2023 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior second place

Title: A Contemporary Icarus: The Balance of Success and Tragedy in "Waxen Wings"

“Your watch stopped at 3:14”: so begins “Waxen Wings”, Ha Seong-nan’s mesmerizing tale of a girl who dreams of flight despite the odds. With this opening that is really a loophole in time, the reader is immediately drawn into the world of the nameless protagonist known only as “Birdie”. This anonymity, coupled with the skillful use of the second-person point-of-view, implies that Birdie could be anyone—including the reader. Masquerading as a biographical account, “Waxen Wings” is an exploration of pyrrhic success—which is tragic, but not a tragedy. With her signature Kafkaesque writing style, Ha uses seemingly insignificant details to construct an objective chronicle of an everyman’s dream, leaving the reader to question whether Birdie truly attains success, however short-lived that success might be.

To explore whether a short success constitutes a tragedy, Ha emphasizes the brevity of everything in Birdie’s journey to success. In addition, she suggests that success cannot be planned in advance by including unprecedented natural factors. The nickname “Birdie” is derived from the protagonist’s obsession with flight, which began when she jumped off a swing at ten years old and was “freed from the swing, [her] body [soaring]—only for the briefest moment…” (Ha, 164). This “briefest moment” foreshadows the moment of flight Birdie experiences as an adult on a hang gliding trip right before crashing, having been blown off course. In high school, Birdie trains in a gymnastics class that offers a chance at “flight”—before she grows too tall, having been “blown off course” from her dream by uncontrollable factors, and her coach concedes that “maybe it’s better this way, since a gymnast’s career is so short” (Ha, 172). Brevity is a recurring topic in “Waxen Wings”, where both readers and characters learn how sweet success is, but also how short-lived it can be. Ha juxtaposes brevity with eternity in her ending, when Birdie sees her shadow that’s missing the leg she lost in the hang gliding crash: “In that shadow, half of you could now forever hang in midair” (Ha, 181). In a twist, Birdie has achieved her goal, just not in the way she expected to. Like Icarus, she flies; unlike Icarus, her crash results in half of her becoming suspended in midair instead of death. Thus, this doesn’t fit the traditional definition of a tragedy because her flaws do not lead to her demise; instead, they drive her “off course” to a—when viewed with a silver lining—comparable place. In a bittersweet ending lies the message that life has unexpected turns, yet can result in something similar to the goal.

Ha employs symbolism and irony to underscore the intractable nature of life. One symbol is Birdie’s watch. At first, it works smoothly; later, it winds down before finally shattering at the ending—right at 3:14. This embodies the conclusion of Birdie’s journey and that the time for dreaming is over. Another symbol is a dead pigeon: unable to continue gymnastics, and equally lost in school, Birdie heads alone to Changgyeong Palace and contemplates a pigeon that falls dead. Ha writes that “for the first time in [her] life, [Birdie witnesses] the moment life escapes from a living thing” (Ha, 173). By being “blown off course” by death, the bird is grounded—the same way Birdie can no longer “fly”, or do gymnastics, because of her growth spurt. The death of the bird can be likened to the death of Birdie’s goal; however, unlike the bird’s death, no one notices Birdie’s “death” and her absence from class because “it’s more common for [her] to be at the gym” (Ha, 174). Irony defines how little of an impact Birdie and her dream have on her surroundings: what everyone takes to be Birdie’s usual routine is actually her reluctant departure from it. This can be summed up in a line from Roman Holiday, recited by Kang Hyokchun, a man Birdie later meets and falls in love with: “Life isn’t always what one likes, is it?” (Ha, 176-177). When Birdie discovers that he’s disappeared and Kang Hyokchun may not even have been his name—making him, too, anonymous—the watch repairman comments, “What do you expect with guys who work at a place like this? They migrate like birds, flying around from place to place” (Ha, 177). Ironically, Kang Hyokchun has become a bird who flies in search of work and dreams, while Birdie remains flightless.

Ha’s use of the second-person point-of-view transforms the reader into Birdie. Though the protagonist remains nameless, the consistent second-person narration offers a visceral experience of straining for a near-unachievable dream. The minute details of the story form a realistic biography rife with symbolism and irony. Ha never tells “you” what to feel—she merely gives facts and details that “you” experience. This—almost paradoxically—evokes emotions as Birdie’s experiences become those of the reader, raising the question of whether it was all for nothing. By building up how much Birdie invests in her dream from the beginning, Ha establishes how much Birdie has to lose, despite exerting almost inhuman effort. This cost only grows as Ha asserts that success cannot come without pain: during Birdie’s arduous training, her coach incessantly jabs her; her colleague Yunhui’s promising career is terminated after an injury, the same way Birdie’s is after the hang gliding crash. Even Birdie’s attempt to forget her dream is unsuccessful, as Kang Hyokchun and his abrupt disappearance mar her attempts at a “normal” life. Each setback for Birdie becomes one for the reader, reiterating that success has a price.

“Waxen Wings” is a gritty portrayal of one’s odyssey to their dream, reminiscent of many readers’ individual struggles as the world grows increasingly competitive. Through the second-person point of view, Ha Seong-nan lands readers directly into this yet-to-be-achieved goal and has them question the fantasy of a hard-working individual. Through Birdie, Ha implants in readers a sense of sonder—for we are all striving to achieve our own dreams, flying alone in the exact human condition that Ha casts us in.