Before the nightmares began, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary, controlled life. But the dreams—invasive images of blood and brutality—torture her, driving Yeong-hye to purge her mind and renounce eating meat altogether. It’s a small act of independence, but it interrupts her marriage and sets into motion an increasingly grotesque chain of events at home. As her husband, her brother-in-law and sister each fight to reassert their control, Yeong-hye obsessively defends the choice that’s become sacred to her. Soon their attempts turn desperate, subjecting first her mind, and then her body, to ever more intrusive and perverse violations, sending Yeong-hye spiraling into a dangerous, bizarre estrangement, not only from those closest to her, but also from herself.
Celebrated by critics around the world, The Vegetarian is a darkly allegorical, Kafka-esque tale of power, obsession, and one woman’s struggle to break free from the violence both without and within her.
Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is an agonizing tale of what happens when women refuse the narrative they’ve been assigned. A parable told in three parts, the novel folds in themes of familial roles and expectations, attitudes toward mental illness, bodily agency, and abuse, with deft and undaunted command. Kang masterfully unpacks mountains of terror from otherwise ordinary moments, until all the small cuts become greater than the sum. I couldn’t look away and I couldn’t put it down.
I am recommending this book with a trigger warning for sexual violence and abuse.
The Vegetarian is a quick read—I finished it in two evenings. But I sat on the review for a few days after, chewing on what I’d write. While the prose (in translation) is sparse and the pacing is a good stride, the subject is surprisingly weighty, and I found myself ruminating on the many different layers the book managed to penetrate.
Chief among them, and one that struck a particular chord with me—a connection between vegetarianism, feminism, women’s bodies and agency. In 2009, I presented a paper at the Indiana University’s Women’s and Gender Studies Undergraduate Conference on this topic—after researching and compiling a list of slang words used interchangeably between women’s bodies and cuts of animal flesh intended for consumption, along with examples of restaurant commercials using sexualized language to sell their food (meat, primarily to men). That women’s rights are intrinsically linked to animal rights is nothing new or groundbreaking. Carol Adams put forth the definitive guide on The Sexual Politics of Meat in 1990. In that book, Adams talks about the absent referent explicit in our language around meat—that is, we say meat, knowing unconsciously this refers to a dead animal[1. And if instead of using this sort of evasive language to talk about things we find uncomfortable, we named things as they are, our attitudes and actions would change.].
The Vegetarian plays on the idea of the absent referent with cruel cunning. Employing three different points of view—each pivoting around the main character as she struggles for agency, each using language and torture tactics designed to strip her of her personhood, the narrators fight to maintain control and uphold a status quo.
The novel opens, “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” And as Yeong-hye’s husband describes his wife’s initial refusal to eat meat, he actually never refers to her by name. She is nothing more than his wife. And a woman who is unremarkable is prized above a woman who has preferences, a purpose, is self-contained, and worst of all—defiant.
The burden of dealing with Yeong-hye is passed on to her abusive family, who attempt to possess and control her, consume and erase her, and eventually lands on Yeong-hye’s sister, who takes up the part of carer. Each player has a role in relation to Yeong-hye based on their position of power over her, and because of that, we get to know very little about Yeong-hye herself.
If you’ve ever felt like your identity was wrapped up in the part you play for others, if you’ve ever felt unknowable, or wondered at just how well you can truly know anyone, passages in this book will hit uncomfortable notes.
In fact, the one morsel we do learn about the protagonist is that she abjectly objects to consumerism. She rejects the consumption of others and herself, and, finding the strength to meet her family’s increasing violence toward her with matching resolve, tears away language and action in an attempt to reveal the absent referent. What is revealed is the ugly truth about women’s roles, the regulation of women’s bodies, and how the culture we have built up around those ideas impacts us all.
This isn’t an easy book to read. But it is worth reading.