Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (beautifully rendered in English by Deborah Smith) was one of the first, if not the first, novel of 2015 to be greeted with excited praise, something evident in the ecstatic anticipation in evidence prior to the publication of Human Acts, her second novel to appear in English, in just a few weeks. The novel tells the story of a young woman, Yeong-hye, who decides to become a vegetarian, and of the cataclysmic effect this has on her family, her marriage, and her life. The novel is told in three parts, by three different narrators – none of them Yeong-hye. This would be surprising were it not for the fact that it becomes increasingly evident that she is not listened to, or understood, by those around her, and that her voicelessness is a facet of her slow vanishing from the narrative.
The first part, ‘The Vegetarian’, is told from the point of view of her husband, Cheong, who immediately sums up his wife as “completely unremarkable in every way.” His decision to marry her comes some way short of true love:
“However, if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married.”
Marrying Yeong-hye is predicated on the impossibility of her ever shocking or surprising him – he praises her “passive personality” – and therefore how much more shocked and surprised he is when she declares that she will no longer eat meat as a result of as dream she has had. It becomes clear that her vegetarianism is not for moral or health reasons, but because she has developed a revulsion to meat; she refuses to sleep with her husband because of “the meat smell. Your body smells of meat.” Eventually, Cheong contacts Yeong-hye’s family and the first section climaxes in a violent scene when her father attempts to force her to eat meat.
Between each section, time passes, and by the time ‘Mongolian Mark’ begins, Cheong has left his wife. The second story is told in the third person but from the point of view of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law who develops an erotic obsession with Yeong-hye centred around her Mongolian mark – a birth mark which, as he explains, “appeared on the buttocks or backs of children only, always fading away completely before adulthood.” This unconsciously reveals what attracts him to Yeong-Hye, her childlike helplessness, exacerbated by her now emaciated body. He develops a plan to video her painted with flowers (less strange than it sounds as he is, apparently, a video artist). Does this suggest he understands her (she longs to become one with nature in some way) or is it an example of him objectifying her? When he has himself similarly painted so that she will sleep with him, you can’t help but feel it’s more desire than art, and the coupling which follows is ambiguous to say the least.
By the third part, ‘Flaming Trees’, narrated by her sister, Yeong-hye is hospitalised, diagnosed with anorexia. In-hye’s marriage has also ended, having finally fallen apart on the night she found her husband and her sister together. By this point, Yeong-hye has convinced herself she no longer needs food; she mentions a dream in which she is a tree:
“I was standing on my head…leaves were growing from my body, and roots were sprouting from my hands…so I dug down into the earth. On and on…I wanted flowers to bloom form my crotch so I spread my legs.”
The clinic are going to attempt to feed her through a tube one last time in a scene that can only remind us of her father forcing meat into her mouth.
The Vegetarian can, of course, be read as an account of mental illness, and the damage it can cause not only to the victim but to the family. Yeong-hye’s story also seems to be one of a woman who is not listened to, surrounded by others who think they know better. You might also argue, the sanity of the other characters is called into question: her husband, rigid and unfeeling; her father’s violent rage; her brother-in-law’s obsessive lust and rush towards death when discovered; even her sister, the most sympathetic, who feels “her life was no more than a ghostly pageant of exhausted endurance.” Fascinating, strange, the novel is not unlike a body painted with flowers, its naked truth glittering with images.