A few years ago I bought myself an early Christmas present from the local bookshop. Spellbound by its contrasting cover, displaying a piece of meat surrounded by flowers, I chose to add “The Vegetarian” to my bookshelf.
Soon I discovered that the writer of this book was a woman from Korea. For me this was a nice detail, as I’d planned a holiday to South Korea and I wasn’t familiar with its literature yet. Shortly after reading this sensual, yet unhappy novel, the writer Han Kang won the Man Booker prize for her moving debut. This made her the first (female) South Korean author to win this extraordinary prize. It received great attention and for me the hype wasn’t overrated; even after reading it almost three years ago, the novel still pops up in my mind regularly. By sharing some significations from the narrative, I hope to raise a universal discussion, eating my way towards the end of the year.
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.
The Vegetarian tells the story about a young, married woman called Yeong-hye, who is haunted by dreams that motivate her to stop eating meat. From the start the reader never gets a glimpse from the protagonists point of view. Instead the narrative is separated into three parts and perspectives in chronological order: her husbands, her sister’s husband and her sister. These point of views make clear that nobody is supporting or understanding Yeong-hye’s decision. Her beloved ones do everything they possibly can to change her mind, by treating her in a violent and brutal manner instead. Caused by these actions, her provocative decision develops in to mental illness, which results in her downfall eventually. As meat might be an inseparable part from the traditional Korean kitchen, the incomprehension of Yeong-hyes family is not culture bound. Instead, this extreme and brutal tale raises disturbing, universal issues to me.
The novel raised a feeling that Han Kang is trying to make a statement towards animals and women, as generally they both belong to suppressed groups that get treated brutally in the world we live in. Yeong-hyes female presence is strong, as men objectify her body in an erotic way. In the first two parts this objectification is very present, which makes it hard for the reader to see her as an individual from her sister’s perspective. Telling her what to do, the characters serve an institutional role. Yeong-hyes husband even rapes the protagonist as a result of trying to transform her back into a submissive omnivore. Social isolation occurs and a downward spiral is created due to the actions of others. The protagonist is portrayed as a crazy person by quitting meat, but actually the three characters are the causers of her mental damage. By seeing Yeong-hye through the eyes of others, she alters in an objectified woman that is almost animal like.
If only one’s eyes weren’t visible to others, she thinks. If only one could hide one’s eyes from the world.
For me this discomfortable comparison, as an underlying metaphor, resulted in a new glance towards Yeong-hyes plant based diet. Her determination towards not eating meat is her self-destruction and freedom at the same time. Due to great ignorance, not listening and violent actions from others, Yeong-hyes life gets destroyed. In this novel the narrow mindedness of the characters and the concept of labels raising hate, show the cracks of a community. Simultaneously Yeong-hye is protecting her position as an idealistic, free person who suffers deeply. She even manages to stick to her decision until the very end by not eating (meat). Therefore I read the book as a tribute to the power of the individual, which is strong but delusional at the same time. It touches fundamental questions of identity, defined by others, part of social structure or more like Yeong-hye; as an organic body with its own needs. Sometimes in life situations occur when I think of Yeong-hye, who has been ridiculed as an outcast, by making a choice, only she was in control of. It is devotion and her own sake that makes this, dehumanized character, my contemporary heroine.