Abstention Over Indulgence: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian

Each society and culture has a set of ethics, habits, and commonality that most of the population follows – whether it is portrayed through work ethic, religious tendencies, speech patterns, collective interests, artistic ventures, or diet. More often than not, it is less stressful concede to society, to “blend in,” to assure that you are accepted what it deems appropriate. Deciding to restrict one’s diet is essentially stating that you are separating yourself from your culture – that you no longer eat what others around you do.  When switching to veganism and vegetarianism, many find that while the newfound diet benefit both personal health and the environment, it also leads towards social exclusion and isolation. The Vegetarian explores this concept as it examines the gaslighting of a young woman, Yeong-Hye, after she resolutely pronounces that she will abstain from eating meat from thereon out.

Han Kang’s novel is a restless venture, constructed of three novellas, documenting the drama and shame cast upon a family due to one members defiance of cultural norms. Set in Kang’s home country of South Korea, Kang illuminates the catastrophes that unravel following cultural antagonism, domestic abuse, spousal infidelity, and personal antipathy.

In the first novella, as narrated by Yeong-Hye’s husband, Mr. Cheong, it is revealed that Yeong-Hye has been having series of appalling, gnarled, and hyper-violent dreams depicting the brutal slaughter of innocent animals, at times comparing herself to them. For this reason, Yeong-Hye has made the firm decision to become a vegetarian, an act seen as defiant by Mr. Cheong and Yeong-Hye’s family, all traditional, Korean cultural figures. As the narrator of the first novella, it is quite blatant that Mr. Cheong is an uncaring, useless man and husband: he gives little attention to Yeong-Hye’s trauma, instead seeing her as an unfaithful wife who is unable to provide him with his deserved needs. The relationship between husband and wife is not an equal partnership, more so a man who simply wedded a woman so she can fulfill his absolute needs. Once she is unable to “properly” feed and pleasure him, Mr. Cheong loses absolute interest and feels nothing but shame for his wife, which only worsens her relationship with her vegetarianism.

The issue that plagues Yeong-Hye in her dreams, and other characters to come, is finding the right compatible partner – someone who honestly cares about the individual, their habits, and accepts them for who they are, whether a part of society or not. Once Yeong-Hye’s dreams have fostered themselves into violent, grotesque, vivid images, then identifying them with her husband’s flesh and blood, she and their marriage are beyond saving. The destructive behavior that comes out of her, the resolute steadfastness towards vegetarianism, is a testimony to the defiance of her husband and her family. Their inability to accept her decisions is what emboldens her cultural insubordination.

The second novella, “Mongolian Mark,” is narrated by the husband of Yeong-Hye’s sister, In-Hye, an unnamed artist with little success and little drive. The pinnacle of his artistic talent, is resurrected by the sight of Yeong-Hye’s indifference towards her familial and cultural norms. For some time, he had a recurring artistic vision of filming a sex-act of two floral painted bodies fornicating; however, he was unable to find the suitable people for the act. Yet, once he learned of Yeong-Hye’s bluish, petal shaped birthmark, he comes to the realization that she is the woman of his dreams. His sexual frustrations with his wife, and his art, are then pushed onto Yeong-Hye, who he uses as a means of his own physical (and artistic) desires.

This abstraction is the exploration of the the idealistic form of freedom intertwined within the individual. While the qualities are bound within sexual desire, the untouched, innate physical attractiveness of the human form, they care little about the “meat” of the body. Instead, the fantasies are constructed from the lust inherent to the personal bloom brought about by the onset of free choice – whether from marriage, society, culture, et cetera. The person is no longer an object, but they are a characteristic freed from cultural dependency and societal judgement, instead blossoming into a natural entity of its own.

The final novella, “Flaming Trees,” is narrated by In-Hye, following the revelation of her having found that her husband and sister had been sleeping with one another. In-Hye reveals that, following the episodes between the family, her promiscuity, and unwillingness to end her vegetarianism, Yeong-Hye was admitted into a mental hospital where her condition had only worsened over time. Yeong-Hye, to the disapproval of the nursing staff and her family, decided then to stop eating at all, saying that she had stopped being an animal, requiring only nutrients from the sun. Through this revelation, with In-Hye beginning to understand her sister’s condition and situation, she decides to remove her from the mental hospital taking her home.

The mental illness that Yeong-Hye deals with in this final novella is not borne out of an actual condition, rather due to the social deprivation and isolation that came out of her cultural abandonment. Because of her society’s inability to accept her personal choices, Yeong-Hye is driven to a state of detrimental cognition. Through her social isolation, she loses total characteristic commonality with other people, instead likening herself to a plant by the end of the story, no longer seeing herself as a piece of “meat.” By taking the difficult, cauterizing step to defy her husband, family, and culture, Yeong-Hye transcends the human form, with her personal freedom bringing her to a state of being best likened to rebirth. Witnessing this, In-Hye garners a deep understanding of her sisters condition personal choice, and the induced delusion in which she currently lives in, finally accepting her for the woman she is.

While providing the reader with three different perspectives, each telling the chronological story of Yeong-Hye’s descent into madness, my primary complaint comes down to the overall pacing of the collective novel. The first novella, narrated by Mr. Cheong, is energetic and manic, describing his inability to handle his wife’s personal want for freedom, scared of her actions and the shame that brings upon both him and her family; the second novella, narrated by In-Hye’s husband, is much slower, seeking attention from the reader, as if he is asking the reader to assure him over his actions; finally, the third novella, narrated by In-Hye, is as slow as the second novella, but focuses much more heavily on the details of Yeong-Hye’s madness, as well as illuminating In-Hye’s personal fatigue over the prior, transpired events. Understandably, the pacing is consistent with the mindset and stream of consciousness mode of thinking latent to each narrator, but it makes each novella feel rather disjointed, in terms to the speed and ferocity of reading and storytelling. I found myself racing through the first novella of the novel, only to hit a wall halfway through the second, and after a day off from the book, I was pushing myself to finish the final novella. While it makes sense in regards to presenting each personal, unique narrator and their relation to the situation at hand, it creates the feeling as if Han Kang went out at a sprint, found her stride, had to slow some, ending up as fatigued as her characters by the end of the story.

Otherwise, I found the story to be a compelling take on the influence of one personal freedom, deciding to become a vegetarian, and the implications that that has for the self and society. The novel is shocking at times, depressing at others, but it is a worthwhile read.

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