2023 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior third place


Birdie is not the first one to have fallen from the false promises of a pair of waxen wings. Written in about 8 CE, the Greek tragedy of Icarus describes how a literal pair of waxen wings led to one’s tragic end. In the tragedy, Icarus attempts to fly in the air with waxen wings. Despite his father’s warning, Icarus flies too high. Getting too close to the sun’s heat, the wax holding together the feathers of his wings melts and he ends up falling into the sea, where he drowns. This old tragedy is a tale of a caution against hubris. 2000 years later, readers are introduced to a similar story, Waxen Wings, by the South Korean author Ha Seong-nan. The protagonist, Birdie, dreams of flying like a bird – a nearly impossible task for humans. To describe the downfall of an individual due to hubris in the modern world, Ha not only utilizes, but goes further to maximize the effects of, Greek tragedy elements. The author constructs the narrative by interweaving the elements of hamartia and anagnorisis in a repetitive structure. Ha induces a moment of catharsis in the end, with its emotional effect magnified through the second person perspective.

According to Aristotle’s Poetics, there are two classical elements of a tragedy: hamartia and anagnorisis. Hamartia refers to a character’s error of judgment, commonly classified as the hero’s fatal flaw, while anagnorisis refers to a critical discovery about some truth or limitation. In Ha’s Waxen Wings, the repeating cycle of hamartia and anagnorisis propels Birdie into arriving at a tragic ending. Within this structure, various symbols are used to represent Birdie’s fatal flaw and critical discovery along her journey.

Birdie’s unwearied attempts for her dream represent hamartia. When Birdie is in elementary school, “[her] teacher makes [Birdie] write ‘People cannot fly’ over and over again on the chalkboard” to discourage her dream after another student falls from the swings trying to briefly ‘fly’ (Ha 165). But as Birdie is “so small, [her] writing reaches only halfway up the board” (Ha 165). Here, it almost seems as if Birdie’s height limits her ability to fully accept the teacher’s warning, and she continues her attempts to fly by moving on to gymnastic bars. After a failed career in gymnastics, Birdie meets Hyeokjun, with whom she falls in love with. In this chapter of her life, Hyeokjun symbolizes the idea of flying through the fleeting nature of their encounter. And her pursuit of Hyeokjun symbolizes yet another attempt to chase after a dream without recognizing its false promises. Hyeokjun is someone described as “probably [having] over ten names he goes by” (Ha 177). Analogous to the other forms of flying that entered and abruptly left Birdie’s life, Hyeokjun leaves suddenly without warning. Despite the instability of their relationship, Birdie soliloquizes, “Oh, I love you, Hyeokjun, Kyeongshik, Eunho, Changmin, Minsu… whatever your name is” (Ha 178). As Birdie did in her childhood riding the swings or in her teenage years pursuing her love of gymnastics, Birdie will continue to blindly love flying, a fatal flaw that leads to a tragedy.

While Birdie seems to relentlessly chase her dreams in the face of consecutive failures, she does not seem to be completely unaware of the limitations of her conditions. There are moments of anagnorisis in which she briefly reckons with reality. In middle school, Birdie thinks that “if people could escape the confines of gravity, they could fly like birds'' (Ha 166). She also notes, however, that “[she finds] even the task of simplifying the law of gravity difficult” (Ha 166). With this realization, she seems to understand the difficulty of leaving one’s reality, symbolized through the notion of gravity. Regardless, she still attempts to ‘fly’ through the sport of gymnastics, but is faced with the reality of her sudden height growth and cannot pursue this career. At the Changgyong Palace, she sees a pigeon “[standing] motionless in the same spot, blinking slowly” (Ha 173). As if she sees the end of her pursuit to fly through the death of the pigeon, which once used to fly, she “[shrouds] the pigeon in [her] leotard”. She comes to terms with the limitations of her physical ability. But her pursuit to fly only takes a different form later on through hang gliding.

Throughout Waxen Wings, Birdie cycles through different forms of effort to fly and the varying limits of reality. The loop of alternation between hamartia and anagnorisis implies that even after the discovery of her limitations, she will always return to an error of judgment: she believes she can fly. The scale of the failures becomes larger after each attempt, and she is eventually met with an ending in which she loses her leg.

Following a build up of hope and disappointment, which becomes dramatized through an ever-growing cycle, Ha induces a catharsis through the final scene. While this underlying structure sets up a foundation, the use of the second person perspective also plays a crucial role for the reader’s cathartic release of emotions. From the start, the reader is absorbed into the world of Birdie through detailed depictions of the day to day life: “You, ten years old, are cutting across the school field… The kids in your class call you Birdie” (Ha 163). After following along Birdie’s journey of attempting and failing to fly over two decades, the reader, seeing themselves as Birdie, is led to a heightened emotional experience at the end, when they can finally come to terms with the limitations of reality for good.

Waxen Wings is a tale of the modern world, composed of the elements of classical Greek tragedies. Ha creates a tragedy that is perhaps even more cruel due to her dramatized manipulation of these classical elements within a cyclical structure. And it is a tragedy in which the reader is dragged into this loop of false hope fueled by the waxen wings that Birdie continues to recreate after each fall.