The Uniformity of Living Space and the Anxiety of the Middle Class

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


This article discusses South Korean novelist Park Wan-seo’s early works on houses and apartments in the 1970s, focusing on the flatness and uniformity of space created by apartments behind the anxiety and pain of the Korean middle class. Park’s early short stories contain a cold accusation of the situation at the time where the ‘middle class’, who collectively resided in a new type of housing called ‘apartment’, could not grow as citizens while revealing a concern about the future that cannot be clearly captured. This paper reflects on the present and future of the Korean middle class beyond the shame of the survivalism in the aftermath of the Korean Civil War and much-discussed philistinism of the middle class. Protagonists of Park Wan-seo’s early short stories in the 1970s discover the hypocrisy and contradiction that exist behind the ‘happy family’ of their neighbours and themselves and fear their neighbours’ gaze. They are contradictory beings who feel extreme anxiety about their lives in apartments, along with relief at being the few among many people who have been successful in material achievements like orderly apartment spaces. The apartment city in Park’s novels is described as a place sensitive to differences, and it does whatever is needed to eliminate such differences. This is also indicative of the emotional structure of apartment residents, which corresponds to the homogeneous and flat structure of apartment space. The protagonists, who wish to procure everything that others have in their own homes, are driven into a deep anxiety finding themselves in desperate situations, where they recognise the problem but cannot stop pursuing the same goals as others. The female characters in Park’s novels attempt to search for conditions to escape from this anxiety, which is represented as an attempt to escape the family. The ‘imagination of defamilisation’ of Park Wan-seo’s protagonists goes further than merely breaking away from the patriarchal family framework. Their imagination is based on the awareness that the uniformity and hierarchical ‘purity’ embodied in the ‘ville’ of the apartments confine the limitless potential of an individual to the economic achievements of one family. Therefore, their dream of ‘being away from the family’ is thinking about how to break out of a flat and uniform space and simultaneously imagining the transition from an isolated family to a more extended community. The femininity described in Park Wan-seo’s novels shows that ordinary Korean women in the 1970s do not just stand as a substitute for the patriarchal system. Anxiety captured in the early short stories can be understood as a new affect in which the protagonists, driven by the emotions of envy, jealousy, helplessness, and despair, deny it to find an independent form of life and prepare to rise above it.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAdvances in 21st Century Human Settlements
Number of pages19
StatePublished - 2023

Publication series

NameAdvances in 21st Century Human Settlements
ISSN (Print)2198-2546
ISSN (Electronic)2198-2554


  • 1970s Novel
  • Apartment city
  • Apartment novel
  • Korean middle class
  • Park Wan-seo
  • Structure of emotion


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