Adult essay competition

age 30 and younger


Topic: "The Wings" by Yi Sang

Yi Sang's "The Wings" (1936) is often classified in the same category as Russian classics "Diary of a Madman" by Gogol (1835) and Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (1864), as well as Lu Xun's "A Madman's Diary" (1918), which is considered by many critics to be China's first "modern" short story. So it is no surprise that "The Wings" was selected as the best Korean short story of the 20th century by literary critics on several occasions.

The story is often read as an extended suicide note, or an allegory of Korea under Japanese occupation depicting the predicament of a frustrated intellectual deprived of autonomy, or the first-person account of a mentally challenged individual who is out of step with his reality. All of the readings involve an interpretation of the psychology of the narrator in a parcitular historical context, and it is only by addressing these combined issues that the other aspects of the story can make sense &emdash; especially the ending, which explicitly introduces the wings of the title.

Given this context, provide your interpretation of the story and explain how we should read the events and the symbolism of the ending.

The Wings

About the author

Yi Sang was born Kim Haegyong in Seoul in 1910 during the Japanese occupation of Korea and was trained as an architect. During his short literary career he showed an interest first in poetry, turning out highly idiosyncratic and experimental pieces in both Japanese and Korean that also use mathematical notation, especially the "Ogamdo" (1934, trans. 1995 "Crows's-Eye Views") series, and then in fiction. In the fall on 1936 he journeyed to Tokyo, where he soon ran afoul of the authorities and was imprisoned. He died of tuberculosis in a Tokyo hospital in 1937 at the age of 26.

Yi Sang was a writer far ahead of his time. While his debt to Western and Japanese modernism is evident, scholars have also investigated the influence of traditional Korean literature on his work. Since the 1970s his critical reputation has soared. (For an excellent portfolio on this gifted artist, including some of this drawings, translations of his poetry, fiction, and essays, and literary criticism on his work, see the 1995 issue of Muae [New York].) Critical writing on Yi Sang has proliferated in recent years, and in 2001 an annual journal devoted to his work was established.

Several of Yi Sang’s stories feature and antic, self-deprecating narrator, interior monologues, and staccato narration. “Hwangshigi” (1938, trans. 1998 “Phantom Illusion”) is a good example. “Nalgae” (“The Wings”), the story translated here, was first published in 1936 in Chogwang and is his most widely read work. Whether it is read as an allegory of colonial oppression, an existential withdrawal from the absurdities of contemporary life, an extended suicide note, or the degradation of a kept man, it is strikingly imaginative.