Ivan Turgenev’s “First Love” unfolded like a great many Korean romance dramas: a feisty and gorgeous heroine rejected a sensitive and mild-mannered suitor constantly by her side in favor of a cold alpha male. Along the way, Turgenev unveiled for the reader a rich and intense emotional landscape similarly reminiscent of the drama genre—the sweet sensation of falling head over heels in love here, the agony of forbidden romance there, the wild emotions that tugged at the heartstrings as a character uncovered one appalling secret after another. It should probably come as no surprise that the novel was referenced in Big, a drama penned by South Korea’s famous screenwriting duo, Hong Jung-eun and Hong Mi-ran (“the Hong sisters“).
In what came across as a foreshadowing effect, just one episode after the male lead flippantly uttered a line from the novel (“My son, fear the love of woman; fear that bliss, that poison”) in oblivion to its possible relevance to him, the drama had him running across the night streets to go to the aid of a heroine eight years his senior, while ominous words played in the background: “Kyung-joon, do not go to Gil Da-ran. […] There is only one person in her heart. Even if you go after her, she won’t even look at you. By allowing your feelings to go to her even as she does not spare you a glance, you’ll end up badly hurt. When you wake up, forget all about her.” A parallel seemed to be drawn between novel and drama: just as Zinaïda dismissed Vladimir as a child and had eyes only for an undeserving married man, Da-ran subsequently laughed off the high schooler’s confession of love and continued to mope over her apparently two-timing fiancé. For a while, the sense that the boy was meeting his doom as a young victim of noble yet unrequited love was palpable.
Yet the similarities between the two were not to last for long. Whereas the drama dropped its allusions to Turgenev’s work only a few episodes into its broadcast and sent its male protagonist on a one-year mental makeover trip abroad that magically accelerated his socioemotional growth, facilitating his rapid conquest of his lady’s heart, “First Love” was more forthright about the difficulties of adolescent navigation of the adult world. And these it depicted consistently through the striking analogy of a storm.
When 16-year-old Vladimir first appeared on the pages, he imagined himself as a valiant knight ready to take on the world, his face tilted towards the sky and his soul opening wide to welcome “its shining radiance and blue.” His reading diet included revolutionary literature and greedy rooks (the equivalent, perhaps, of mass-robbing rogues in the playground of nature), he fancied, were at the mercy of his gun. At first sight of Zinaïda, though, Vladimir was “thunderstruck.” His gun dropped, he forgot his purpose; from then on, Zinaïda’s words were his commands. He was to be demoted to a page who would, an adult suitor of the beauty remarked in jest, carry her trail as she ran for a rendezvous with her paramour, and faint, this time literally, at her feet.
A mysterious storm soon brewed in the middle of a night. Black clouds spread across the sky, a gust of wind rattled the dark trees and lightning flashed seemingly in response to the fire in his heart. More curiously, though, the storm was taking place at a distance from Vladimir, with the sound of its wrathful thunder muffled “far away on the horizon,” while the lightning flashes were faint and “[quivered] and [twitched] like the wing of a dying bird.” As enamored with Zinaïda as he was, he was never to be the power-loving girl’s equal in love. To the 21-year-old maiden, he was forever a child to be coddled with sisterly affection and, on one occasion, even a playmate for her 12-year-old brother.
Her assumptions did not prove to be particularly wrong in any case. Vladimir, still a guileless boy at that stage, knew that Zinaïda was in love but, speculated as he might, could not decipher the identity of her secret lover, who was painfully obvious to her other (grownup) admirers and the reader, even though the illicit romance budded right under his nose. When he finally discovered, under the guidance of playful hints dropped by one such admirer, that the man in an affair with her was none other than his own father, a violent mix of feelings “whirled together in a kind of hurricane.”
He tried to deny his findings but a “thunderbolt” jolted him out of the remnants of his fantasy: a commotion over the liaison broke out in his household, with his father admitting to the romance in indignation, while corroborating evidence was available from servants. Later, the family relocated to end the scandal but Vladimir witnessed for himself what was probably the most astonishing sight of his life—his father, managing to continue covertly a relationship the boy could not even initiate, whipped Zinaïda on her outstretched arm, who, in response, kissed her wound. The elder man wielded over the proud girl a power the youth could not parallel, drawing her into a strange kind of passion somewhat incomprehensible to his 16-year-old mind.
This mighty passion, nonetheless, did not take the adulterous couple far. Zinaïda eventually secured a marriage to a rich man through her ingenious machinations. Seemingly in relation to that, Vladimir’s father got agitated and passed away from a stroke, leaving the lad a letter starting with the bitter line recited by Kyung-joon. Some years later, Vladimir had an opportunity to meet up with Zinaïda, but the latter died from childbirth four days before he ventured to see her once more. First love, Vladimir reflected two decades on, left Zinaïda and his father with a trail of devastation and him with hardly anything fresher and more precious than “memories of the storm—so soon over—of early morning, of spring.”
More empowering than the ability to overpower people with respect to affairs of the heart, perhaps, is the ability to overpower the forces of love itself. Riding on the winds of love when they lead to true, lasting happiness and reining in one’s feelings when they turn destructive—the art of this may be the secret to making the best of ephemeral youth.