The Vegetarian by Han Kang Book Review


The Vegetarian, a book about a woman who never herself gets to speak from the main narration, tells the story of Yeong-hye, a woman first described as plain and not difficult, as ordinary. This plainness becomes quietly disrupted when Yeong-hye decides to adopt a vegetarian diet due to a nightmare, something we get brief depictions of as violent, bloody, and mysterious. Yeong-hye’s decision to become a vegetarian seems to be quiet at first, but it grows ever louder, impacting her and her family’s lives irrevocably.

This story happens in Seoul, South Korea, and explains the importance of familial and marital dynamics in Korean culture. The narrator of section 1 is Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr. Chan. From his first-person narration, readers come to view Yeong-hye as a plain, ordinary Korean woman, apparently subservient to her husband and easy to manipulate. But Mr. Chan’s narration also serves as a red flag; what is he leaving out of these descriptions? It’s obvious there is something in his wife that he doesn’t see or understand, and this inability to truly see her comes to a head when Yeong-hye strongly delves into her vegetarian diet. Her need for vegetarianism stretches not only into her diet but also into her husband’s diet; she refuses to cook meat for him, and eventually decides to stop sleeping with him because of how much his skin smells like meat (Mr. Chan ignores her, however, and begins to rape Yeong-hye). Mr. Chan’s frustration with his wife’s vegetarianism drives him to contacting her family, and staging a sort of intervention. Power dynamics are at major play at this dinner; the women of Yeong-hye’s family attempt persuading her to eat meat at first, and when this fails, her (somewhat abusive) father steps in, slapping Yeong-hye and literally forcing a piece of meat into her mouth. The meeting is uncomfortable and sad, something Mr. Chan watches in disgust and we watch in pity and horror. Yeong-hye ends the meeting with something even more unpredictable than her sudden change in diet: she cuts her wrists using a kitchen knife, resorting to harming herself in lieu of eating meat. It is only then that her family, Mr. Chan included, seem to take her vegetarianism for something more than a stubborn phase.

Yeong-hye’s family sends her to a mental institution. Mr. Chan’s embarrassment at his wife’s behavior and status at the mental institution creates even more of a bitterness that can only come from an unhappy marriage. Yeong-hye’s family begs Mr. Chan not to divorce Yeong-hye, and his first-person arrogance explains how benevolent it is that he still visits his wife in the hospital, despite all she’s done to embarrass him. He still discredits her behavior, vegetarianism included, as something silly, something trivial; she has lost the need to save face, and this rather than worrying him, insults him. At the end of this first section, Mr. Chan finds Yeong-hye escaped from the hospital holding a dead bird. Bitemarks are visible on the bird, and the reader is left to wonder if Yeong-hye killed the bird by biting it, her violent dreams coming to fruition. Or, perhaps Yeong-hye is so haunted by the dream, any dead meat holds weighty significance. The first section of the novel felt obsessively incomplete, a disrespectful and shallow description of a woman who never got to describe herself. If we believed Mr. Chan’s description of Yeong-hye, we severely underestimate the multitudes that exist inside of her.

The second section of the novel, The Mongolian Mark, switches from Mr. Chan’s first-person perspective to a third person narration from Yeong-ho, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law. Although Yeong-ho’s perspectives on Yeong-hye are much more favorable than that of Mr. Chan’s, his perspective is also absent of real presence; whereas Mr. Chan downplayed Yeong-hye’s humanity, Yeong-ho romanticizes it. Yeong-hye isn’t the plain woman Mr. Chan had us believe but is instead a mysterious, alluring presence, something not quite understandable and irresistible in that lack of understanding. Yeong-ho’s attraction toward Yeong-hye began the day of her self-harm attack in her family’s kitchen; Yeong-ho was the one to carry a bleeding Yeong-hye to the hospital, her blood saturating his clothes in an almost sexual way. The second section of the novel reads as a ballad of sorts; an effort for a man to create art he deems valuable, and an insatiable thought that this art needs this woman. Yeong-ho, a cynical and disheartened documentarian, becomes suddenly inspired, something he hasn’t felt in years, when he imagines creating a work of art depicting Yeong-hye’s Mongolian Mark. Yeong-ho learns from his wife, In-hye, that her sister has a bright blue birth mark on her butt, a Mongolian Mark from childhood that has never disappeared. A fire erupts within his brain, and an entire idea is formed in an instant: a film of this women, naked, with painted flowers all over her, originating from her Mongolian mark. Yeong-ho’s artistic need coincides with his intense sexual attraction to Yeong-hye (and, I would argue, his sexual attraction to his own creative work– the male ego!); he begins devising ways to visit Yeong-hye away from his wife and their infant son, and eventually gets the courage to ask Yeong-hye to model for him. “He was living with a new intensity. It seemed the happiness that had enabled him to feel that quiet peace was now lost to him forever. And yet he found himself unable to think of this as a loss.” Yeong-ho completely gives in to his desire- he feeds himself on it.

