyme in her mother’s voice. A few days later, she takes on the voice of a recently deceased friend. Jiyoung doesn’t remember these incidents after the fact.

During a holiday gathering with Daehyun’s family, Jiyoung speaks in her mother’s voice at the dinner table. Her in-laws are stunned. Her father-in-law is especially perturbed and offended. Daehyun is frightened by her behavior and feels that he is growing estranged from her. He consults with a psychiatrist and makes an appointment for his wife.

The following chapters relate Jiyoung’s life story, beginning with her birth in 1982. Her paternal grandmother lives with the family. She always impressed upon Jiyoung’s mother the importance of having male children. After Jiyoung was born, her mother became pregnant again. When she learned it was a girl, she aborted the pregnancy. Five years later, Jiyoung’s brother was born. She and her older sister sense from a young age that their brother’s well-being is the family’s priority.

When her mother was younger, she and her sister worked a dangerous factory job to earn money for their brothers’ educations. She wanted to become a teacher, but never had the opportunity. Now, with three children to raise, she takes on a series of menial jobs before starting a successful hair salon in their apartment.

When Jiyoung starts elementary school, she encounters disagreeable and unfair gender-based conditions. Her desk-mate teases, harasses, and steals from her. She struggles to finish her lunch because the boys eat first, leaving her insufficient time.

In middle school, Jiyoung is in a classroom with a view of a flasher who regularly exposes himself from the street. A group of girls takes it upon themselves to apprehend him. Jiyoung has her first period, which her mother treats like an embarrassing secret.

She enters an all-girls high school. She and her peers are subjected to pervasive sexual harassment by teachers, employers, and strangers. On the bus home one day, Jiyoung is stalked by a menacing boy. The frightening experience is made worse by her father’s implication that it was somehow her fault.

Jiyoung’s father loses his job in the 1997 financial crisis. He starts a series of businesses, but they all fail. Her mother—who has exhibited talent for business and money management—convinces him to open a porridge shop across the street from a new hospital; the business is a success.

Meanwhile, Jiyoung starts college and discovers new facets of her personality. She meets her first boyfriend in a hiking club where she also befriends a woman named Seungyeon. The club has never had a female president and Seungyeon wants to change that. On a hiking trip, Jiyoung overhears male club members discussing her in crude terms.

As Jiyoung begins to plan for a career in marketing, she finds that the recruitment, application, and interview processes are weighted in favor of male candidates. During an interview, she is asked a demeaning question about how she would handle sexual harassment from a client.

Gender discrimination and sexual harassment continue when she finds a job at a marketing firm after graduation. Her team leader is Kim Eunsil, one of the few women in a management role at the company. Jiyoung is subjected to routine sexual harassment by older male clients. In one incident, she is forced to sit beside a client company who gets her drunk and makes lascivious comments about her. She is later passed over for a new project. She discovers that women were not assigned to the project because the possibility of pregnancy makes them unreliable.

Jiyoung marries Daehyun. Their parents soon pester them to start a family. Her in-laws make inconsiderate comments about her body and health. Daehyun is ready to have children but doesn’t appreciate how much Jiyoung stands to lose by becoming a mother.

She becomes pregnant. At work and in public she receives discouraging messages about working while pregnant. She ultimately decides to quit her job. She gives birth to a baby girl named Jiwon. Her mother opens up for the first time about how difficult parenting was for her. But she espouses an idealized concept of maternal love that Jiyoung finds unrealistic and constricting.

One of Jiyoung’s former colleagues comes to visit her and Jiwon. The woman tells Jiyoung about a recent scandal at her former employer. A security guard installed hidden cameras in a women’s restroom and posted videos of female employees on a pornographic internet site. Their male colleagues discovered the videos and shared them among themselves. When the cameras were finally discovered, the head of the company sympathized more with the male employees than with the victimized women. Several women—including Jiyoung’s former team leader Kim Eunsil—quit in disgust.

When Jiwon begins daycare, Jiyoung considers seeking part-time employment, but none of the job prospects pan out. Sitting in a park one day, Jiyoung is upset when she overhears men making misogynistic remarks about her. Shortly after this, Jiyoung begins speaking in the voices of other women.

The final chapter reveals that the preceding story has been narrated by Jiyoung’s psychiatrist. He pieced together the narrative from information Jiyoung revealed during therapy sessions. He considers several diagnoses but isn’t sure if she has a psychiatric condition. He has come to appreciate the difficulties women face in Korean society. He reflects on the career disruptions that his wife, a former doctor, faced upon becoming a mother. She quit her job to care for their son full time.

A female counselor who works for the psychiatrist enters his office to announce her resignation; she is pregnant. The psychiatrist realizes he will probably lose some clients when she leaves. He decides that the next time he hires a woman, he’ll make sure she’s single.