I was going to write a typical book review of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. I was going to add my voice to an already crowded chorus of those who have reviewed the book. I was going to talk about the role of the translator—Deborah Smith—in bringing a text to global audience, about how Korean literature deserves to stand alongside other cultures for its singular perspective on how humanity views itself. I was going to do a lot of things.
But, as I started constructing the review, I realized that I had little to add that those reviews hadn’t covered. If you want to read reviews, then check out these links:
If these reviews don’t convince you to read the book, then nothing will. I warn you: it’s not an easy book to read. The language is deceptively simple, but the message is emotionally powerful and, as one reviewer put it, “ingenious, upsetting, and unforgettable.”
At 192 pages, The Vegetarian rivals Train to Pakistan in the “short, but powerful” category of novels. This book renewed my faith that it is possible to write something powerful and deeply philosophical with fewer pages than your average mass-market paperback. Because it was originally published as a series of three novellas, the structure is somewhat unorthodox and switches from first person to third and from one character to another. I enjoyed the multi-vocal approach as it created a harmony of voices as each character confronts Yeong-Hye’s vegetarianism and its impact on their lives. Although the switch from first to third in the second part did jar me a bit at first, that section was my favorite. The book touches on many themes, among them the impact of modernization on Korean life, the tension between social norms and individual desires, and the right to die. Like Train to Pakistan, the story itself is fairly uncomplicated from a plot perspective. The plot revolves around a young Korean woman, Yeong-Hye’s, who becomes vegetarian (specifically vegan) after a nightmare and her family’s reaction to that change. The book has six main characters (Yeong-Hye, her husband, mother, father, sister, and brother-in-law) with maybe another half dozen minor characters. The dialogue is sparse. Each narrative relies heavily on physical movement rather than speech to drive the plot. The book’s twists are numerous, profound, and gut-wrenching.
While reading the Vegetarian, I tweeted:
Saying Han Kang's The Vegetarian is a book about a vegetarian is like saying Lolita is a book about a girl.
— Jean Burke-Spraker (@jburkespraker) June 9, 2016
This book isn’t really about a vegetarian or vegetarianism. This book is about control. Control of our bodies, our minds, our sexual desires, our identities, even our very existence.
After a blood-filled nightmare, Yeong-Hye decides to become vegetarian. In Korea, vegetarians are still rare. Yeong-Hye’s family views her new-found vegetarianism with suspicion and derision. A dinner with her husband’s coworkers results in social ostracism for him. In one of the most disturbing scenes of the book, Yeong-Hye’s father attempts to force feed her beef. She refuses, shuts her mouth, spits out the food he manages to get in, and then slits her wrist as an act of defiance against the social and cultural norms that have dictated her identity. In an effort to reclaim her life, she attempts to take it. In this singular act, Yeong-Hye exerts control over her own body. She spends the remainder of the book trying to literally transform her body from an animal into a plant. Her goal: to free herself from her animal nature. She wants to let go of everything that defines her identity including her food. She takes the aphorism “you are what you eat” literally.
In pursuit of that goal, however, Yeong-Hye loses control of her mind. She falls into a deep psychosis. As she descends into madness, she refuses to wear clothes. Her nakedness is more than skin deep. It’s symbolic of her shedding the cultural skin society has forced her to wear as daughter, sister, wife, and lover. In the later stages, she spends her days attempting handstands so that her hands might act as roots to connect her to the Earth just like a tree. She refuses all food except water because that’s all plants need to survive. There’s an ironic twist in that by denying herself food, first meat, and then all food, she is attempting to free herself from the nightmare that haunts her and the identity that society has carved out for her.
The second part, The Mongolian Mark, tells the story of Yeong-Hye’s brother-in-law’s sexual obsession with her. After learning Yeong-Hye has a “Mongolian mark” birth mark, the brother-in-law, an artist, imagines the mark, draws it, and decides to film it. The brother-in-law attempts to control his desire for Yeong-Hye, but eventually, he lets go of his inhibitions and expresses his desire for her. She consents, but only because she thinks sex will further her goal of becoming a plant.
In the final part. Yeong-Hye’s sister, In-Hye, wrestles with her own control over Yeong-Hye’s life. In-Hye must make a life and death decision about her sister’s care and let go of her sister’s life. Can she give up her own control? Do any of us really have that kind of control over another person? Why can’t Yeong-Hye make this decision for herself? Yes, she’s mentally incapacitated, but she knows what she wants. She wants death. Yet, In-Hye is hesitant to honor this wish. The ending is unresolved about this question.
The more control Yeong-Hye and the other characters attempt to exert (whether over her or themselves), the less control they actually have. It’s in letting go that they finally resolve their conflicts. With Yeong-Hye’s brother-in-law, his freedom comes with sexual release. In the case of In-Hye, the conflict remains unresolved because she has not fully let go of her sister. Until she does, she will not be free. Even Yeong-Hye, for all her denial of her humanity seems to not quite have fully let go of it.
In the US, we are taught to admire those, like Janet Jackson, who exert control.
In this video, Jackson sings a powerful anthem to control. She overcomes her parent’s constraints over her body, her mind, and her heart to take control of her life. But, I’m wondering if this isn’t the wrong message. Isn’t it in letting go that we truly gain our freedom from oppression, from expectations, from everything that constrains us? Perhaps Yeong-Hye is the better example. Or perhaps not.
I have read quite a few reviews of this book, none quite as comprehensive as this one. I knew the basic premise – of her giving up meat after a nightmare. But I had no idea about the allegory and nuance wrt self control that you’ve described. I wasn’t sure if I would like this book, because as I mentioned in my tweet today, I’ve seen people react very strongly to this book. Whether they like it or hate it, they do it to the extreme but can’t explain why. So this review is really helpful. Thank you.
Thanks. Since the book had been so heavily reviewed, I took some liberty to discuss plot more than I normally do. It is a powerful book and an excellent example of Korean fiction. As Indians tend to prefer happy endings, some will find this book frustrating. But it is exquisite. Just not something you pick up for a light read, although it reads quickly.