There is a tendency in what we call “trendy dramas” to identify the typical cold chaebol hero as being inspired by Fitzwilliam Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Some kdrama heros who have been compared to Darcy in the recent past include Hwang Tae Kyung from You’re Beautiful, Hyun Jin Heon from My Lovely Sam Soon, Kim Joo Won from Secret Garden, and even Goo Joon Pyo fromBoys Over Flowers (!). I can understand the immediate comparison; after all, all these men are rich, are initially emotionally underdeveloped, bicker endlessly with their romantic counterparts, and at first deny their attraction to our heroines. In some cases they are so affronted by the fact that they are attracted to our heroines that they insult them while declaring their love for them, the classic Darcy move. And, of course, there is the whole class aspect to a lot of the trendy drama plot lines.
Kang Ji Wook also falls under this category: he’s rich and entitled and insults the woman he’s so obviously attracted to. And, of course, he pulls another Darcy classic: he secretly saves our heroine from social and financial ruin, only to have it disclosed to her anyway. But I’m going to argue that there is a crucial difference between Darcy and Ji Wook, which is that Darcy always felt right in all his interactions with Lizzy Bennet. He never felt he was being rude. In fact, when Lizzy asked him if he thought pride was a vice or virtue, he basically said that it was a virtue in the landed gentry/ aristocracy and a vice in everyone else. Even when he was obviously being rude and off-putting, Darcy believed that he was the epitome of gentlemanliness, and this came from his position as a member of the upperclass, not from some inability to articulate his own feelings, and not because he was some poor, misunderstood soul. In fact, Darcy is incredibly adept at expressing his views, to the point of imposing them on others (i.e. Mr. Bingley). And this, I believe, is the main difference between Ji Wook and Darcy.
The kdrama hero who most resembles him is Kim Joo Won; and let’s face it Joo Won was a complete ass, as is Mr. Darcy—both of them lord their privilege over everyone else, thinking that social status equals culture, and scrutinize the women they’re attracted to as if they’re some kind of aberration. It’s a testament to Austen’s skill and her heroine’s (Lizzy’s) strength that Darcy is so beloved. In some ways Lizzy is just as frustrating as Darcy. (Personally, I think the best thing Darcy ever did was fall for Lizzy. I’m a Tilney girl myself. And after Tilney I’ll take Captain Wentworth. And then Colonel Brandon. Then Darcy. Yes, I’m an Austen fangirl, and I like my heros funny, gracious, intelligent, generous, and nice to the object of his affection, not offended by himself for loving her. But I digress; back to Ji Wook.)
Ji Wook does not usually shove his privilege around, and for proof we just need to look at his interactions with Sae Kyung. He’s always even-tempered with her, even when she’s at her most malicious. His interactions with his workplace subordinates also support this. It is only with Yeon Jae that he exhibits those nasty rich boy tendencies. I’m no apologist, and I don’t really care if “he’s only doing that because he’s so in love with her.” It’s annoying at best and abusive at worst and always inexcusable. But the reason that I contend that Ji Wook is no Darcy—and that this is a good thing—is that Darcy didn’t realize the error of his ways until Lizzy called him out on them, until she told him that he was not, in fact, behaving like a gentleman. Even at the end of the novel Lizzy is still cautious about teasing him. Ji Wook (maybe because of his hinted of past) already knows when he’s being an ass, which is why he knows to apologize to Yeon Jae for demanding that she thank him, (which he immediately bungles by offering to let her see his face every day. Oh Lord.) and why he always makes those funny faces at himslef: because he knows he’s fucked up.
He does not impose his will on others; he bends to others’—his father’s, Sae Kyung’s, general society’s—will. His interactions with Yeon Jae are uncharacteristic of him. (And in so many ways, too. Not only can he be offensive and unkind to Yeon Jae, he is also at times playful, passionate, and confessional —all traits that he only exhibits in Yeon Jae’s company.) I actually think this—his mistreatment of her, not his playfulness with her (because one is an extreme and reactionary, which Ji Wook rarely is, and the other is borne out of their interactions in Okinawa and lies within the spectrum of emotions he has towards her)—might be symptomatic of what the drama is trying to do: take tropes we are already familiar with and work them in a subtly new way. The cast and crew achieve the subtle newness through great acting and beautiful cinematography; the one aspect I think they haven’t quite nailed is the mighty cold chaebol. They haven’t been able to successfully skew him enough for him to fit comfortably into the overall narrative of the story, which accounts for Ji Wook’s inconsistent behavior with Yeon Jae. And also explains why, when Yeon Jae told the doctor that she genuinely liked Ji Wook, I stopped and asked, “Why?” Which I’ve asked before.
BUT. He’s no Darcy. He apparently knows what it’s like to be poor, and he regards his privilege withan almost hipster-esque (ugh) irony and distance. So I think the writers still have a chance to abandon the old storyline that cold chaebol-plucky heroine usually falls into and break the Darcy mold. They’ve already begun it by having Ji Wook end his engagement to Sae Kyung and by having Yeon Jae be the one to initiate the acknowledged romantic relationship. If the pre-show advertisements are anything to go by, our two leads get married sometime well before the last two episodes, which will echo the chapel wedding from the second (or was it third?) episode, thereby fulfilling one of Yeon Jae’s wishes. I think it’s a smart move, narratively, because it isn’t simply following in the let’s-keep-them-apart-til-the-very-end scenario, and it’s just satisfying, as an audience member, to see them together when we already know they will be. We’ve seen the trials people go through to get together; now, hopefully, we’ll get to see them navigating what it means to actually be together.
But what do you think about Darcy and his offshoots?