2016 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior first place
Never Regret Thy Fall, O Icarus

A hero destined by the gods for downfall. A king driven into ruin by madness. Star-crossed lovers doomed to be apart. According to the five-act structure, these legends are all considered tragedies; they all end in catastrophe, and “Waxen Wings” appears to be no exception since Birdie loses her right leg eventually. Furthermore, Birdie’s tragic ending bears a striking resemblance to the Greek myth of Icarus, which the title “Waxen Wings” alludes to. In the legend, Icarus, the son of Daedalus, perishes after he ignores his father’s instructions and flies too close to the sun, which melts the wax in his wings and causes him to plummet into the sea. In the same way, Birdie loses her right leg after ignoring society’s conviction that people cannot fly. Despite this, “Waxen Wings” by Ha Songnan avoids spiraling into tragedy because Birdie’s catastrophic ending ultimately liberates her from the crushing confines of societal expectations and allows her to stay true to her original values. Ha furthers this message by employing gravity and Birdie’s watch as recurring symbols; she additionally writes in second person, which invokes the reader to consider and assess their own role in society as Birdie learns to do.

Ha uses gravity as a recurring symbol for the weighty societal expectations forced onto Birdie -- like gravity, societal expectations are unavoidable and oppressive, and they often inhibit the pursuit of unconventional dreams such as Birdie’s. From the onset, Birdie is anomalous from society; she is abnormally short and childish-looking for her age, and she seems unable to fit in with the rest of the children at school. Moreover, her atypical desire to fly is averse to society’s ‘rules,’ as evidenced by Birdie’s teacher forcing her to write “‘People cannot fly’ over and over again on the chalkboard” (Ha 165). While the idea of straying from society’s expectations initially makes Birdie feel ashamed and uneasy (e.g. when Birdie cuts across the school field), conforming to society is even less appealing to Birdie; as such, she endeavors to break free from societal expectations by attempting to defy gravity in multiple ways. Unfortunately, most of Birdie’s attempts to challenge gravity (and thus society) are met with failure, and eventually, Birdie loses her right leg in a final attempt to fly. While the loss of Birdie’s leg might be deemed devastating, it allows Birdie to finally break free from the weight of societal expectations and achieve her lifelong dream of defying gravity. After her accident, Birdie reflects that “In that shadow cast by the stump and the empty space below it . . . half of you could now forever hang in midair” (Ha 181). Birdie’s desire is fulfilled in an unconventional fashion, which is fitting considering Birdie’s unconventional struggle to conform to society. In the end, Birdie’s efforts to break free from the clutches of gravity and society are rewarded, as she can finally enjoy the opportunity to stay airborne, albeit in her own definition, forever.

Furthermore, Birdie’s watch serves as a recurring symbol for her individuality and original values. Birdie’s watch seems to always be malfunctioning, as seen when Birdie states that “Sometimes you glanced at your watch as if waiting for someone. It was always 3:14” (Ha 163). 3:14 alludes to the irrational number pi, and just as pi is seen as bizarre within the set of real numbers, Birdie is seen as unusual by ‘rational’ society on account of her desire to fly. Furthermore, Birdie never takes off her watch throughout the course of the story. She wears it when she practices in the gymnasium, she wears it at the Seoul tryouts, and she wears it when she meets Hyŏkchun, symbolizing how Birdie stays true to her original values throughout everything. The strength of her resolve is best highlighted when Birdie wakes up in the hospital room after her hang gliding accident; there, Birdie states that “As you tried to stand to fetch your prosthetic limb, you noticed your watch. Even in the dim security light, you could read the two hands -- 3:14” (Ha 181). Despite enduring a series of hardships that could have easily compromised other people, Birdie is able to maintain her original values as well as her individuality, as conveyed by the time on her watch -- it is 3:14, as usual. Moreover, this ending with Birdie in the hospital is not a tragic one, as aforementioned; rather, it is a successful one since Birdie is able to stay true to herself and defy society. Ultimately, the symbol of Birdie’s watch reveals that preserving one’s individuality and values yields a much happier ending than one born from conforming to society.

An exhortation to be content with one’s situation in life: this is one of the significances that many take away from the myth of Icarus. However, “Waxen Wings,” a story that mirrors the tale of Icarus in many ways, seems to communicate the opposite, that one should not shy away from lofty aspirations simply because of societal disapproval or risk of danger. After all, as Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Never regret thy fall, O Icarus of the fearless flight / For the greatest tragedy of them all / Is never to feel the burning light.” We as a society are all too guilty of not experiencing the “burning light,” as we live such a sheltered life that we never break free from society’s expectations and find our true calling in life. But we must realize that “Waxen Wings” is not just Birdie’s story; it is our story as well, and in this day and age, it is time to follow in Birdie’s footsteps and realize that there is more to life than being like everyone else. In this day and age, it is time to break free from the weight of society’s expectations. In this day and age, it is time to pursue even the wildest of dreams and embrace our true selves.