Perhaps the darkest novel I’ve read in a while, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian caught my eye almost immediately as I browsed my local bookstore, looking for more titles to add to my already-teetering “to be read” pile. Months later, I have finally gotten around to reading it, and it left me uncomfortable, to say the least. It certainly wasn’t a pleasant read, but I guess that’s kind of the point.
The novel is told from three points of view, but Yeong-hye, the titular vegetarian, isn’t one of them. Instead, the first third of the book is written from a first-person perspective, and the narrator is Yeong-hye’s husband. I found this section particularly difficult to wade through, as this man, Mr. Cheong, is an objectively horrible person. He marries Yeong-hye not because he loves her, but because she will provide him with the simple, easy life he craves. When she begins having dreams about slaughtering animals and subsequently stops eating animal products, he shows no concern for her obviously deteriorating mental health but instead attempts to manipulate her into changing her diet.
The manipulation soon turns to downright violence when Yeong-hye refuses intercourse with Mr. Cheong because she says he smells like meat. Infuriated, drunk, he violently rapes Yeong-hye repeatedly, then blames her for his guilty conscience. This literal rape is soon repeated by Yeong-hye’s father, who metaphorically rapes her by physically forcing a piece of meat into her mouth during a family meal and then slaps her across the face when she spits it out. She responds by slashing her wrist with a “fruit knife” and is taken to the hospital.
The second and third parts of the novel are split between Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law and her sister, In-hye. In the second section, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law becomes obsessed with her after hearing a story about the presence of a Mongolian mark on her body, right above her buttocks. A video artist, he dreams of making a film of her body covered in flowers overlaying a scene of the two of them having sex. After finding out that Mr. Cheong has filed for divorce, he attempts to make this scene a reality, easily convincing Yeong-hye to pose for him, nude, and then walking into her unlocked apartment and proceeding to rape her. (While Yeong-hye doesn’t resist, she doesn’t consent and is, regardless, clearly not mentally stable enough to make a decision either way.)
Throughout the novel, one thing is clear: Yeong-hye is, if not voiceless, unheard. We never get to see her perspective, apart from the short paragraphs describing the horror in her dreams. Even in the third section, In-hye, clearly the most caring and compassionate person in Yeong-hye’s life, is unable to understand her or even get her to talk much. In this way, Yeong-hye’s position mirrors the position of the animals she refuses to eat. They have a voice, yes, but they remain unheard and unnoticed.
It is supposed, by the end of the novel, that Yeong-hye is attempting to turn into a tree. Her body ruined by her refusal to eat anything at all (she insists she can photosynthesize), she lapses into a largely vegetative state. It is implied that she sees this as an escape from the intense shame of being human, the most deeply flawed animal. The other main characters demonstrate these flaws, as they all, in the end, give into their basest desires and commit atrocities.
There’s a lot going on in this novel, but the idea of voicelessness, or more accurately, of not being heard, strikes me as one of the most important themes. I’ve mentioned my love for Carol J. Adams’ groundbreaking book The Sexual Politics of Meat in a previous post. Her work makes connections between the positions of women and animals, how they are often substituted for one another, and how their oppressions are closely linked. The Vegetarian highlights these similarities, perhaps unconsciously.
But at the end of the novel, we are not encouraged to question meat-eating. Instead, it’s largely passed off as the delusion of a dying mentally ill woman. We are instead directed toward the idea of the ubiquitous flaws of humanity. The main characters, apart from Yeong-hye, do not attempt to fix their flaws but embrace them and resign themselves to their fates.
Are we destined, as a species, to oppress and exploit? To give into our most basic, sensual impulses, regardless of who it affects? Is the only way to prevent our destructive tendencies to, like Yeong-hye, destroy ourselves altogether? These are the uneasy questions I’m left with as I finish The Vegetarian.