Present Social and Economic Issues in Chang-Rae Lee's On Such A Full Sea



In the following criticism, R.H. discusses how the details of different class settings in Chang-Rae Lee's novel reflects the socioeconomic issues of the present.


The details of differing class settings in Chang-Rae Lee's novel, On Such A Full Sea, is crucial to the reader's understanding of how it is reflecting the social issues of class stratification and the lack of infrastructure of the present that mainsprings an unhealthy gap between the rich and poor.


Although the novel takes place in a distant future, each class structure represents a familiar category from the present. The group called the Charters represents the wealthy of society. They can afford all the luxuries of life, such as fine art, swimming pools, and mansions. But when paranoia broke out from an animal transmitted swine flu epidemic, all their beloved pet pigs and birds were ordered destroyed, which escalated to all pets being killed, even fish "just to be safe" (68). This unforeseen misfortune destroyed the career of a veterinarian named Quig, as he was then forced to live in the open counties, the untamed, crime ridden areas that represent where even lower than the poor end up. This sudden drop in social status denotes the lack of infrastructure that Lee expresses exists today, where a man can be living well one day but then lose everything the next. The Charters, and the financially sound of the present, can afford all the commodities of life but do not have the safety that they appear to possess.


The open counties, where the fallen Charters and poor dwell, is a completely devastating contrast to the splendor of the Charter villages. Here, where no laws exist, health care is next to nonexistent. If a former Charter doctor happens to be in business in the area, people in the counties are desperate to give anything they own to be treated, even their most precious items, from a "gold wedding band" to an old man's "pretty daughter", all to be traded for any kind of treatment (68). Dissimilarly, Charters can afford personal physicians and any medical treatment, outliving anyone in the counties by "ten or so years" (75). This gulf in wealth between the rich and poor compares to the gap in today's society, where there is no equal opportunity for the poor to be free of poverty in order to achieve the successes that all wealthy already receive from birth and circumstance.


B-Mor, the future city of present day Baltimore, is the exaggerated model of the middle class. They produce food for the wealthy group, the Charters, to consume. "Stability is all here in B-Mor, it's what we ultimately produce, day by night by day" (8). The citizens of B-Mor have the benefits of economic stability, in the same way as today's middle class. However, it extremely regimented for the fear that deviating in any area will cause them to lose this stability. Namely, the fact that the entire city is closed off from the outside counties. B-Mor citizens do not even breathe the air from the outside, but "seasonally perfumed, filtered air", and use artificial light in place of the sun that, if ceased, would "likely cause a pandemonium" (14). This fear of the outside and anything being out of place is representative of the citizen's phobias of the possibility of being forced to live in the counties, and reveals their hidden distresses about social and economic insecurity. The dread of the B-Mor citizens at the possibility of living in the counties equates to present day paranoia surrounding economic stability.

Chang-Rae Lee reveals the hidden anxieties of the present by creating a picture, a small society of the future, to better convey them. The underlying social tension for economic stability and the looming divide between the rich and the poor are not elements of dystopian fiction but real, active forces in the society of today.

(R.H. 2015)