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Dictee Summary & Study Guide Description
Dictee Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:
This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion and a Free Quiz on Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha.
Unnamedappears in Dictee
Throughout "Dictee" the majority of the characters are simply an unidentified female. The author does not specify if this "she" is supposed to be the same or different women. It is unknown if it should even be viewed as an individual or as the embodiment of women. In the Opening, she comes from far, and at dinner her family asks about her first day. She answers "there is but one there... there is someone." In "Diseuse," she mimics the gestures of speaking with her mouth, but the breath falls away. She gathers her strength and remains in this position as the pain of speech fosters inside of her. She swallows in preparation. It augments, and she swallows against the pain that wishes it to speak. She allows others to occupy her barren cavities. There might be an echo when the amplification stops, and then she might make an attempt at the pause in the echo. She "waits inside the pause. Inside her." The pause ends, and the voice wraps another, thicker layer from the waiting and the pain to say or to not say. She waits to absorb and deliver their punctuation. She relays the recitation. The weight evenly presses down the back of her head to the front, causing her to gasp from its pressure and contracting motion. It does not contain any more voices. It rises, floods and dissolves her. The above traces from her head to her mouth, turning her inside out. It begins imperceptibly, and she takes the pause slowly. The time and the pause are now bare, and they belong to her. During communion, a woman kneels, sticks out her tongue and receives Him as she prays.
In Melpomene, she sits if the first few rows to better ignore the others and to have a better view, more face to face with the screen. The lights fade until it is dark. She stretches out as far as possible until her neck rests on the back of the seat, and she pulls her coat up to her chin, covering her entire body. She watches the moving shades and the flickering light through the windows. In Erato, she enters between two white, stone columns. She pulls the two doors open toward her with her right hand, and they close behind her as she purchases a ticket after waiting in line. She sees that it is 6:35 p.m. and hands the ticket to the usher before climbing the steps into the room. The whiteness of the screen takes her back nearly half of a step. She proceeds to the front and sits close to the screen. On her left sits another woman who was in her place yesterday. She enters the screen from the left before the titles fade in and out. The white subtitles continue across the bottom of the screen before the titles and names appear in the top right corner, each letter moving downward onto the white screen. "She is drawn to the white, then the black. The shadows move across in the whiteness, dark shapes and dark light." The white stone columns are abrasive and worn. The white screen takes her backward. She is drawn to the white then the black. The shadows move across the whiteness. Her mouth moves incessantly and precisely. She forms the words that are heard as they move from her mouth tot he ear. She places her hands across the other's lips as she forms the words. She forms the words with her mouth, shaping her lips and blowing the words out. She hears but will see if she has to see. She should wait to see for a second time, another time, but the pace is too fast for another to follow.
One expects her to be beautiful based on the title that does not make her anonymous or plain. One already imagines her before the title. She is not seen immediately, yet her image suspends in one's mind. One is shown the outside of the house in which she lives and then invited inside as a guest. Her portrait is not represented in a still photograph or a painting; she is seen all along without actually appearing. "You do not see her yet. For the moment, you see only her traces." Until then, others relay her story. Her husband is unfaithful because he is a man and it is a given. The husband taunts and humiliates her as she kneels beside him, taking her place. It is a given. On the night of her father's wake, she mourns, but he leaves the room. She falls to the floor, and the onlooker watches the water drip into a well so that they do not have to watch her cry. She moves slowly and gradually. Stillness follows when she closes the door. She moves in silence's pauses because she cannot disturb the silence. She climbs the steps as dawn changes to day to dusk to moonlight. It takes her all day to climb the steps. The watcher knows how she feels; it is them in her place. They accompany her to school as a young girl. "You are she, she speaks to you, you speak her, she cannot speak." She goes to the piano as he plays his own composition. The watcher knows how it was for her and knows what she will do. She begins playing and asks them to sing a song. The watcher sits next to her and sings as she plays.