Interestingly enough, Yeong-hye agrees. She tells Yeong-ho “I didn’t want the flowers to come off, so I haven’t washed my body. It’s stopping the dreams from coming. If it comes off later I hope you’ll paint it on for me again.” The vegetarianism again- everything, for Yeong-hye, revolves around her dreams and her life now far removed from eating meat. Eventually the two sleep together, Yeong-ho’s obsessions fulfilled: “I want to swallow you, have you melt into me and flow through my veins.” Yeong-hye’s response to their sex is much more heartbreaking: “will the dreams stop now?”

From the first two sections of the novel, we don’t know much about Yeong-hye. What the novel shows us is that one person can be many things to many different people; the same Mongolian mark can serve as a source of disgust for one man and one of extreme desire for another; one woman can appear plain while in a different bedroom appear exquisite; can any one perspective get the whole picture? Can we as readers really know The Vegetarian by reading about her instead of hearing from her?

In-hye walks in on her husband and her sister the morning after their sleeping together. The novel has introduced readers to In-hye as well, giving Mr. Cheong’s opinion on In-hye (very positive- she’s hardworking, a great mother, sexually appealing, a good wife) and Yeong-ho’s opinion on her (much the same as Mr. Cheong’s, with the added acknowledgement that she is too good for Yeong-ho). Readers can see how strong In-hye is, how much of a master she is at controlling her extremely heavy emotions. She tells her husband that she is disgusted, that there is something wrong with him for taking advantage of her mentally weak sister. Yeong-ho attempts to throw himself from Yeong-hye’s balcony before he’s taken into hospital custody along with Yeong-hye.

The third section of the novel, ‘Flaming Trees,’ switches to In-hye’s third person point of view, the wronged sister of Yeong-hye suffering heartbreak at her husband’s infidelity, at her sister’s apparent psychotic break. In-hye remains a loyal sister to Yeong-hye, visiting her in the hospital and aiding in the search when Yeong-hye goes missing. In-hye’s life combines single motherhood, owning a business, and faithfully attending to her sister; it’s a life that seems full but proves to leave time for contemplative, deep thinking. Thoughts in this section alternate between her failed marriage, her spritely son, her sister’s strange condition, and her own misery. We see that Yeong-hye has lost significant weight and is refusing to eat anything at all, claiming that she will soon turn into a tree. In-hye at first feels disgusted by this behavior, but Yeong-hye’s intense belief in it leads her sister into feeling pity, and, by the end, a bit of understanding.

“Usually, when she has given up on trying to wring any more sleep out of the night, it is around three in the morning. She washes her face, brushes her teeth, prepares some side dishes, cleans and tidies every corner of the house, and still the clock goes as slow as ever, the shifting of the hands like the almost comically suspended movements of some ponderous dance. In the end she goes into his room and listens to some of the records that he left behind, or puts her hand on her back and spins herself around the room as he once had. ‘When did all of this begin?’ she sometimes asked herself in such moments. ‘No-when did it all begin to fall apart?'”

