Originally published as three linked novellas, Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian is a perspectival triptych following a woman whose commitment to abstention reads as devotional, a faith-based opting out. Yeong-Hye’s story comes secondhand, triangulated between the voices of her husband, brother-in law, and sister. What starts as vegetarianism (read: veganism) ends as anorexia and in incarceration, with death looming where the story stops.
Yeong-Hye’s desire to go vegetarian in a culture still unused to abstention as dietary preference, rather than necessity, waxes into a desire to go vegetal, literally and figuratively. What I’m saying here is: Yeong-Hye would like to be a plant. Plants don’t need food, only sunlight and water, to survive. Humans? In this case, no food means a diagnosis, an I-V, and enough medication to make Yeong-Hye seem about as catatonic as your average oak. Notably, dissention like Yeong-Hye’s apparently signifies to the men around her that she is fair game for misdirected rage, marital rape, domestic violence, and my personal favorite, non-consenting muse-making.
Through a narcissist husband’s violent incuriosity, a video-artist brother-in-law’s obsessive fantasies, and a depressive sister’s resigned endurance, The Vegetarian charts how quickly personal preference sheds its politeness, revealing the feral desires of the human animal, whose dearest wish is to stay civilized, or, as Yeong-Hye herself puts it, “not [to be] an animal, anymore.” Some reviewers see in Yeong-Hye’s refusal to eat meat (and eventually, to be meat), a rejection of imperialist rule by the colonial subject. In other words, what do we do to those who refuse to walk like us, talk like us? Others critics cry psychological portrait, ask: what are the effects on a body, a subjectivity, of internalizing the horrific violence going on in her personal and political world?
Han Kang herself cites both interpretations, when speaking about the novel’s genesis. In an interview for the White Review on her body of work, Kang says:
“I and writers of a similar generation felt that we had obtained the freedom to investigate the interior of the human without the guilty sense that we ought instead to be making political pronouncements through our work…Wanting to find the root cause of why embracing the human was such a painful thing for me, I groped inside my own interior, and there I encountered Gwangju, which I had experienced indirectly in 1980.”
The Gwangju massacre of 1980, to which Kang is referring, marked the brutal culmination of a populist uprising following military major general Chun Doo-hwan’s power grab, in the aftermath of authoritarian President Park Chung-Hee’s assassination. When student protestors in South Korea were met with blunt force by soldiers, the violence escalated into slaughter, resulting in over 600 casualties, including unarmed civilians and bystanders.
Han Kang implies that collective trauma, like the Gwangju massacre, or Auschwitz or Bosnia or Aleppo or Standing Rock, marks us with the permanent imprint of brutality. This sentiment is echoed across The Vegetarian, in the metaphorical shadow of Yeong-Hye’s “Mongolian mark”, which ought to have faded with time, as well as through individual traumas like Yeong-Hye’s beatings from her father, recalled by her sister, and the rape of both female protagonists by their husbands. That the women seem unable to cite their mistreatment as a source of their rejection of humanity as violent, or an exercise in endurance, is further proof of the indelible mark left by systematic forms of oppression. Yeong-Hye would rather die, or become a tree, than to identify with the species that appears in her dreams driving dogs to death from exhaustion, pulping raw meat between teeth, and bleeding from all manner of orifices, a veritable bloodletting of psychological pain.
All this and more gore nauseates the reader in Kang’s utilitarian style prose, in which her characters feel pain in the way that they see a tree out the window, as one of so many sensory experiences. What terrifies these characters about Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism is the same thing that terrifies them about their secret and volatile emotionalities: why feel this way? Is there a way, other than reifying the original trauma through violence, to make it stop?