Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Kim’s dedication of his novel to Camus’s memory, and his epigraph from an unfinished play by Friedrich Hölderlin expressing a spiritually familial love of one’s homeland, constitute an overture to the novel’s theme of the human need for religious belief or its equivalent. Kim, like many twentieth century writers, recognizes the modern insufficiency of traditional religions to satisfy this need. In the novel, Captain Lee and Mr. Shin exemplify, respectively, two means of satisfying this ineradicable need.

Captain Lee does so by identifying his individual self with his existential situation. He is heir to the transcendent happiness of Camus’s Sisyphus, who makes his futile situation his own by contemplating the noble absurdity of the situation as he descends the hill to retrieve his rock. Lee also is like Camus’s Dr. Rieux, for whom the futility of a fight does not justify giving it up. Camusian “nostalgia,” which is the longing to return to a nonexistent heaven and which can be satisfied by a profound experience of one’s homeland within one’s heart, marks Lee’s coming to terms with existence by finding his homeland within himself.

Mr. Shin satisfies his longing to find the Kingdom of God within himself by learning, like Lagerkvist’s pilgrim Tobias, that his very longing is his homeland. Like Unamuno’s Saint Manuel, he translates his quondam faith in God into an active faith in faith itself. Again, like André Malraux’s oppressed worker in Man’s Faith who seeks his salvation in the very humiliation from which he has terminated his attempt to escape, Shin seeks his salvation in the very loss of the faith that he has terminated his attempt to experience.