After the series of nightmares that focus on human cruelty, petrified Yeong-hye decides to stop eating meat, much to the dismay of her husband and family.
Han Kang mastered the art of collating her words into wildly evocative images. And The Vegetarian is full of shattering, symbolic images: a dying bird, the flowers painted all over Yeong-hye’s body, the images of the forest as the only shelter, generously splattered blood. With some recurrent patterns that use pre-established themes, each of the speakers gets a distinctive voice of their own that embodies their personal focus on the protagonist. Mr Cheong, Yeong-hye’s husband, is preoccupied with himself and desperate to preserve his lifestyle, In-hye contemplativeness reveals the weight that she grapples with, while her husband’s repetitive thought patterns expose an unrelenting fixation that he tries to justify with his art.
But we don’t get much of Yeong-hye’s own viewpoint besides a few brief snapshots of her thoughts. Each part of the novella, despite the third-person narration, sticks to the perspectives of people close to her. We start with her husband’s preoccupations, progressing to her brother-in-law and her sister, each of them playing a different role. From the very beginning, a thick wall of someone else’s perceptions of her behaviour separates her from the reader.
Her husband calls her unremarkable but carries on with the relationship to maintain his perfect image. Once she turns against everything he needs from her and starts destroying the smooth and uncomplicated life he built, he starts worrying about other people’s opinions and thinking of disposing of her. No support awaits from her faily either: they require her to stand in line with what they believe in. Even her sister, despite her great care, becomes conflicted about the way Yeong-hye acts. Otherworldly and detached, she isn’t given a voice; as the novel progresses, this narrative choice plunges into a much deeper metaphor.
Subconsciously, she sets herself to become a target for behaviours she fails to speak against. There’s a lot to be examined when it comes to the external forces that fight over her body. She only gets to make one painful and detrimental choice – to starve herself – to reclaim herself from the demons that torment her. Initially, her behaviour seems to evoke violence and calls for submission: be it in the room with the family where her father forces a piece of meat into her mouth, or in the artist space where the Mongolian mark becomes a symbol of destructive desire and power imbalance.
But her quiet rebellion soon dismantles all expectations. Sleepless and starved, she turns herself into a plant, separating herself from everything that hurts her and finding her connection with nature as she descends deeper into the methods that help her cope with the fears. Her own passiveness is a stark contrast to the requirements others impose on themselves and each other. Their lives, all ordinary and planned, have no way of incorporating somebody who doesn’t fit the frame of normality. Pushing back against her instability, they’ll do everything it takes, including violence, to snap her out of it. Her transformation reminisces of a much subtler version of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis: although the heroine doesn’t undergo a physical transformation, the external norms become shattered as Yeong-hye descends into her fever dream.
A unique novella from a South Korean author captivates with haunting imagery that spirals down into the darkest corners of the character’s minds. There’s no sunlight in the prose for the protagonist to blossom, and we watch her wither, entranced by the words, helplessly separated from her by the circle of characters as they put their own agendas forward.