Between Desire and Conscience: Dong Hoon’s Deliverance

@actionscript gives his perspective on Dong Hoon’s narrative arc and why it matters.

“When he is caught between desire and conscience, he always leans towards the latter.” Thus speaks Ki Hoon of his brother Dong Hoon in episode 1, and these words introduce us to the kind of man our protagonist is. I’d say it’s quite consistent with the image that Dong Hoon had exhibited in the first few scenes – in how gentle he was with the ladybug, and in how dutiful he was as a brother to both Sang Hoon and Ki Hoon. But Ki Hoon follows up those words with a seemingly ominous declaration: “I pity him the most.”

Protagonists in K dramas often go through a profound change – a character development arc – through the story that by the story’s conclusion, they have usually evolved into better versions of themselves. They traverse from a baseline state to an evolved state. The same is true for Dong Hoon’s character. While the character journey of Ji An seems more pronounced, Dong Hoon’s might seem easier to overlook, leaving many the impression that his character was static throughout the show. That line from Ki Hoon is uttered in episode 1, which makes it one of Dong Hoon’s baseline states, a state he will be growing out from.

The show further articulates Dong Hoon’s baseline states through the words of Ji An and Eomma. Ji An tells him, “You’re living through your life sentence of earnestness.” “You are someone who looks the most bored and unhappiest here. It seemed like your life is as hellish as mine.”

Eomma is also the most worried when it comes to Dong Hoon: “I get so upset every time I think about Dong Hoon. I raised my boys exactly the same way, but why am I always worried about Dong Hoon? My heart aches every time I think about him. He never tells me what goes on inside his head. He’s never even asked me to buy him anything. Meanwhile, the other two always asked me for stuff.”

Sang Won, the monk friend, further tells Dong Hoon: “Sang Hoon and Ki Hoon caused so many problems. But your mother never got upset because of them. She always says they’re hopeless and incorrigible. On the other hand, you seem to do fine, but she always gets upset about that. That’s because she knows that Sang Hoon and Ki Hoon will do just fine regardless of how much they fail in life.”

Dong Hoon, aptly categorized as an Enneagram 9 and regarded as a quintessential stoic, would indeed go on to paint a normal façade despite having to go through an awfully toxic work place and a marriage that’s falling apart. He’d rather keep the peace than rock the boat which he believed would impact his loved ones.

All these factors would push Dong Hoon to feel trapped, suffocated and perhaps even suicidal. But at least he is aware he is living the wrong life, as he has spilled to Sang Won: “I’m doomed. This life is a mess. I don’t know how to live. I believed everything would be fine if I sacrificed myself.”

I do believe Dong Hoon knew how to rectify his situation. He’s just not sure if certain choices he could make would mean violating his moral compass, or how these choices could affect his loved ones.  It’s quite ironic that it was his monk friend that reminded him living the righteous life is not all there is to living, and how appropriate and spot-on that he framed his advice from Ji Seok’s perspective: “Go tell Ji Seok that you sacrificed your life for him. It’ll make him swear and feel like sh**.” “Who wants people to sacrifice? What kind of child or parent would want that? Why do you force yourself to live a kind of life that you’d never force on Ji Seok?”

That throws a wrench right into the view that a loveless marriage has to be preserved for the sake of the kids.

Sang Won continued, “You should make yourself happy first. And stop thinking you should sacrifice yourself. Just be brazen and think about yourself. You’re allowed to do that.”

And that goes straight into the issue of choosing between desire and conscience: in that sometimes, a balance has to be struck, and that sometimes, one is allowed to choose desire. Dong Hoon needs to hear that, to eventually push himself to break free from his “life sentence of earnestness.”

That conversation with Sang Won in episode 11 is the turning point in Dong Hoon’s character development. From this point on, we slowly see the changes in him. He confronts Do Joon Young and punches him in the face. He chases after Ji An and confronts her as well, telling her to stay put, despite knowing full well that she, practically speaking, is in an unrequited love with him. And remember Eomma’s worry that “he’s never even asked me to buy him anything”? Well look at him now, going “Buy me another pair of slippers” to Ji An!

And how can Dong Hoon’s character growth be fully realized in the context of the story?

Dong Hoon’s issues at work have less to do with his inner struggles. His promotion and eventual move to start his own company pose no conflict whatsoever in his struggles with sacrifice and conscience. It really boils down to the two other plot points in the story: Dong Hoon’s marriage with Yoon Hee, and his budding feelings, his restraint, towards Ji An. Dong Hoon has been drawing a clear line with Ji An, as he grapples with how to deal with his marriage with Yoon Hee.

Though the conclusions are not shown explicitly, extrapolating from the themes painted by Sang Won’s words points to what choices Dong Hoon would pursue.  He would eventually divorce Yoon Hee, and yet rightfully remain in good graces with her as co-parents to Ji Seok. This seems to be the message in the new set of photos we see in Dong Hoon’s new work desk, and in the total absence of Yoon Hee’s character post-time skip. 

And how about Dong Hoon’s feelings for Ji An? It can be argued that Dong Hoon pursuing his own happiness first does not automatically entail that this happiness can only be actualized through Ji An. He could stay single and party every weekend, or he could pursue another girl, like one of Ji An’s officemates he saw in the coffee shop. But these elements are not part of the story of My Ahjussi. The last scene shows him reuniting excitedly with Ji An, making plans to meet for dinner, and in a voiceover, addresses her in some future time with a more personal “Ji An,” implying a leveled-up relationship.

To have freed himself from his life sentence of earnestness, to not only be bound by conscience but to have the right to pursue his heart’s desires, to make himself happy first, and to be brazen – Dong Hoon, now a free man, would finally be able to follow his heart and pursue Ji An freely.  Not doing so would have stifled the full actualization of his character development arc.


For more on Dong Hoon’s journey, see:

Park Dong Hoon: Built in 1974, Renovated in 2018. Part 1/3: His Structural Cracks

Park Dong Hoon: Built in 1974, Renovated in 2018. Part 2/3: His Reinforcement and Emergency Exit

Park Dong Hoon: Built in 1974, Renovated in 2018. Part 3/3: His Reconstruction

Sometimes it IS a Big Deal

Dong Hoon’s Journey Mirrors the Show’s Journey

Kindness Itself Can be Radical

The Weight of What We Carry

Dong Hoon’s Middle Way

Dong Hoon’s Drawers


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