2021 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Adult first place
first place, adult essay division
Yi Sang’s “The Wings” (1936) encapsulates the mixture of conflicting emotions evoked during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 20th century, its social commentary and frustrations veiled in madness and buried under layers of symbolism. While the multifaceted and sometimes superimposed symbolism of the story make for a complicated interpretation, the areas of tension in the work—the narrator’s relationship with his wife, the psychological battle between engagement and disengagement, the oscillation between insanity and clarity—along with the author’s training as an architect and the historical context of the work, guide us to an understanding of “the wings” as a symbol of resistance, hope, and the reclaiming of what was lost.
The narrator’s relationship with his wife Yonshimi sheds light on the story’s intersection with history. Yonshimi is a perplexing character. She is the glue that holds together the narrator’s intermittently unstable and infantile identity (68); the source of his motivation, the provider of his meals and money, and the caretaker during his illness, and yet she is also his jailer, his captor (73), perhaps even his exploiter. It would be imprudent to ignore the political overtones and the Japanese occupation of Korea when considering their relationship. The references are unmistakable: Yonshimi being remarkably similar to Yoshimi, a Japanese name meaning “excellent, beautiful,” though the misspelling hints at resistance to assimilation; the description of the narrator and his wife being “like two suns” (66), a reference to the taegeukgi on Korea’s flag and the sun on Japan’s flag; the comment that No.33 resembles a brothel (67) and Yonshimi’s frequent male guests, both references to the enslavement of Korean women as “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers; and the “glass, steel, marble, money, and ink [that] seemed to rumble and boil up” (83), a sign of the rapid industrial development in Korea that fueled Japan’s own industrial growth.
To simply conclude that Yonshimi symbolizes Japan and the narrator symbolizes Korea is tempting, yet provides an incomplete picture of the complexity of Yonshimi’s character. Yonshimi’s opulence, her “nicer, neater clothes” (71) and lavish room (69), is contrasted with the narrator’s relative destitution, with his single corduroy suit and room without “a single nail protrud[ing] from the wall” (69), which can be understood as a reflection of how Japan exploited Korea. Additionally, Yonshimi and her guests are able to enjoy delicious meals while the narrator has to “silently gulp down” terrible food and skimpy side dishes (71), meals so meager that he “grew completely pale and began to waste away, [his] strength dwindl[ing] visibly with each passing day…and his bones began to stick out all over” (72). The severity of the contrast under the same roof is confusing, but if we consider Yi Sang’s training as an architect, and his appreciation of the relationship between form and function, that same contrast becomes a deliberate parallel of the oppression of the Korean identity. The narrator’s inner room is barren and devoid of sunlight and luxuries whereas Yonshimi’s outer room is filled with sunlight, beautiful clothing, and bottles of fragrances. Both rooms are part of the same unit, but the divide between them is an insurmountable barrier to unity. Although Yonshimi is capable of using underhanded methods of controlling the narrator, like her use of Adalin (81) to sedate him, she is not without her kindnesses. She consistently provides him with food and money, and she cares for him when he is sick (79). Her character is one of endurance, persistence, and survival, which supports the idea that she can also symbolize the resilience of the Korean populace. Yonshimi comforts the narrator by “offering [his] ear a few of her always-rejuvenating phrases” but the “one trace of sadness that strays across her face” (72) suggests that she too is trapped by circumstance.
The narrator’s internal conflict between engagement and disengagement with society reflect his unstable psychological state. He exists in a state of ennui and social withdrawal, preferring to spend much of his time cocooned in his blankets. He “had no reason to think of [himself] as happy…but [he] had no reason to think of himself as unhappy” because “everything was okay as long as [he] wasted each day in utter idleness” (68). Although his physical disengagement is clear until he ventures outside of No.33 and learns about the pleasure of using money and drinks coffee while people-watching, he shows signs of mental engagement. Within his “clammy bedding, [he] invented such a variety of things and penned many a treatise [and] also knocked out a decent number of poems” (70). He looks at his hunger, his isolation, his wife’s behavior, and the accumulation of money, and is curious about the why behind them even though he doesn’t follow through, for even “if [he] were to come up with a constructive idea [he] would definitely have to consult with [his] wife” and get scolded so he would rather be “lazy, like the most slothful animal” (70).
When he finally reflects on his life, he questions whether he had any ambitions (83). He observes the “weary lives” from the rooftop, seeing the way they were “tangled in a sticky, invisible web, [and] they could not break free” (83) and he realizes that his life is no different from theirs. He too is trapped and “overcome by a sense of futility” (73). However, at the same time there is a “dazzling splendor” (83) that exists before him, and the image captured at noontime stirs the memory of his “artificial wings,” the “pages from which [his] hopes and ambitions were erased” (83). The inspiration of what once was awakens a sense of hope—the type that inspired the 1919 March First Moment. This brings us back to the beginning page—the “clean sheet of paper” (66). The idea at the beginning is protected in a shield of madness; Yi Sang shows us the path of political resistance since wit and paradox can be positioned like adjacent paduk stones, forming a chain that evades capture.