While The Vegetarian was for many their introduction to Han Kang’s work, she has been a literary presence for some time. Currently a professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts, she made her debut as a poet back in 1993, her first novel came out the following year, and she has written several other novels and short story collections, including three novels since The Vegetarian first came out in 2007.
The Vegetarian, Han Kang’s English-language debut, won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. The novel’s spare and vivid English translation, which has itself won considerable praise, is by Deborah Smith, founder of Tilted Axis Press, which specializes in contemporary fiction from Asia.
Yeong-hye, the novel’s central character, is an apparently average married woman. A dream she had, the frightening, violent details of which gradually emerge, leads her to an embrace of vegetarianism. This choice, which has surprising and devastating ramifications, is examined from three different perspectives.
The first voice we hear is that of her husband. His statement that opens the book – “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way” – tells much with its matter-of-fact meanness. He values and derives comfort from ordinariness, and sees his wife’s sudden embrace of the new as somehow sinister, even perverse. She later embraces other behaviors that strike those around her as strange. For instance, she gives up wearing a bra, saying, mysteriously, “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. But not my breasts.”
Other members of her family also find the changes in Yeong-hye’s life to be incomprehensible. And they respond with consternation, anger, and violence. Gestures like her father’s attempt to violently stuff food into her mouth at the dinner table – “My father-in-law,” says her husband, “mashed the pork to a pulp on my wife’s lips as she struggled in agony” – or even Yeong-hye’s slashing of her wrist right after, give their emotions a grim physicality.
With the second chapter, “Mongolian Mark,” we enter the mind of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, a visual artist. It’s now two years later, and Yeong-hye’s husband has asked for a divorce. She has become more disengaged – in the brother-in-law’s words, “a person who didn’t belong anywhere, someone who had passed into a border area between states of being.” While her exterior remains calm and Zen-like, however, there is also the possibility that “things were happening inside her, terrible things, which no one else could even guess at, and thus it was impossible for her to engage with everyday life at the same time.”
The brother-in-law has become possessed by a vision: Yeong-hye, with her distinctive blue birthmark that gives the chapter its name, and another man, both painted with flowers, making love. Is it an artistic concept? Is it simply a sublimation of his emotions and desires? A will to power over the body of Yeong-hye? He decides to take the role of Yeong-hye’s partner himself – with her complicity and seeming enthusiasm, as she has come to believe that her frightening dreams will disappear because of her participation in this act. “He shuddered at the appalling nature of their union, a union of images that were somehow repellent and yet compellingly beautiful.”
“Flaming Trees,” the third and final chapter, is told from the point-of-view of Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye. Yeong-hye is now a patient at the Ch’ukseong Psychiatric Hospital. She has now become obsessed with doing handstands, having come to the conclusion through another of her strange dreams that trees do the same, their hands and arms extended into the ground. Now all Yeong-hye feels she needs is water and sunlight, not food, even as she wastes away. In her mind, she is metamorphosing from an animal to vegetative state.
In-hye, paralyzed by guilt, is also both admiring and resentful of her sister: “She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner.” Like everyone in the novel with any level of self-consciousness, In-hye finds a profound disengagement in her life, a lack of authenticity that runs very deep – in contrast to Yeong-hye, who is nothing if not authentic. In the last moments of the novel, In-hye makes a fateful decision (which I won’t give away) that reflects back powerfully on her relationships with her family members, and with her own history
One might be tempted to see The Vegetarian as a larger statement on what we in the West perceive as aspects of life in South Korea – the repressiveness of its government, societal repression of women in particular, or even the fact that vegetarianism is said to be very difficult and unusual there. While that might be a part of what is going on in the novel, to restrict its symbolism in that way would be a mistake.
Why did Yeong-hye make the choice to become a vegetarian? I don’t think even she knows the complete answer to that, but it was something she felt very viscerally, something that brought meaning and focus to her life, even if those around her couldn’t understand. In part, it was a reaction to the violence, inherent in meat-eating, that she found elsewhere in everyday life. However, vegetarianism as such is nearly irrelevant to the novel and its impact. We never get to know Yeong-hye very well, but that’s the point – her family clearly doesn’t know her well either.
The choices they make in response to hers – anger, isolation, institutionalization, even sadism – help illustrate the direct tie between violence and the health of both the body and spirit. Han Kang herself made this clear in an interview, saying of her novel, “I questioned human violence and the human potential for perfection.” To what extent does Yeong-hye have autonomy over her life, her body, her choices? To what extent does she have to explain herself?