2021 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Adult third place
third place tie, adult essay division
The narrative story “Wings” by influential writer Yi Sang travels through a revealing branch of time when Japan occupied and controlled Korea. Multifaceted and thoroughly wrought with layers of possible political climate interpretations, the storyline of “Wings” presents a young, troubled individual and his altered concept of reality. By stepping back from the personal nuances of the story and understanding the bigger picture of symbolic disreality and the allegory of the lost Korean identity, one can perceive the underlying truths of society from a historical perspective. In a wider sense, Yi Sang’s two protagonists in the story, the disturbed narrator and his controlling wife, can be viewed as embodiments or personifications of Korea and Japan, respectively. Introduced from this point of view, the smaller symbols throughout the story such as money, the wife’s career, sleep, and finally the “wings,” can all be scaled to a much grander ideological size, directly reflecting the encompassing political, economic, and social issues Koreans faced under Japanese rule.
Slightly after the opening of the story, the narrator describes his surroundings as such: “A room partitioned into two by a sliding door: who would have known it was a symbol of my fate?” (68). Geopolitically, this can be understood as shared space between the two entities. In terms of ruling power, Korea and Japan were incompatible for any semblance of peace, due to the impediment of a “sliding door,” or symbol of the ideological block that separated their interests. When Korea and Japan clashed, one inevitably submitted to the other, thus losing a central part of its identity in the process.
This time period in Korea marked a fruitless search within the native populace to hang onto the innate cultural, political, and social characteristics of their people. Muddied by the Japanese occupation, the overarching image of truth was markedly strenuous for Koreans to decipher among the white noise of societal assimilation. From this confusion sprung several illusions and denial systems in the population meant to cover up or partially repair what had been lost during the process of subjugation. These illusory thought forms are clear in the narrator’s questionable actions.
Among the narrator’s personal dilemmas in “The Wings,” the monetary predicament he holds with his wife reflects the economic stalemate Korea found itself in under Japanese rule. This manifestation was the result of a contradiction between the face value of currency and the state-allocated freedom to spend it. From detaching money from any intrinsic value, to despising finance as the causal force behind his wife’s business, to appreciating his stipend as a bargaining tool for “pleasure,” the narrator experiences a wide spectrum of monetary definitions but cannot seem to find its truth in his life other than a vessel of control. Recognizing that money is paradoxically meaningless and meaningful throws the narrator ever further into confusion. What ideology should set him free does not, and this cognitive dissonance is pushed into his unconscious so as not to interfere with his basic survival tendencies.
Along with his denial of the truth responsible for the events unfolding, the narrator feigns ignorance, purposely avoids his wife’s line of work, and hides from the complicated scenario of the present by sleeping it away. Through these avoidance tendencies, he propagates the lie that shapes his reality. His justification system heightens to keep up with the constant disillusionment he faces. The collision of opposing Korean and Japanese systems created friction in the psyche, tension among intellects, and cultural confusion. Arguably, humanity adopted denial systems to ignore the ‘why’s’ of their present as a form of self-preservation. Just as the narrator described his wife as “the daintiest, most beautiful woman in the eighteen households,” (68) he also admits, “No—’I’ survive by clinging to it, leading an existence that was nothing if not indescribably awkward” (68). Through the occasional aside, like this, sensical analysis does shine its light through the narrator’s shrouded belief system; however, nearly every wise revelation is so briefly grazed over that altogether they offer him little clarity in waking up to truth. The paramount example of recognizing his inner state is his mentioning of “wings” at the closing portion of the story, which reveals at least a partial awareness of his circumstances.
Symbolic of timeless freedom, living without restraint, and expressing the true essence of life, the “wings” of this story represent a fully recognizant, or untainted, cultural consciousness. For Korea, these “wings” reflect the inner essence of Korean culture, the roots of a population with free will, and the established identity of a collective body of individuals serving the same purpose. The narrator’s claim of “wings that are missing today” (83) amounts to a meaningless life, a life without clarity, without a solid base of personal identity, no sense of truth—and for Korea this includes the aforementioned areas plus broader issues of political power, cultural differentiation, intellectual freedom, and national unity. If seen from this lens, the quandary of whether or not “The Wings” reflects a suicidal note where the wings act as an illustrative method of relinquishing life, is clearly not the case. By missing “wings,” or lacking the autonomy with which to exercise free will, one is already dead or close to. There is no climax of the narrator’s decay that would suggest he is divulging his plan of a permanent farewell. Rather, he has been floating through lifelessness the entire story in a state similar to limbo. When infiltrated, ruled over, or affected in any form by an outside source, certain tainting is bound to occur within a nation. Assimilation takes time and effort; throughout “The Wings,” the redefinition period of the narrator’s identity, though warped by misconceptions and several denial systems, is ongoing at the end of the story. The narrator’s recognition of his lost “wings” is the first step of significant change for him, just as the first initiative for a sightless man to see again is discovering the blindfold that covers his eyes.