Essentially an anti-war novel, Tendrils of Life encompasses the themes of love and hope, greed and revenge, war and corruption; strife between families, war's effect on individuals and families, finding the meaning of life and choosing how one should live. Passages toward the end, exemplified by one on page 367 hint some desirable choices: "He [Teacher Yang] became a real teacher: about nature, about life, and about how one should live - for himself and according to his own values, not to prove himself to others." An overarching theme is the resilience of the human spirit.
Iodo is a legendary island everyone wants to find; it symbolizes one's ideal goal in life, but is difficult, if not impossible, to reach.
Ockdo is a "real" island; it symbolizes an achievable goal and what one should be content with.
Jimin carries a seashell from his island and squeezes it whenever he misses his old home. It symbolizes the yearning for one's past and the safety of home.
Jimin misses the sunset on Ockdo. It gives him the hope that the sun will rise again when he feels despair.
When Jimin loses his strength to go on he thinks about the waves constantly breaking on the shore of his island, and that image restores his strength.