The Vegetarian

Forgoing the Flesh

This month, we read Han King’s The Vegetarian! This Man Booker Prize-winner, originally written in Korean (translated by Deborah Smith), appeared at first as three novellas—which makes sense. It’s a short novel with three parts focusing on three different characters and their relationship with the book’s protagonist, Yeong-hye. Part One is told from the perspective of Mr. Cheong, her dreadful husband (the only first-person point of view segment). Under his indifferent gaze, Yeong-hye becomes a vegetarian—a rather unconventional decision in South Korea. This leads her down an increasingly horrific path, including a suicide attempt, anorexia, and hospitalization. Part II shifts dramatically. Yeong-hye’s Artist Brother-in-law (primarily a video artist) is the focus as we see her mental unfolding. In addition to her vegetarianism-cum-mental instability, we discover—through the eyes of this artist—that she has a Mongolian mark (a bluish birthmark) on her posterior. His aesthetic obsession with Yeong-hye leads to infidelity: she becomes his art project. In Part III, Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, is central. Yeong-hye is institutionalized and doing poorly, and In-hye’s marriage is destroyed. This might be the most contemplative portion of the novel.

Jennifer: Well, there’s a lot here and we can’t cover it all. I’ve seen this described as allegorical. I’ve seen great comparisons with Kafka’s Metamorphosis and The Hunger Artist, which is a short story I really love. I don’t want to dissect it too much—mostly because I’m not entirely sure what it all means! So what do you make of it, and did you like it?

Lara: Before I respond, great call on meeting up for Korean food for dinner. This Bulgogi (thinly sliced BBQ pork marinated in House Special Sauce) is masissneun (delicious)!

But back to your question . . . I really liked this book.

Jennifer: I did too. I confess that I’m persistently perplexed by the role of the translator. I really want to know who is responsible for all the pretty sentences. But let’s go exclusively with Han King, an already acclaimed author.

Lara: It’s very dark and disturbing and paints a compelling picture of an oppressed Korean woman struggling to have control, and the downward spiral it takes when her mental health collapses. She’s been under the thumb of a man her whole life. First, her violent father; and then, her violent husband. Brutal nightmares haunt her, leading her to become a vegetarian. While The Vegetarian is about Yeong-hye, we never get to hear the story from her perspective. What did you think about this?

Jennifer: I think it worked. She’s mentally unhinged—not because she refuses to eat meat. Rather, she seems revolted by her own carnality, her own meatiness (I’m using that terminology; I don’t think the book uses meatiness). There are dream sequences from her perspective, but they’re brief. As her sister tells her, “You’re actually insane.”

There are some brave books that attempt to write from the point of view of the “insane,” but I’m glad this wasn’t one of them. I like the critique I think this novel is ultimately making—which is that all of us are, at times, one step away from madness. In-hye, the most “normal” one, contemplates a time in which she almost lost it—and left her child:

“She can’t explain, not even to herself, how easy it had been to make the decision to abandon her child. . . The truth of the matter was something she simply felt, horribly clearly. If her husband and Yeong-hye hadn’t smashed through all boundaries, if everything hadn’t splintered apart, then perhaps she was the one who would have broken down . . .”

I think this is one major, major theme in the book: we are all this close to insanity. What do you think?

Lara: I don’t know if we are all “this close to insanity,” but I think we are all capable of breaking. That break, or breakdown, could be an actual mental breakdown or a dramatic choice outside or our usual character that leads to disastrous, life-altering outcomes.

Jennifer: I think the other big theme—I think, I’m not really sure how to analyze this book!—has to do with loathing of one’s own humanity, one’s own meatiness. One’s own carnality?

The artist notes this revulsion in her:

“This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated. But this was nothing so crass as carnal desire, not for her—rather, or so it seemed, what she renounced was the very life that her body represented.”

Do you think this is behind her vegetarianism?

Lara: I think what is behind her vegetarianism is a need for control. She lives in a very male- and family-dominated culture and she has no voice in it. Taking control of what she puts into her body is one way to achieve that control. Her unstable mental health may have been aided by this choice or not. They could be mutually exclusive components of her person.

Jennifer: Her increasing mental illness comes to fruition (no pun intended) in her abstention from all food and her declaration that she’s a tree. She gives up her humanity. Meat—flesh—revolts her. How then do we make sense of her sexuality, another kind of carnality?

Lara: I think her attempts at transformation are designed to remove her sexuality. I don’t think she wants to be perceived as a sexual being. I don’t know if that’s due, in part, to the fact that her father physically abused her and then her husband raped her, but I don’t think she wanted attention from men. Or really anyone. That despite the fact she often removed her clothes and presented herself to the sun. Her husband saw that as an act of sexuality, or perhaps sexual defiance, and I think she was just claiming control over her own body.