Perhaps, she loved her husband despite having an arranged marriage to a stranger. Perhaps she learned to love him, or maybe it was never a question but a given. She took what he gave her because he gave so little. "She deserved so little. Being wife. How it was." Women are never to question or expect. She is his wife, his possession, and she belongs to him. She could not refuse him. Maybe that is how it was then, and maybe that is how it is now. The husband is the one who touches, not as husband, but with his rank as he touches all of the others. Her body is a non-entity. His ownership is infallible and mocks her refusal as "her very being dares to name herself as if she possesses her own will." Whether it is one morning or the next does not matter since so many pass in the same way, especially this one. The white mist rises everywhere. It gathers and disperses; this is how it fills the screen. She tries to forget for the moment. She opens the white cloth again where the subtle hues outlines the phoenix, facing each other in the weave. They barely appear, and then they disappear into the whiteness. There are folds permanently marked in the cloth which was once purposed to make a quilt but left unattended until some future time. She sits and spreads it, looking at it uneasily as if unable to remember a portion of this habitual gesture. To move her body, to no longer renounce her will, stings her. She changes her dress and moves quickly. One follows her as she leaves the frame empty, into the mist. She is buried there, and one loses her. They recall her name, and she appears out of the mist, far away on top of a hill where she has been seen many times before. She visits the lake often. The waiter greets her early in the morning and offers to bring her tea. Everything is seen from above as the two figures move constantly. One follows the waiter inside as he prepares the tea and then returns with him to find her gone. The waiter runs back and forth, calling her name. There is no distinction as her body becomes his.
In Elitere, she waits. She reads, mouthing the transformed object as the screen absorbs and filters the light. The white turns transparent as words are uttered behind the partition. The one is diseuse, mother or daughter, should restore memory. In Thalia, she takes the call at once as if for the very first time. When the call is announced by ringing, she does not think but picks it up without having time to think. All is prepared beforehand to the brief pause before she would say "yes." Each phrase is pronounced to highlight the objects that follow them. She speaks in a barely audible voice until she cannot contain any longer and muffles through the upstairs door through another door. She announces her arrival with anticipation. She wishes this person would change back into the person they used to be. It takes less time for her to realize that there will be no magical shifting. She wants to quickly abolish the ritual; there will be no more rehearsals or memorization.
There is no end in sight that might appease. She charts each moment as if the act would release her from the antiphony to follow. She searches her words for an equivalence of her feelings. There is no future, only an onslaught of time towards which she is expected to move. She says she could displace time and death could never come, knowing that "there was no displacing death, there was no overcoming without the actual dying." She could continue to live and abolish time if she could continue to write without ceasing. She would live if she could display it before her and become its voyeur. One might say she was crazy in her eyes which unblinkingly fix on the profile next to her. She is as helpless as a child. She speaks the truth of her folly as her hand barely climbs from her hair to her lips which are chafed by the cold. She touches her lips, her eyes close, and she reaches for the pen in her pocket. She rests her finger there, smiling. He pays her no attention, turning away. She removes her hand from the pen, cries her folly and stands at the doorway. She is left at the gate as the man disappears. She leans against the door, turning her back to day and her folly.
In "Memory", her steps are carefully measured as the darkness resumes. She is the same, sitting four rows from the front in the second seat from the left. Her body is still, and her mouth is parted. She does not notice the other people in the theatre. This is her second day in the theatre, and she sits in the same place, in silence with her hands folded on her lap. She does not follow the progression of the narrative, submitting only to the timelessness in her body. She refuses banishment and refuses to die. She remains for the effect induced in her. She knows all along how it is not easily believed. She knows without a doubt what she must say but regrets her words afterward while the words return their own obligation. She does not account for the sake of history but to survive the forgotten. She would return to time itself, to time before time, to the one death which takes place before the annunciation of the second coming, before Heaven and birth even.
In Terpischore, she remains apart from the congregation. She waits during its chaste, silent, dark conception. She waits for the silence to break. She shivers just as the flower bursts and scatters suddenly. There is no movement or sound as she holds silver in her hand. Voice replaces sound. It stops and rests in the center of her palm, and she turns south, north, west and east as the noise or speech starts again. She seeks the night in order to render the air pure. She stores her tears before they fall; she is atoned by her tears. She cries in supplication to the god to barter her sight and use her speech as ransom. She sits through the dust and waits, formless, blind and mute, clinging to the sight of the hours accumulating without prosper. She emerges and looks forth at the colors. Speech is broken, and she is immaterial and formless now since she has surrendered all parts of her body to dissolution. She prepares for communion when a larger body will inhabit this body. She stands alone without hands, feet or wings.
