As a life-long vegetarian, I was immediately intrigued by The Vegetarian, the title of the three part novella written by South Korean author Han Kang. The story set in modern day Seoul recounts how all hell breaks loose in a family when a young woman makes the sudden and irrevocable decision to become a vegetarian. But the book is not a treatise arguing the merits or ethical considerations of a plant based diet. Vegetarianism becomes a metaphor for personal choice and rebellion against the patriarchy. It’s a book about the violence and brutality women experience at the hands of different men in their lives when they challenge the status quo and the heavy price they have to pay for non -conformity. One could easily substitute vegetarianism with any act of defiance but I think vegetarianism is an apt and powerful analogy to highlight the vile and base nature of human beings not just in regard to animals but towards their own species. The book was rather unusual and unlike any other book I’ve read but it was spellbinding and a page-turner.
After a blood-soaked nightmare triggered by a repressed childhood trauma, Yeong-Hye decides to become a vegan much to the consternation of her husband and the rest of her family. The structure of the book is tripartite; each part narrated from the perspective of a different family member. The first part recounts the story from the husband’s point of view and is written in the first person. The second part viewed through the lens of Yeong-Hye’s brother-in-law is written in the third person and the third part is in the third person too but written from the sister’s frame of reference. In short it’s a woman’s story presented through the viewpoint of others. Although it would have helped to know the inner workings of Yeong-Hye’s mind ( which is only revealed in sporadic dream fragments), concealing her thoughts is an ingenious narrative device to bring home the point that her voice has been stifled. I found the changing of the narration from the first person to the third person to be slightly jarring but apparently these three parts were distinct stories that eventually coalesced into one novel.
The Vegetarian– Mr. Cheong cannot come to terms with the fact that his compliant and submissive wife has started behaving strangely. And in Korea, deciding to stop eating and cooking meat is considered strange behavior. In fact he had married her for she was an ordinary and unremarkable woman- a non-entity who posed no threat to him. All this self-absorbed and uncaring man can think about is how the decision will affect him and his social life. Her family is not considerate either. Her father slaps her twice and forcibly feeds her meat which results in her grabbing a knife and slitting her wrist for which she is hospitalized. She spirals down a path of self-destructive behavior as she eats less and less and shows more and more signs of mental illness.
Mongolian Mark– Yeong-Hye’s brother- in- law is an unsuccessful video artist who becomes obsessed with the idea of painting flowers on her naked body and filming her having sex. His fetichistic interest that slowly turns into a pornographic fantasy was triggered on hearing his wife say her sister hadn’t outgrown her Mongolian birthmark from childhood. While at first you wonder if he is showing empathy towards his sister- in -law, it becomes clear that he is using her in pursuit of his artistic vision and to give a boost to his flagging career. She is the characteristic woman who is depicted as passive to the active male gaze.
This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated … what she had renounced was the very life that her body represented.
The concept of the male gaze in the visual arts was developed by Laura Mulvey, the feminist film critic in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” who posited that Hollywood films depict women from a male point of view -in other words the male gaze is a sexualized way of looking that objectifies the woman. She was influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan who had delved into the concepts of ‘Schaulust’ or the pleasure in looking and ‘scopophilia’ or deriving sexual pleasure from looking at nude bodies and photographs. In the end the male gaze reinforces the patriarchy. The brother-in-law is also taking advantage of a mentally ill woman irrespective of the fact that she consented to be his model. There is undoubtedly an underlying imbalance of power.
Flaming Trees- Through the eyes of In-Hye, we witness the slow disintegration of Yeong- Hye who goes from being a vegan to an anorexic and we learn about her childhood and the abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father. Her husband divorces her and her parents and brother abandon her. She is diagnosed with mental illness and hospitalized in a psychiatric ward. The only one who shows sympathy and takes responsibility for her care is her sister. I was moved by In- Hye’s account of her sister’s descent into madness and how she reflects on her own life choices and wonders if she was a coward compared to her sister:
Though the ostensible reason for her not wanting Yeong-hye to be discharged, the reason that she gave the doctor, was this worry about a possible relapse, now she was able to admit to herself what had really been going on. She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. 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. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there…
Gradually In-Hye herself starts showing symptoms of mental illness and has suicidal thoughts, leaving the reader with the sobering thought that men are alike in their callousness and women in their misery.
Slowly as Yeong- Hye starts withering away, she expresses the bizarre desire to transform into a tree. I found echoes of both Kafka’s A Hunger Artist and The Metamorphosis in the novel. The ‘kafkaesque’ heroine is undergoing a metamorphosis of her own. The trope of the woman turning into a tree is an archetypal image that can be traced back to antiquity. In the Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid recounts how Daphne, the nymph of Greek mythology entreats the river God Peneus to turn her into a tree so she can escape Apollo’s sexual advances. The woman is safer as a tree in a vegetative state and in a non-human form. It is a defense mechanism to protect herself. A man leaves her with no choice than to regress and efface. As Yeong-Hye withers and wastes away she also becomes more taciturn. Her body, her voice and her mental faculties are all shrinking and becoming invisible.
This is a unique book with a lot lurking beneath the surface. Some people have explained it as an allegory of the political unrest in South Korea but I interpreted it to be a dark depiction of patriarchal hegemony. This book is graphic conjuring phantasmagoric images and the reading experience is visceral and hallucinatory, reminiscent of surrealist paintings. In less than 200 pages, it tackles serious issues like family dysfunction, gender relations, marital rape, body image, eating disorders, voyeurism, mental illness and suicide ideation.
Indeed, The Vegetarian offers us a lot to chew on. ( And yes, I have an affinity for puns however trite they may be!) Originally published in 2007, it won the 2016 Man Booker Prize after Deborah Smith’s translation made it an international success. Much as I was glad to have read the brilliant book, I found the utter despair without a flicker of hope or any chance of redemption difficult to digest. I confess that once I finished the book, I had to rush to read an Agatha Christie mystery to get rid of the bitter aftertaste.