Jennifer: I think I agree. The sex was non-sexual (for her). And it’s very complicated because she is, of course, having sex with someone. An artist. Her brother-in-law. This artist is essentially having two kinds of experiences (I’m BSing a little here): an aesthetic/artistic experience and a carnal/sexual one. I think Yeong-hye is, in her illness, absorbed in the aesthetics. This is his project:

“First he swept up the hair that was falling over her shoulders, and then, starting with the nape of her neck, he began to paint. Half-open buds, red and orange, bloomed splendidly on her shoulders and back, and slender stems twined down her side. When he reached the hump of her right buttock he painted an orange flower in full bloom, with a tick, vivid yellow pistil protruding from its center. He left the left buttock, the one with the Mongolian mark, undecorated. Instead, he used a large brush to cover the area around the bluish mark with a wash of light green, fainter than the mark itself, so that the latter stood out like the pale shadow of a flower.”

On her front, he continues with his garden:

“This time he painted huge clusters of flowers in yellow and white, covering the skin from her collarbone to her breasts. If the flowers on her back were the flowers of the night, these were the brilliant flowers of the day. Orange day lilies bloomed on her concave stomach, and golden petals were scattered pell-mell over her thighs.”

This is pretty amazing imagery. And I think there’s something going on here with the transformation of human to artistic object, which is—here—portrayed as flowers.

So what was your favorite part and why? Is that fair to ask?

Lara: It is amazing imagery!

I think the writing was my favorite part.

Parts shocked and appalled me: for example, everyone’s aversion to Yeong-hye’s choice to be a vegetarian as seen when Yeong-hye’s father tries to force feed her meat:

“Having thrown down the chopsticks, he now picked up a piece of pork with his fingers and approached my wife. She was hesitantly backing away when her brother seized her and sate her down… My father-in-law mashed the pork to a pulp on my wife’s lips as she struggled in agony. Though he parted her lips with his strong fingers, he could do nothing about her clenched teeth. Eventually he flew into a passion again, and struck her in the face once more.”

Parts saddened me, like when In-hye realizes that her own fate is sealed, but Yeong-hye achieves freedom in madness:

“The feeling that she [In-hye] 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 never done nothing but endure. She had believed in her own inherent goodness, her humanity, and lived accordingly, never causing anyone harm. Her devotion to doing things the right way had been unflagging, all her success had depended on it, and she would have gone on like that indefinitely. She didn’t understand why, but faced with those decaying buildings and straggling grasses, she was nothing but a child who had never lived.”

So there’s not really a happy ending to this book. What makes it worth reading?

Jennifer: For me, it might’ve been the aesthetics, the artist’s obsessing. I also found it interesting philosophically. Despite her forsaking of meat and her desire to be removed from corporeal concerns, she is unable to escape her humanity. Despite her distaste for meat, she is often described in animal-terms!

“The smell of her body filled the room, a sour, tangy smell with notes of sweetness, bitterness, and a rank animal musk.”

And near the very end, there is this image of vegetation—so clever!

“The trees by the side of the road are blazing, green fire undulating like the rippling flanks of a massive animal, wild and savage.”

Before we move on, I’d draw attention to this CRAZY-DIFFICULT-TO-ARTICULATE play on ideas: the loathing of the flesh, the transformation into art, the inescapable meatiness of humanity. Consider some passages:

The artist ponders sex with her:

“Would their bodies look like overlapping petals . . .? Would they seem like one body, a hybrid of plant, animal and human?”

No. They are still flesh and blood, and his art destroys his marriage:

“She [In-hye] recalls the sight of those two naked bodies, twined together like jungle creepers. Of course, it had shocked her at the time, and yet oddly enough, the more time went by the less she thought of it as something sexual. Covered with flowers and leaves and twisting green stems, those bodies were so altered it was as though they no longer belonged to human beings. The writhing movements of those bodies made it seem as though they were trying to shuck off the human.”

I love this phrase: shuck off the human.

Maybe both the artist and Yeong-hye are trying, and failing, to shuck off humanity. The artist still messes up his life, and Yeong-hye will die of starvation. Her sister walks away, knowing it could’ve just as easily been her who lost her mind.

Lara: Maybe so. What I hope we have captured here is, that despite the grittiness of this story, it’s worth reading and contemplating. Kang’s writing makes the discomfort worth your time.

Next Up!

Join is in June for Margaret Atwood’s dystopian drama, The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s getting a new burst of popularity with the Hulu series and a new special Audible edition narrated by Claire Danes.

Until then… happy reading, Snotties!


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