The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly: A Novel

  • By Sun-Mi Hwang; translated by Chi-Young Kim
  • Penguin
  • 144 pp.

A deceptively simple barnyard fable broaches many existential themes.

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly: A Novel

Framed as a barnyard fable in the tradition of Charlotte’s Web, The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is actually a long meditation on eternal human questions such as the burdens and rewards of freedom and parental love. Famed South Korean writer Sun-Mi Hwang originally published her novella in 2000. It became a national bestseller, and the film adaptation is the highest grossing animated film in Korean history.

Hwang’s protagonist is a feisty hen who has spent her life in an overcrowded coop on an industrial egg farm. She calls herself Sprout, a name that to her symbolizes freedom and hope. “Sprout was the best name in the world,” she muses. “A sprout grew into a leaf and embraced the wind and the run before falling and rotting and turning into mulch for bringing fragrant flowers into bloom.” As suggested by the moniker, the themes of life and death are intertwined throughout the book. Death can be violent and cruel, as it often is on a farm populated by a prowling weasel, territorial animals and profit-obsessed farmers, but death can also be liberating and meaningful when it serves to foster new life.

Depressed by her dreary existence in the coop, Sprout can no longer bear to see her eggs handed over to the farmer’s wife and hauled off to market. Peering out through an occasional crack in the door, she yearns to be free to wander the barnyard unencumbered. She dreams of laying an egg that will be allowed to hatch, so that she can nurture a chick. Her chance at freedom arrives, paradoxically, when she becomes so weak that she no longer has the will or energy to produce eggs. Seeing her as useless, the farmer’s wife tosses her and other sickly chickens into a death pit, where they are left to die or be devoured by the local weasel. Faced with the probability of death, Sprout musters enough energy to escape with the help of a friendly mallard named Straggler, who shelters her for a night in the barn. 

However, when the other barn animals reject her, Sprout realizes she will have to make her way on her own. She can no longer depend on the warmth of the coop or on regularly delivered meals like the other farm animals. In the wild she learns to accept the challenges of independence, finding food and using her wits to evade the weasel. When she discovers an abandoned egg in a briar patch, she decides to nurture it, eventually adopting it as her own. Unexpectedly, Straggler reappears and takes a particular interest in Sprout’s project. When the egg hatches and the baby turns out to be a duckling, Sprout realizes that her adopted son is the offspring of Straggler and his mate, a beautiful white duck that fell victim to the weasel. With unbridled devotion Sprout raises the duckling, which comes to feel torn between his love for her and his natural inclination to follow the barnyard ducks. When at last a flock of mallards appears, Sprout struggles between her desire to keep him near and her realization that she must, as a final expression of her love, release her claim to him and allow him to soar among his own kind.  

Hwang’s deceptively simple story in fact broaches many existential themes. Sprout’s rebellion against the vitiating monotony of the coop mirrors our own discomfort with pointless, repetitive work that crushes the spirit and dreams of the individual. Repression stifles creativity and diminishes productivity, suggests Hwang, but freedom requires commitment, vigilance and hard work. The novella is also a hymn to maternity — the uncompromising love of a mother that transcends species and, by extension, ethnicity and race. Sprout is an exemplary heroine, capable of extraordinary valor and sacrifice, and also of compassion, even toward her nemesis the weasel, who is also a mother.

Chi-Young Kim’s lyrical translation makes the tale available to the English-speaking public for the first time, and lovely line drawings by Nomoco enhance the edition. Hwang has written an achingly beautiful allegory that is sure to become an international classic.

Bárbara Mujica is a novelist and professor of Spanish literature at Georgetown University. Her latest novel is I Am Venus, based on the life of the Spanish painter Diego de Velázquez. She is also the author of Frida and Sister Teresa, based on the lives of Frida Kahlo and Teresa de Ávila.

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