Narratorappears in Dictee
The narrator of "Dictee" is the author, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. She narrates the poems and the stories in the book. In the Opening, the narrator appeals to the Muse to tell the story, beginning where she wishes. The narrator again makes an invocation without addressing anyone. The narrator makes up sins during Confession in order to guarantee absolution. In a question and answer format, the narrator reveals that God made thee, God is everywhere, and God has made everyone in his own likeness. In Calliope, the narrator addresses her mother, Hyung Soon Huo as she retells her mother's history. The narrator writes her mother daily from here. If she is not writing, she composes a letter in her thoughts. "You are here I raise the voice." The narrator has the documents. One day, she raises her right hand, becomes American and is given an American passport. When she returns to her native country, she is no longer one of them. They question her about her identity and the reason for her return. She sees the unchanged and the unchangeable but is unable to speak. Nearly crying, she nearly says "I know you I know you, I have waited to see you for long this long." After they check each article and question her on foreign articles, they dismiss her.
In Urania, the nurse takes the narrator's left arm, tells her to make a fist and then open her hand to make the vein appear. She ties an elastic band tightly around her arm and presses a thumb against her flesh. She moves the elastic to the right arm and repeats the procedure, finding a vein. The nurse rubs alcohol on the narrator's arm with a cotton swab. The coolness disappears as the liquid evaporates. She takes the needle to the skin and extracts a sample. It appears in a flow all of a sudden, collecting and spilling over. The contents are housed in the membranes. It is enough now; the empty body waiting to contain is filled, and the nurse pulls the needle out. The blood flows suddenly in one line down the arm onto the table. It takes only seconds for the nurse to break the needle off its body and collect the blood directly from the wound. The "stain begins to absorb the material spilled on." She pushes cotton against the mark hard, and blood empties upon the surface. It is ever possible to expel the blood from a body. The narrator heard the swans in the rain and listened to the spoken, but it is impossible to say if it is true. The memory of what was said is remembered, but she is not quite certain what she heard. The rain dreamed from sounds and the pauses, and it is impossible to distinguish speech. The tongue, mouth, throat and lungs are assembled as one organ. Returning later, the narrator is unsure if it was the rain, speech or memory as it diminishes itself. She bites the tongue until no organ is left; she cries. A little at a time, the silence draws nearer filling the pages and lines with void words and silences. She hears the mute signs, but they are never the same. As she listens to the signs in the rain, it is impossible to say whether it is true or not, impossible to distinguish the audible from signs, speech and memory which is uncertain.
In Melpomene, the narrator writes her mother on April, 19th, eighteen years later from Seoul, Korea. They are at a standstill; nothing has changed. She still speaks in a foreign tongue. They have been away all this time but nothing has changed. It is not June 25, 1950, and no bombs fall. "Every bird that migrates North for Spring and South for Winter becomes a metaphor for the longing of return. Destination. Homeland." No longer do women with children lift the barriers all night, waiting for the battles to come. There is no destination except another refuge from another war. Generations and deceptions pass in the approach to the destination. She knew that thirty-six years in exile would not be in vain and that some day her country would be her own. The day finally comes as Japan is defeated in the World War, and she returns to her country. As soon as she hears, she heads South without anything to remember, abandoning everything to see her nation freed. Their destination is fixed on the perpetual motion of exile.
