In The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith), Yeong-hye has a dream of having to claw her way through a barn full of blood and meat. When she wakes up, she throws away all the meat in her home and declares herself a vegan. What follows is a spiraling struggle between Yeong-hye and the reactions of those closest to her.
The novel is set in contemporary Korea and is divided into three sections, one from the perspective of each of the three other main characters: Yeong-hye’s husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. Originally, each section was published as an independent novella, and the structure is one of the greatest strengths of the book. There’s something mystical and uncertain about what’s happening to Yeong-hye. By simultaneously staying out of her perspective (for the most part) and triangulating the events of the story through the lens of three separate people, the book’s tension becomes powerfully tantalizing. Additionally, the reader’s sympathy and understanding are built up, challenged, and sometimes smashed.
While The Vegetarian is just appearing from an American publisher this February, it’s been out in England for almost a year, so there’s several reviews already available. Reading them, I found it unusual how little mention there was of what I felt was the essence of the book’s story: a woman who challenges the lack of agency she has over her own body and the reactions of the three people closest to her. Her husband barely notices her existence before her transformation, saying that she is “completely unremarkable in every way.” According to him, during their courtship, “there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and there was no reason for the two of us not to get married.” He takes no action regarding her decision to stop eating meat until her diet disrupts a dinner with his boss. His reaction to her change is one of revulsion, and he tries to coax and then force her into reverting to her “unremarkable” self. When that fails, he abandons her.
Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law has the opposite reaction, becoming infatuated with her and especially her body, ostensibly after finding out that she still has her Mongolian mark, a birth mark common among people of Asian descent that typically disappears by puberty. His obsession and subsequent fantasies are tied to Yeong-hye’s transition to plantness—he’s an artist and wants to paint her body with flowers for an exhibit. In most ways, she is just a body to him, a victim to his male gaze. At one point, he thinks, “Whether human, animal or plant, she could not be called a ‘person,’ but then she wasn’t exactly some feral creature either—more like a mysterious being with qualities of both.” There are points where he questions his perspective: “It’s true, he thought, she really is ordinary. It’s me who’s the crazy one.” His objectification of Yeong-hye disturbs him, but he only barely challenges it.
Like Yeong-hye’s husband, Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, initially reacts to Yeong-hye’s change with revulsion. Also like Yeong-hye’s husband, In-hye doesn’t take action regarding her sister’s behavior until she discovers her own husband’s desire for Yeong-hye. That revulsion evolves, almost imperceptibly, maybe even below her conscious thoughts, into something more complex—something containing hints of envy and sympathy. She, unlike the men, is able to see connections between what’s happening to Yeong-hye and their childhood, as well as their role in society. Both women face dehumanization at the hands of their husbands and the culture around them. Both are subjected to instances of marital rape in the book. In-hye’s husband refers to her only as their child’s mother in conversation, never by her name, a practice that’s common in Korea—one that’s pushed back against by the author, who always refers to Yeong-hye’s husband as “Mr. Cheong” and never names the brother-in-law. In-hye’s attitude shift toward Yeong-hye is brought about as she sees her sister try to assert control and be systematically denied. The weight of family, tradition, and societal expectations are brought to bear, discouraging the women from independence.
The dream that began Yeong-hye’s transformation could be called a nightmare, and indeed it is referred to as such in the book’s back cover summary. But, tellingly, the character herself always references it only as a “dream.” The images she sees are horrible and gruesome, yes, but her description of what they arouse in her are not overtly negative: “that vivid, strange, horribly uncanny feeling.” Later visions she describes in a more negative light, but she ultimately treats them as a sort of enlightenment. Due to the incredibly smart way the bulk of the narrative is presented through the people around her, what’s happening to Yeong-hye initially seems awful and traumatic, but by the end of The Vegetarian, Han Kang leads readers to consider it in a different light, making the audience complicit in the shackling of the protagonist.
The choices Han Kang makes in her descriptions are brilliant echoes of the central themes and conflicts of the book. Plant and animal imagery are repeatedly invoked to great effect. The second section opens with the line, “The deep ox-blood curtain fell over the stage.” Later, during a sex scene, Han Kang writes that “their bodies overlapped like two petals.” The only decision the author made that I question was the insertion of brief bursts of Yeong-hye’s interior monologue in the first section. While they do explain some of what is going on inside her mind, they remove some of the mystery about what is happening to her. The second and third sections abandon these glimpses into her psyche, with good reason.
The Vegetarian tackles some tried-and-true themes, making crisscrossing connections between art, desire, consumption, sex, and violence. It asks questions that resonate with the zeitgeist, like how far is society willing to go to keep women from challenging their given roles in society? But despite the familiarity, The Vegetarian is incredibly fresh and gripping, due in large part to the unforgettable narrative structure. New light is constantly shed on familiar events and the complicated web holding the four main characters together. As a result, readers are forced to continuously reevaluating their perspective. Han Kang has created a multi-leveled, well-crafted story that does what all great stories do: immediately connects the unique situation within these pages to the often painful experience of living.