Chang-rae Lee

A Gesture Life

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A Gesture Life Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 56-page guide for “A Gesture Life” by Chang-rae Lee includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 17 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like A Life of Gestures and Gratitude and Erasure of Identity and Assimilation.

Winner of the Asian-American Literary Award, Korean-American Chang-Rae Lee’s A Gesture Life was published in 1999. Lee found inspiration for his historical fiction in the deeply disturbing news about Korean sex slaves used by Japanese soldiers during World War II.

Narrated by a young Korean-turned-Japanese medic charged with overseeing comfort women in a camp in Burma, the novel provides a nuanced look at the psychological implications of assimilation and the pressure to conform. As the story progresses, he comes to realize that his carefully curated life of gestures is a front to avoid facing his traumatic experiences with the woman he loved and lost.

Plot Summary 

The novel opens in the present day as the protagonist, 72-year-old Franklin Hata, narrates his story with an equanimous tone. Hata has sold his store, Sunny Medical Supply, and is now retired. He spent most of his adult life building his reputation in the mostly white, upscale town of Bedley Run in New York, earning the nickname “Doc Hata.” He spends his days maintaining tyrannical order and routine whilst keeping his beautiful home in pristine condition. Hata adopts an ethnically Korean girl, Sunny, whom he finds disappointing. He starts a love affair with the widow Mary Burns, which ends anticlimactically because of his inability to express passion. Mary attempts to be a mother figure to Sunny, who only pushes her away. Hata pressures Sunny to excel in school and in music, forcing her to leave home as a teenager. Sunny’s hatred of the house and Hata’s perfect reputation as “good Doc Hata” locks the two in endless conflict over her behavior and his expectations. He now lives alone.

When Hata is hospitalized after accidentally setting fire in his living room, he questions whether he caused the fire himself, thinking back to why his life became one of gestures.

Flashbacks detail Hata’s childhood and young adulthood during the war. Born a Korean, Hata is adopted by a renowned Japanese family and forced to assimilate to a new culture as a young child. He is drafted into the Imperial army as a medic. At a remote outpost in Burma, he oversees the health of the “comfort women”—Korean women used as sex slaves. A fellow solider named Endo mercy kills one of the women, resulting in his execution. The woman’s sister, Kkutaeh, who Hata calls K, is the daughter of a Korean ambassador. The ambassador’s daughters are in the service to allow their only brother to continue his studies.

K’s beauty, intellect and noble birth appeal to the camp doctor, Captain Ono. He places her in isolation, informing Hata to look out for a black flag every morning–a signal to prepare her for him. Hata spends the days with K, who recognizes his “Koreanness” and “sees” him. Intrigued by the connection, he professes his love. When they imagine a life together after the war, K thinks their dreaming to be naïve. She begs Hata to mercy-kill her, just as Endo did her sister. Hata selfishly refuses, still believing the dream. K believes that if Hata truly loved her, he couldn’t bear to see her living like this. Hata believes K returns his affections and rapes her as she sleeps.

The day Captain Ono raises the black flag, Hata learns that K is pregnant. K murders Captain Ono and makes a last plea for Hata to kill her, but he refuses. Thirty soldiers take her into the woods and gang rape her to death. Showing no signs of trauma, Hata gathers her remains, including a fetus. Though Hata adopts Sunny as a means of atonement, he ultimately fails her in the same way. He forces an 18-year old Sunny to have a dangerously late abortion, after which she leaves for good. When Hata finds Sunny 13 years later, he starts to build a relationship with her son, Thomas. When Thomas almost drowns learning to swim under Hata’s watch, Sunny does not blame him. Though she hides Hata’s identity, she displays filial reverence for her father.

Hata’s inability to form relationships stems from his inability to save K—and the fear of losing love if he comes too close to it. Having had to completely erase his identity and assimilate to a new one twice, Hata builds a life of gestures, never able to acknowledge who he truly is or build any genuine emotional connection with either Mary or Sunny. Though he is never able to prove himself to have substance beyond gesture and reputation, Hata finally decides to sell his home and go on a journey to the distant shores he once promised K they would travel to.

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