On her return in eighteen years, the war is not ended; the nation is divided by the liberators who name this division a civil war. She is in the same crowd during the demonstration and is carried in its movement. She moves toward the voices as she feels the tightening crowd. The sounds break as smoke fills the air. Bodies fall, but she still walks, losing direction and crying from the stinging smoke. The streets are covered with debris, such as the shoes that contain no sign of who wore them except for the blood that the rain cannot wash away. She follows the crying crowd, singing through the street. She is chosen as a martyr to the cause, welfare, peace, harmony and progress. In 1962, the narrator is eleven years old, and Mother pleads with her older brother not to go to the demonstration and sends her daughter to retrieve the tutor who tries to dissuade her brother from going to the demonstration. Eighteen years pass, and the narrator returns for the first time in eighteen years. She speaks another language now; this is how distant she is from that time and place, but the site takes her back to that exact time. No one faces her in the street which is nothing but rubble. She cries, imagining two school children running through the gas. She passes a curve in the road where soldiers sit, hidden in the trees in camouflage. The narrator appeals to Melpomene to exorcise from this mouth the name, words and memory of severance and to utter one, through this act, "she without the separate act of uttering."
In Erato, the narrator does not understand why women are so easily excommunicated in Italy. The poor women are misunderstood, and yet they love God in much larger numbers than men. Jesus allows women to be misunderstood on earth, but "in heaven, He will show that His thoughts are not men's thoughts, for then the last will be first." The narrator is only a powerless child, yet her weakness gives her the boldness to offer herself as a victim of Jesus' love. For love to be fully satisfied, it must lower itself into nothingness and transform this into fire. "Jesus, I know that love is repaid by love alone so to solace my heart, I must give you Love for Love." The narrator's childhood dream is martyrdom, and it grows within Carmel's cloisters, but it is folly because she cannot confine herself to one type of martyrdom. She would be scourged, crucified, flayed, and plunged into boiling oil like the martyrs before her. She wants to understand the tortures inflicted upon all martyrs. She presents her neck to the sword and whispers Jesus' name as the stake. In Polymnia, the narrator as a child appeals to her mother to lift her up to the window above her vision so that she can see the muted light and the houses in the pools of passing light. The ruelle is an endless path turning the corner behind the last house. The walls reflect the white of the rays, and the trees adhere to the silence of the view. The child begs to be lifted to the window as the ropes that tie the weights of the stones are unleashed, scraping on the wood to break the stillness as the bells peal and hold the weight to break the stillness.
Hyung Soon Huoappears in Calliope
Hyung Soon Huo is Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's mother. She is eighteen years old and was born in Yong Jung, Manchuria. Although she now lives in China, she is Korean, not Chinese. Her parents moved to China to escape the Japanese occupation in Korea. China is large, but she lives in a village with other Korean refugees on land that is not her own. She no longer wants to see what they do to her people. Her parents leave, and she suffers having left though her spirit has not left; her spirit is not in the past but burns. She is a child still at eighteen years old. She has been ill and sheltered for her entire life. Mother speaks the mandatory language because her native tongue is forbidden, but she secretly speaks her mother tongue in the dark; it is her refuge and a way to return home. Speaking saddens her since each word means risking death. She carries the mark at her center; it is the mark of belonging, cause, retrieval by birth, death and blood. She sings of a destitute form standing in the shadow during a summer day as lovely as the virgins that play in her honor. This is the national song that is forbidden. They take her tongue and the choral hymn from her, but she says that it will not be for long. She waits as her spirit alights. The answer will come soon after the offering. She knows to wait for the choral answer. They have not yet forbidden her to see, and she sees further than is allowed. She waits silently, biding her time for thirty-six years. In the days before the reclamation, her mother and father die while uttering their only regret: not seeing the overthrow with their own eyes. Mother writes and speaks to scatter the words.
It is 1940, and she is eighteen years old. She has just graduated college and is going to her first teaching post in a small country village for three years to repay her school loans to Manchuria. She is hardly an adult and has never left her parents' house being the youngest of four children and sheltered. She travels to the village via train, and the villagers, especially the children, stare at her. She is the first female teacher in this village in six years. A male teacher greets her in Japanese. The teachers speak Japanese to each other although they are all Korean. Mother is assigned to the first grade which contains fifty students who must learn to speak their names in Korean and Japanese. She speaks Korean to them because they are too young to understand Japanese. She is alone, and her hardships are immense as she is unaccustomed to the daily life in this village. She sends all of her money home except what is necessary for room and board; she is barely able to eat. Mother takes a train home where she calls her mother from the gate. Her mother rushes to her, bringing her food. She is home because her mother means home to her.