The third section of the novel punctuates the ultimate theme: we really can’t know everything about a person; and even if we do think we know, so much can change. Your husband can become a stranger. Your self can become less familiar than anyone. “The lives of all the people around her had tumbled down like a house of cards- was there really nothing else she could have done?” In-hye reflects that despite how careful she’s lived, the worst has still happened: “time was a wave, almost cruel in its relentlessness as it whisked her life downstream, a life she had to constantly strain to keep from breaking apart. Even as a child, In-hye had possessed the innate strength of character necessary to make one’s own way in life. As a daughter, as an older sister, as a wife and as a mother, as the owner of a shop, even as an underground passenger on the briefest of journeys, she had always done her best. Through the sheer inertia of a live lived in this way, she would have been able to conquer everything, even time.” This sentiment speaks strongly to me- the false control we think we have when we plan- the sense of comfort we get from the A on the test, from the ‘congratulations’ when we secure that job, from the I DO we hear him say at the altar. It’s nice to comfort ourselves in such milestones, to keep the paranoia of life unlived, of life unknown, at bay. But it’s never at bay. And we never have total control.

Yeong-hye continues believing she will soon turn into a tree, explaining to In-hye that soon emotions and words will cease to exist within her. She seems unafraid to die, and In-hye’s incessant worrying, her constant prod to her sister to eat, seems to loosen. She thinks of her own immortality, contemplates what she can do to live a more present life.

“The feeling that she had never really lived in this world caught her by surprise. It was a fact. She had never lived. Even as a child, as far back as she could remember, she had done nothing but endure. She had believed in her own inherent goodness, her humanity, and lived accordingly, never causing anyone harm. Her devotion to doing things the right way had been unflagging, all her success had depended on it, and she would have gone on like that indefinitely.” In-hye contemplates suicide, utterly annihilated with the truth that her life is not one she envisioned. And she thinks of her sister, Yeong-hye, dying because she believes in death she will become a peaceful tree; no longer is Yeong-hye the insane sister. She may be, instead, the wiser one: “Perhaps, at some point, Yeong-hye had simply let fall the slender thread that had kept her connected with everyday life. During the past insomniac months, In-hye had sometimes felt as though she were living in a state of total chaos. If it hadn’t been for Ji-woo- if it hadn’t been for the sense of responsibility she felt toward him- perhaps she too might have relinquished her grip on that thread.”

“The only times when the pain simply, miraculously ceases, are those moments just after she laughs. Something Ji-woo says or does makes her laugh, and then immediately afterward she is left blank, empty even of pain. At such times, the sheer fact of her having laughed seems unbelievable, and makes her laugh again. Admittedly, this laughter always seems more manic than happy, but Ji-woo loves to see it all the same. ‘Was this it, Mum? Was this what made you laugh?’ Then Ji-woo will repeat whatever it is he’d just been doing, such as pursing his lips and using his hands to mimic a horn growing out of his forehead, or else making a clattering sound, sticking his head between his legs and calling out Mum! Mum! in a silly voice. The more she laughs, the more he ups the ante with his clowning. By the time he finishes he will have run though all the secret mysteries of laughter that human beings have ever understood, mobilizing everything at his disposal. There is no way for him to know how guilty it makes his mother feel, seeing such a young child go to such lengths just to wring a bit of apparent happiness from her, or that her laughter will all eventually run out. Life is such a strange thing, she thinks, once she has stopped laughing. Even after certain things have happened to them, no matter how awful the experience, people still go on eating and drinking, going to the toilet and washing themselves- living, in other words. And sometimes they even laugh out loud. And they probably have these same thoughts, too, and when they do it must make them cheerlessly recall all the sadness they’d briefly managed to forget.”

As Yeong-hye inches closer to death, In-hye reflects more on her life. She comes to realize that her sister’s break from reality may be closer to a true life than her own. And instead of seeing sadness in her sister’s passing, in the way her sister has lived her remaining life, In-hye tells her dying sister: “What I’m trying to say… Perhaps this is all a kind of dream. I have dreams too, you know. Dreams… and I could let myself dissolve into them, let them take me over… but surely the dream isn’t all there is? We have to wake up at some point, don’t we? Because… because then…”

The novel ends with In-hye staring out Yeong-hye’s window at the trees, the very thing her sister has wanted to become. There seems to be a determination renewed in In-hye, a will to live or to be honest with herself that was not present before Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism. What Yeong-hye becomes is so much more than a vegetarian; she unearths a truth(s) about humanity, about existence, that is too much to bear while also being nothing to fear. It reminds me a lot of The Awakening- a character learns something deep and dark and can never, ever return to a normal reality. The Vegetarian, from this third section, is no longer romanticized or put down; instead, she is exposed in her truths, and is seen as her dying wish: flaming trees.


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