Literary Explorations

“The Vegetarian” by Han Kang

vegetarianAfter coming home from school one night in the late ‘90s, a young girl joined her parents at the dinner table (on the stroke of 6, as per usual!) and rather unceremoniously informed them that, somewhere during that fateful afternoon, she had become a vegetarian; and subsequently refused to eat any of the meaty goodness on her plate. Madness ensued: yelling, crying, pleading, threats, being held hostage at the table until she consumed every last morsel of the meat on her plate and ultimately being force fed those same juicy red morsels…

True story? Perhaps in some families; though, fortunately for our young vegetarian, at least the second half of this story is a lie.

For our young rebellious girl, becoming a vegetarian, even before the new millennium had kicked off, was not considered to be the end of the world. Were her parents shocked? Yes. Did they think – given her disappointing track record in the persistence department and her appetite for meat – that it was just a phase? Of course. Or that offering her some of her favorite meaty dishes for dinner would make her cave? Absolutely.

Alas! 18 years later, this girl is still a vegetarian and people have come to accept her dietary choice. In fact, while I was constantly being asked why on earth I would become a vegetarian during the first few years of my affliction, no-one has asked me that in recent years… Today, vegetarianism has lost the power to shock and it has become a common dietary preference around the globe.

In Kang’s novel, set in contemporary South Korea, however, one woman’s appetite for change is not so well received.  Granted, social conformity is still a part of any society today; but while my choice to become a vegetarian only marginally affected my direct environment, The Vegetarian shows the reader that change in any form has the power to threaten the order of a society, especially where conformity is highly valued.

Told in three parts, none of which are narrated by the protagonist, Kang’s astonishing novel The Vegetarian explores the life of Yeong-hye as she suddenly rejects meat in all its forms; exposing the consequences of one woman’s defiance and the effect it has on the members of her South Korean family, including herself.

Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.  Han Kang, The Vegetarian

Yeong-hye’s story is first narrated through her husband’s point of view.  Chosen for her ordinariness and compliance, Yeong-hye is a perfect fit for the carefully ordered mediocre existence her husband has carved out for himself. However, when Yeong-hye breaks cultural convention and declares herself to be a vegetarian, he suddenly finds his comfortable life disrupted and his wife more liability than convenience. The story begins when he finds his wife in the kitchen, barefoot, with her hair disheveled and wearing nothing but a nightgown, throwing away all the meat in the freezer. When he repeatedly questions her about her motives, she merely answers: “I had a dream”. Though her husband does not understand her explanation, we as readers are offered scattered violent glimpses of her dreams, the only passages told from Yeong-hye’s point of view – filled with bloody slaughterhouses, raw flesh and butchered bodies that leave her averse to meat. When Yeong-hye becomes unwilling to have sex, because her husband smells like meat, and ultimately embarrasses him at an important dinner with his bosses; her family steps in. During a family gathering, they try to entice her with home-made meat dishes, but their efforts soon spiral out of control when her father beats her and forces a piece of meat into her closed mouth. Rather than succumb, however, this only deepens her resolve.

In his mind, the fact that his sister-in-law still had a Mongolian mark on her buttocks became inexplicably bound up with the image of men and women having sex, their naked bodies completely covered with painted flowers. Han Kang, The Vegetarian

The second part of Kang’s novel gives voice to Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, an unsuccessful video artist who becomes obsessed with Yeong-hye’s flower-shaped Mongolian mark. Consumed by the desire to paint flowers all over her – and his own – naked body, he invites Yeong-hye to help him with his latest art project by being painted by him and later having sex with him on video tape. When they are caught by his wife, however, she is abhorred by the strange scene before her and, convinced they are both mentally unstable, threatens to have them both committed.

Look, sister, I am doing a handstand, leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands… they delve down into the earth. Endlessly, endlessly… Yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch, I spread them wide… Han Kang, The Vegetarian

In the final part of The Vegetarian, Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye takes over the narration as she stays by her sister’s while se resides in a psychiatric hospital. Yeong-hye’s refusal to eat meat has now spiraled into a refusal to eat altogether and she is (mis)diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. As the violence surrounding her steadily becomes more intense throughout the novel – from beating, sexual assault and suicide in the first two parts, to being brutalized by medics forcefully trying to insert feeding tubes down her nose – so does Yeong hye’s craving for a completely non-violent way of being, leading to an almost complete refusal to partake in common human activities. In the end, craving merely light and water, Yeong-hye refuses humanity itself, leading her to choose a plant’s life.

Can only trust my breasts now. I like my breasts, nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe. […] Why? Why am I changing like this? Why are my edges all sharpening–what am I going to gouge? Han Kan, The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian is truly an extraordinary experience. Though I chose this book based on its title The Vegetarian, make no mistake: while Kang’s novel explicitly deals with veganism, it is darkly allegorical and its concerns are much wider – power, obsession, violence, self-destruction. If you are looking for an airy, easy read, this book will probably not be what you are looking for, but if you enjoy realist, thoughtful narratives about the human psyche with a touch of the grotesque, The Vegetarian’s eloquent narration of one woman’s descent into self-annihilation is well worth the read.


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