On Sunday afternoon, Hyung Soon Huo must return to school where the students wait to see her home and bring her food. She works Monday through Thursday, but she does not feel well on Friday as she feels herself yielding to them. They force their speech upon her. She is somewhere in this stillness but cannot imagine how. She moves almost imperceptibly inside the stillness. She moves ahead of the movement; she is movement. She comes to an enormous house where women stand in beautiful clothing. She passes the large flower bed and the large hall where women dance. Entranced, she moves toward the restaurant where three women approach her from the opposite direction, carrying large dishes of food which captivate her. Their spirits takes hers, immobilizing her. They smile, offering her food, but she refuses persistently. The third woman pushes her down and says "If you do not eat, you must become a cripple." She falls; her parents hold her hands, and she asks them to unfold her fingers which begin to curl. Her parents cry, saying that the fingers curl when one is about to die. Her father asks how she lives when she does not eat. When she asks for food, they say that the last request of those dying is to eat as they give her food. There is no more exile and no black crows to mourn Mother. Neither Heaven nor Hell takes her; she comes back to her mother and father. The narrator writes her mother daily from here. One day, she raises her right hand, becomes American and is given an American passport. When she returns to her native country, she is no longer one of them. They question her about her identity and the reason for her return. She sees the unchanged and the unchangeable but is unable to speak. Nearly crying, she nearly says "I know you I know you, I have waited to see you for long this long." After they check each article and question her on foreign articles, they dismiss her.
Young Girlappears in Polymnia
The young girl remembers drinking from this well once. Her mother gives her a white kerchief as protection from the sun and the heat that rises from the earth. She sees the figure at the well in the distance, performing the gesture with precision and speed. An echo becomes audible as she nears the well. The girl opens her mouth as if to speak but sits down in the shade without saying a word, seemingly cooled by the proximity of the well. She sighs and closes her eyes which have become unfocused from the heat and the dust. She opens her eyes to see the pools of spilled water surrounding the well. The girl speaks a sequence of words, her mouth hanging open after the last as though she does not realize that she has spoken. She watches the woman fill the bucket. The woman fills a bowl with water and gives it to the girl to drink. The girl drinks the water and looks at the smiling woman whose eyes seem "to glow from inside the darkness."
The girl offers a timid smile in return as her arms hug her knees and her hands grip the bowl. The girl tells the woman that she is on her way to a neighboring village to procure remedies for her ailing mother. She begins walking at daybreak and does not want to stop, but she comes to the well because she is so tired and thirsty. The woman listens, nods and pats the girl's head. She brings her basket with her as she sits next to the girl. She pulls pockets, drawn with black string, out of the basket and hands them to the child. She instructs the child on how to prepare these special remedies for her mother. The woman takes off her kerchief and places the bowl in the center with the pockets inside; then she ties the kerchief into a small bundle which she hands to the girl. She tells the girl that she must serve the remedies inside the bowl, and, after completing her instructions, she is to keep the bowl and the tenth pocket as a gift. The woman tells the girl to go home quickly without stopping and to remember all that she has told her. The girl thanks her, stands and bows. She walks away rapidly, her steps lighter than before. She turns back to wave, but the woman is already gone. The girl looks around, but the woman is nowhere in sight. Recalling the woman's prohibition against stopping, the girl runs until her village comes into view. She becomes aware of the weight of the bundle and the warmth in her palms where she holds it. Through the door, dusk has entered, and a small candle flickers.
