[Spoiler alerts & trigger warnings: self-harm, abuse, sexual assault.]
“The feeling that she had never really lived in this world caught her by surprise. It was a fact. She had never lived. Even as a child, as far back as she could remember, she had done nothing but endure.”
‘The Vegetarian’ is a Korean novel by Han Kang, first published as three novellas in 2007 then later translated into English by Deborah Smith for a 2015 publication by Portobello Books. It won this year’s Man Booker International Prize, shooting it into recent popularity.
The novel is sectioned off in three parts, narrated by the protagonist’s family members; her husband, brother-in-law, and sister. We don’t hear from the protagonist herself, Yeong-hye, other than when we’re given short insights into her nightmares or when she speaks in dialogue with other characters. Her voicelessness is significant to the way Han Kang chose to write this story – here is this woman, wife, sister who has her narrative taken away long before she gets introduced to us. Within the duration of the novel, she gives up language and functionality, willing herself to turn into a plant, starving her body away from the only life she has ever known.
Is it loneliness that plagued Yeong-hye, or something much more sinister? A recollection, shared in one of the italicized passages of the first section, shows her reacting “vacantly” to her husband finding a piece of chipped-off blade in his food. He yells at her and she wonders why this situation does not concern her. Instead, she recedes into an interior space where she is “the only thing remaining in all of infinite space.”
The face in her nightmares, reflected in a pool of blood – could that be Yeong-hye’s own visage, the crimson manifestation of repressed desires? Liquid and rippling in response to a turbulent surrounding, triggering turbulence in the mind. It’s later revealed that as children, Yeong-hye and her siblings were subjected to the aggressions of their “heavy-handed father.”
“Such violence wouldn’t have bothered their brother Yeong-ho so much, a boy who went around doling out his own rough justice to the village children. As the eldest daughter, In-hye had been the one who took over from their exhausted mother and made a broth for her father to wash the liquor down, and so he’d always taken a certain care in his dealings with her. Only Yeong-hye, docile and naive, had been unable to deflect their father’s temper or put up any form of resistance.”
In a patriarchal setting where traditional gender roles are practiced with unforgiving strictness, her sister In-hye quickly took up the role of the second mother, a move she later identifies as a “survival tactic” to dodge their father’s violence. In-hye grows into a hyper-functional wife, mother, and business owner. Her husband, son, career – all aspects of her life are orchestrated to be dependent on her maintaining a calm and strong demeanour. She comes to the conclusion later in the novel that because of these subliminally self-imposed expectations, she has never truly lived.
In-hye makes for a highly significant narrator in this novel. She’s the only one in the family who attempts to understand Yeong-hye at all, the only one who seems to have any level of empathy towards the youngest – and the most useless in her parents’ eyes – daughter.
“In-hye’s body had jerked violently, as though she herself were the one receiving the blow. She’d stood and watched, stiff as a ramrod, while Yeong-hye howled like an animal and spat out the meat, then picked up the fruit knife and slit her own wrist.”
The brother-in-law’s obsession with Yeong-hye’s body catapults the story into an erotically charged and emotionally distorted territory. Here’s this man who grapples with his own vision, who convinces himself that he must have sex with his sister-in-law while they are both painted with flowers, on camera.
He tries, at first, to trick a colleague into playing the male role in the first attempt of making this “video art.” Neither him nor Yeong-hye were aware of the sexual act the brother-in-law is hoping to film. His colleague rejects taking the performance further and Yeong-hye reveals she has never felt truly aroused before until that moment when she is interacting with a man painted in flowers. She stops showering to keep the painted flowers on her skin. The brother-in-law then gets flowers painted on his body and goes on to record himself and Yeong-hye fulfilling his vision.
“It called to mind something ancient, something pre-evolutionary, or else perhaps a mark of photosynthesis, and he realized to his surprise that there was nothing at all sexual about it; it was more vegetal than sexual.”
There is a sense of entitlement over the female body, portrayed in this section and echoing that of the now ex-husband’s. Both men have been sexually aggressive towards their wives – the women’s consent not even considered in these scenes. And both men have lusted after their wives’ sister. In contrast, the women’s desires are invisible, as if masked by layers and layers of constraint.
The human body becomes a painful experience for them. To get through the nights, they turn into quiet bed-fellows, their voices swallowed whole by their attempts at survival, at resistance; In-hye drowning in her hyper-functionality, her helplessness revealed only to herself, and Yeong-hye’s growing desire to identify as flora, the arousal she could only feel when painted flowers transformed a body to look less like human.
“Look, sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands…they delve down into the earth. Endlessly, endlessly…yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide…”
It actually isn’t very difficult to avoid eating meat in Korean cuisine. The reactions Yeong-hye receives towards her decision to turn vegetarian, triggered by disturbing nightmares, have more to do with the inability of those around her to accept difference rather than a cultural concern for behavior.
Here is a family who would rather break their daughter than try to understand her.
The author Han Kang, herself a vegetarian, likens the habit of eating meat to a symbolism for human cruelty. The process of eating, by default, involves violence – the death of a living organism becoming fuel for another. The meat of the dead feed the meat of the living.
Being human is being made of meat, carrying the evolutionary and ancestral history of its own violence. The human as an animal enforces decay and death onto others for the sake of its continuity, but many of them also have their aggression readily activated even when they aren’t threatened. It is in meat that Yeong-hye’s traumatic childhood memories rooted themselves in, manifesting into a claustrophobia of the human form.
In-hye remembers times from their childhood where Yeong-hye asked if they could run away from their parents’ house. Tracing these memories, In-hye shows us – and realizes for herself – that Yeong-hye’s declining presence started early. The desire to run away never dissipated, instead it grew along with her other repressed desires, quietly.
In her silence, these choked-up desires took on other forms; isolation and apathy, ultimately blooming into starvation. A rejection of the body and its history.
Yeong-hye’s is the story of a body that couldn’t adapt within or away from trauma. It is the body, tired and used up from being the site of power struggles that took away its humanity. Here is a body that failed to physically escape an abusive environment, and so the body found a way to escape itself.
“Sister…all the trees of the world are like brothers and sisters.”
Cover art: an illustration I made to go with this review.