MARCH 22, 2016
GOING VEGETARIAN may seem like a relatively innocuous lifestyle choice compared to popular American trends like the paleo, raw foods, blood type, master cleanse, and fruitarian diets. But for Yeong-hye, the South Korean protagonist of Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian, it marks the beginning of a terrible upheaval.
Yeong-hye’s husband finds her in the kitchen one morning surrounded by gleaming piles of meat and is agape to discover she intends to throw it all out. Her overnight transformation does not stem from the usual concerns of weight loss, health, religious beliefs, or compassion for animals. Instead, the only explanation she offers for her odd behavior is the phrase that becomes her refrain throughout the novel: “I had a dream.” Her dreams, glimpsed in brief italicized fragments, are dark places full of blood, violence, and murder. In her waking life, she can no longer tolerate meat.
The Vegetarian probes the boundaries between sanity and madness, passion and obsession, desire and violence. Elegantly told and chillingly rendered, it is a dark book, unexpected and even shocking. Originally published in Korean as three separate novellas in 2007, it’s now available in an English translation by Deborah Smith.
Each novella retains a stand-alone feel, with a narrator and arc of its own, a swelling and ebbing to its story. Together, the three parts form a powerful whole, as Kang provides three distinct perspectives on the same events and characters at different points in time. A minor character who seems relatively benign and uninteresting in the first section is revealed to have a rich inner life as his passion drives him to obsession in the second section. This same character’s flaws are revealed more starkly in the third section, narrated by his wife.
Tellingly, Yeong-hye herself never becomes a narrator. Her presence looms large: we see her from three points of view, each adding a new layer of complexity to a fascinating character study. The first offers a cold appraisal of a wife by a rather unsympathetic husband, referred to only as Mr. Cheong: “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her.” His description makes her sound flat, two-dimensional, like an object not worthy of consideration.
The narrator of the second section, Yeong-hye’s artist brother-in-law (her sister’s husband, who is never given a name) makes up for this lack of passion. He sees Yeong-hye as an object of utter fascination worthy of devoted scrutiny: “She might well be called ugly in comparison with his wife, but to him she radiated energy, like a tree that grows in the wilderness, denuded and solitary.” So worthy, in fact, that she becomes the inspiration for his next video art project. Finally, Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye, the only person who seems truly concerned with Yeong-hye’s welfare, offers the most clear-eyed version of events.
The startling amount of discomfort evoked by Yeong-hye’s newfound vegetarianism is perhaps better understood in its South Korean context, where vegetarianism is less common than in North America. Yeong-hye’s passive rebellion in passing up platters of fried chicken, raw tuna, and sticky-rice porridge made with beef broth causes waves at her husband’s company dinner. “Meat eating is a fundamental human instinct, which means vegetarianism goes against human nature, right? It just isn’t natural,” says the boss’ wife. Yeong-hye’s refusal to eat flesh makes others uncomfortably aware of their own inherent carnality. Mr. Cheong’s colleagues only relax when he invents an explanation involving a case of acute gastroenteritis.
As the narrative progresses, the protagonist is treated as increasingly unnatural and unknowable. It’s not just meat she’s given up; she also refuses to wear a bra, “her nipples resembling a pair of acorns as they pushed against the fabric of her blouse” at the company dinner. This isn’t the only time she’s described using imagery from the natural world, suggesting that perhaps she’s not the one who’s unnatural. Many of us are, after all, shielded from the transformation of animal to meat. Once it’s on our plate, it becomes mere sustenance, and who wants to think too carefully about how it gets there? Consider that Yeong-hye’s dreams occupy this harrowing in-between place, and her actions become less surprising.
Her family of meat lovers does not take well to Yeong-hye’s decision — never have the words “I don’t eat meat” inspired so much rage. There’s a horrible intervention at a family gathering, in which Yeong-hye’s father slaps her, “his flat palm cleav[ing] the empty space” as though slicing a piece of meat. He attempts to force-feed her as her brother restrains her. She’s not only refusing to eat meat, of course — she’s also going against the patriarchal order in defying her father, husband, and brother. “Don’t you understand what your father’s telling you? If he tells you to eat, you eat!” her father shouts at her. She is deprived of her voice, “unable to say even a single word in case, when she opened her mouth to speak, the meat found its way in.”
Yeong-hye ignores the pleas of her family, refusing to be bound by patriarchal constraints, uninterested in abiding by social convention. Having seen the darkness of primitive desires, she wants no part in it, and to her, eating meat has become inextricably linked with this darkness. Rather than giving in to the animal unleashed inside her, she prefers to disappear into and ultimately away from herself. This is less surprising given the violence she has withstood: first at the hands of her father, and later her husband, who sees no problem with marital rape. Yeong-hye takes control of her body through the means she has, by regulating what she puts into it. She gradually stops eating, seemingly trying to erase the body that has endured these traumas.
In a messy twist of desire, the multi-perspective narrative reveals that Yeong-hye’s husband actually prefers In-hye, while In-hye’s husband prefers Yeong-hye. Both husbands want what they don’t have, and In-hye’s husband in particular demonstrates how desire can easily become warped, perverted, misplaced. These are both men who married their wives not out of desire, but because they couldn’t find anything lacking. Yet desire drives the narrative: Yeong-hye’s suppression of desire, her brother-in-law’s all-consuming desire, her parents’ desire to control her, and her husband’s desire, not so much for her as for power over her.
Mr. Cheong is less concerned with Yeong-hye’s well-being than he is with how her condition will affect him and his career. Rather than try to understand, he becomes disgusted with her, and tries to separate himself from her as quickly as possible. His wife becomes a stranger to him, to the point that he fears her being discharged from the hospital: “I would once again have to live with this strange, frightening woman, the two of us in the same house.” The alarming possibility that someone so close can quickly become an unknowable stranger haunts the narrative.
Yeong-hye is stigmatized and othered because of her behavior, which is perceived as mental illness. Except for her sister and brother-in-law, her family withdraws, distancing themselves from her. And while her sister’s loyalty is genuine, her brother-in-law’s actions are more insidious. Unable to deny his desire for her, he tries to get closer. His is the portrait of an artist’s descent into madness. He becomes fixated on Yeong-hye’s Mongolian mark (a blue birthmark on her buttocks), an image that will fuel his art, but his artistic passion becomes intertwined with his sexual desire. He too wants to possess her body, for sex and art, and he uses her as a subject without respect for her emotional state.
In-hye’s husband’s obsession looks saner on the surface because it’s channeled into art, but he and Yeong-hye are both obsessed: he with a single image, she with her dreams. The difference is that he feeds his desire, while she starves hers. The story of In-hye’s husband reads like a cautionary tale of passion taken too far in the name of art, of the repercussions of over-indulged desire and obsession.
It’s not an easy task to articulate what makes this novel so upsetting. A protagonist who never gets her own voice, her subjectivity reduced and all but eliminated by the narrative, is disconcerting. By embracing what her sister calls the “magnificent irresponsibility” that allowed her to “shuck off social constraints,” by baring her breasts to the sun and walking around naked as she pleases, Yeong-hye makes us aware of our own imprisonment in societal conventions, of our own insatiable hungers and desires. Yet Yeong-hye’s story — the only alternative to this imprisonment on offer — provides little in the way of hope or liberation. It’s not pretty, and it doesn’t end well.