Yu Guan Soonappears in Clio
Yu Guan Soon is born on March 15, 1903 and dies on October 20, 1920 at the age of seventeen. She is born of one mother and one father. She makes her duration complete as others before her have made theirs complete. Yu Guan Soon is the only daughter of four children born to patriot parents. Her actions are exceptional from her youth, and her acts of generosity and self-sacrifice are exchangeable with any heroine in history. In 1919, she is sixteen years old when the Japanese conspire to overthrow the Korean government by killing the royal family. Afterward, Yu Guan Soon forms a resistance and actively begins her revolutionary work. The nationally organized movement does not accept her seriousness as a young woman and tries to dissuade her efforts, but she demonstrates her dedication and is appointed messenger. She organizes the largest collective outcry against the Japanese occupation of the Korean people on March 1, 1919. During this procession, her parents and brothers fall. Yu Guan Soon is arrested as a leader of the rebellion; she is stabbed, imprisoned and questioned but reveals no names. She receives a prison sentence of seven years. She lives on forever through the memory of her courageous actions.
Young Womanappears in Polymnia
A young woman fills two large jars as the girl approaches. She performs the gesture with precision and speed. The young woman also wears a white kerchief and an apron. She does not look at the young girl who carries a small white bundle in her hand. The woman fills the bucket, and then she fills a bowl with water and gives it to the girl to drink. As the woman smiles, her eyes seem "to glow from inside the darkness." The woman asks why the girl is so far from home and learns that the girl is on her way to a neighboring village to procure remedies for her ailing mother. The woman listens, nods and pats the girl's head. She brings her basket with her as she sits next to the girl. She pulls pockets, drawn with black string, out of the basket and hands them to the child. She instructs the child on how to prepare these special remedies for her mother. The woman takes off her kerchief and places the bowl in the center with the pockets inside; then she ties the kerchief into a small bundle which she hands to the girl. She tells the girl that she must serve the remedies inside the bowl, and, after completing her instructions, she is to keep the bowl and the tenth pocket as a gift. The woman tells the girl to go home quickly without stopping and to remember all that she has told her. When the girl turns back to wave, the woman is already gone.
Musesappears in Opening and throughout Dictee
The Opening invokes the Muse to tell the story, beginning where she wishes. The Muses are goddesses and the daughters of Zeus. The nine sections of "Dictee" are named after the nine Muses. Clio is the Muse of History, Calliope is the Muse of Epic Poetry, and Urania is the Muse of Astronomy. Melpomene is the Muse of Tragedy while Erato is the Muse of Love Poetry. Elitere is the Muse of Music or Lyric Poetry, Thalia is the Muse of Comedy, Terpischore is the Muse of Choral Dance or Dance, and Polymnia is the Muse of Sacred Poetry.
Crazy Womanappears in Thalia
The crazy woman stares unblinkingly at the profile next to her. She is like a child in her folly. She rests her finger on the pen in her pocket, but she must release the pen when he turns away from her. She stands at the doorway when he leaves her at the gate entry outside. She leans against the door, putting her back to the day and to her folly.
Jesusappears in Opening and Erato
In the Opening, Jesus is the man-God who is invoked by the priest. His crucifixion follows Mea Culpa. In Erato, Jesus marries Sister Therese Martin and will return on the Day of Eternity when he will judge the living and the dead. Jesus allows women to be misunderstood on Earth but will not allow this to be their lot in Heaven.
Laura Claxtonappears in Thalia
Laura Claxon receives a letter from H. J. Small that Mr. Reardon no longer lives here. She later receives a letter from her sister's friend that states that her sister fears going crazy and asks for money for food.
Childappears in Erato
The child is powerless and weak, but this weakness allots her the boldness to offer herself as a victim of Jesus' love. She finds that the only way to solace her heart is by giving Jesus love for love.
Youappears in Terpischore
You "remain dismembered with the belief that the magnolia blooms white even on seemingly dead branches." You wait and remain separate from the congregation.
Koreans of Hawaiiappears in Clio
The Koreans of Hawaii write an appeal to President Roosevelt to ask the United States of America to assist Korea in ending Japan's oppression.
Older Brotherappears in Melpomene
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's older brother wants to join the student demonstration outside, but his mother prevents him because she does not want him to die.
Sister Therese Martinappears in Erato
Sister Therese Martin is the daughter of Monsieur Louis Martin and Mme. Martin who marries Jesus Christ by taking her vows to become a nun.
Motherappears in Erato
The mother takes her child and husband from her back to her breast. They take away her pain with their nourishment.
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