2023 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior first place
first place, senior essay division
Title: "Waxen Wings" and the Pain of Gravity
There is nothing more human than wanting. One of the most fundamental aspects of humanity is ambition, the deep seated desire within you that always asks for more. In modern society, in which the world is both the most open it has ever been and the most suffocating it has ever felt, a common want is the desire to feel free. To escape normal life, to quit your job, to abandon the modern world and the complex society to go off into the woods, spending days resting idly in bright green meadows and rich forests. Yet in the end, no matter how many of these thoughts pervade us, we wind up static, stuck in the same ordinary life. In “Waxen Wings”, Ha Seong-nan conveys that desire to escape society through the metaphor of flight to be fully free from the laws of gravity. The protagonist, Birdie, recounts twenty seven years of life in the span of a minute, through every tragedy that occurred in her search for flight. Ha uses a unique structure and second-person writing style to convey the tragedies of ordinary life, but even so, the story of “Waxen Wings” itself is not a tragedy. Although it has many of the characteristics of one, “Waxen Wings” is ultimately a tale of the human experience, one which any reader can find themselves in, and even a little bit of a story of human triumph against the world.
The most prominent motif used throughout “Waxen Wings” is that of flight. Flight represents freedom from gravity and laws of the universe, from logic and normality. To Birdie, her desire of flight becomes near obsessive, but more than that—it becomes a talent for her. Birdie’s small build helps her experience that flight a little bit more than others. At first, with the swings, and then, with gymnastics. That is, however, until she is constrained by being “pulled to earth” by gravity. “Waxen Wings” sees gravity described as a constraint rather than an occurrence, and Birdie references it as such. Gravity, to her, is an obstacle from not just her dream to fly, but her ability to fly, which is why it is personified almost as an antagonistic force which works against her. With that in mind, “Waxen Wings” becomes the tale of Birdie against gravity, but also against the people who tell her that her actions are futile. Her teacher and her coaches all encourage her to stop, but regardless, she keeps trying. In the end, her actions indeed fail her, as she experiences a hang gliding accident that leaves her permanently disabled. During this accident, the most prominent literary device used is that of allusion to the tale of “Icarus”, the boy who was able to fly, yet didn’t listen to the words of his elders and flew so close to the sun, the wax on his wings melted. The story is even referenced in the title of the club Birdie joins—“Icarus Wings”. Like Icarus, Birdie’s flaw is her ambition. She is overconfident from her past as a gymnast and in the moment, becomes overcome with her desire to fly that she forgets, momentarily, about the laws of the world and the words of her instructors. She crashes, and her ambition becomes her literal downfall.
Birdie’s overconfidence largely stems from her childhood and her youth. Her advantage against gravity happened to be her build, small enough that she was able to stay airborne longer than others. This aided her in gymnastics, until she hit her growth spurt and found that she was unable to control her new body. This leads to one of the most prominent literary devices used within “Waxen Wings” as it develops the tone of the story—irony. The world is cruel, it seems, but worse, it has a terrible sense of humor. When Birdie gets taller, seemingly closer to the skies and the flight she desires, she is pulled back to Earth by the force of gravity literally being stronger on her. In an even more prominent example, when she loses her leg. Birdie herself comments on it—“in that shadow, half of you could now forever hang in midair.” (21). In a cruel act of fate, Birdie resists gravity with her leg yet is forever chained to the ground due to her disability. Though this does not assert “Waxen Wings” position as a tragedy or not, it does add just the tiniest dash of hope. Even through unsavory means, there is always a way to circumvent the constraints of reality. Society may beat you down to the point where it seems there’s no way out, but there always is one—because no law is concrete, not even the laws of gravity.
“Waxen Wings” is not entirely a tragedy. Rather, “Waxen Wings” is a story of a life—it can be one of triumph or tragedy, but whatever it is, it is unmistakably human. It is told entirely in second person to develop this—even though the character is very much telling her own story, it is easy to relate to her thoughts and experiences because there is no person who has never felt similarly chained to the world. Ha Seong-nan does not pretend that there is always an escape from such chains. Instead, she depicts the experience of being constantly pulled back, facing repeated failures. But at the same time, she paints a picture of hope and resilience, of a will to keep chasing your dreams until you are satisfied. You don’t need to lose a leg to find the little victories in life, though, and you don’t need to stop wanting things. Instead, take in the world around you, and appreciate it. You’ve made it this far, so take pride—there are millions of miniature triumphs in that achievement alone.