The Vegetarian

the-vegetarianThe first piece of weirdness in The Vegetarian is not that Yeong-hye decides to stop eating meat. That’s a perfectly reasonable decision, even if Yeong-hye’s reasoning—she had a dream—is murky. What’s weird is the way her family simply cannot cope. Sure, plenty of families are jerks about vegetarianism, but force feeding? That’s extreme. But as strange as their behavior is, it can be chalked up to dysfunctional family dynamics. It’s the rest of the story that’s really odd.

This book by Han Kang and translated from Korean by Deborah Smith is divided into three sections, and we with section, Yeong-hye’s actions become harder to comprehend. But I think they make a certain kind of sense. So let’s unpack it, shall we?

The first section, narrated by Yeong-hye’s husband is the section where it appears we’re dealing with a dysfunctional family and a woman trying to cope with nightmares. We get a few glimpses of those nightmares, but most of this section is her husband’s description of what happened and his puzzlement that his ordinary and kind of dull wife decided to stop eating meat without even the slightest warning.

The next section is narrated by Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law. Although he is content enough with his wife, Yeong-hye’s sister, he has become obsessed with Yeong-hye. An artist, he decides he’d like to paint her—as in, literally paint flowers all over her body.  From there, things get really strange.

The final, third-person section focuses on Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, as she tries to manage the care of Yeong-hye, whose vegetarianism has turned into anorexia. It’s here that we finally start to get a sense of who Yeong-hye was, but even there, it’s mediated through her sister’s perspective. Still, In-hye seems to genuinely care for Yeong-hye as a person whose thoughts and feelings matter.

One of the striking things about this book is how little Yeong-hye is treated like a person. She’s a thing, an object to wed or to bed or to beat. There’s little sense that anyone except In-hye sees her as a free and independent being with a will of her own. Inasmuch as she has a will, her will should be to submit to the expectations of society.

At first, her vegetarianism appears to be a rejection of violence, but as the book goes on, it’s clear that there’s more to it than that. She’s rejecting her very humanity. Is it because she sees humanity as completely violent? Or because no one has accepted her as human so she might as well be something else? That isn’t clear. But the interesting thing is that she’s not rejecting life. We see her reaching out for life, straining to find a way she can live. I think In-hye comes closest to treating her with dignity because she, too, has had the desire to stretch out beyond herself. But she chose to live within her limitations.

This is a dark and unsettling book, but the more I think about it, it’s not the weirdness that’s unsettling. It’s the realistic parts. In rejecting realism, Yeong-hye may just be the person who makes the most sense.

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19 Responses to The Vegetarian

  1. Jeanne says:

    I think this book is going to be this year’s entry in the-emperor-has-no-clothes literary contest. Each year, a lot of people venerate a book that is quickly and deservedly forgotten.

  2. Rohan says:

    Juliet Sutcliffe reviewed this for Open Letters last year. I found her review fascinating but I suspected I would not appreciate the novel at all. Your comments don’t do much to change my mind: it just sounds like a very odd book. Not that odd books can’t be good, or that it isn’t good to try different kinds of things, but …

    In case you’re interested, here’s Juliet’s review: http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/in-the-flesh/

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks for that link. It seems like she and I had similar readings of it. I appreciated that the novel’s weirdness seemed to be in service of a real message, rather than just weird for the sake of weird. But it’s not a book I’d strongly recommend to anyone who didn’t find the premise appealing. I liked it, but I wouldn’t consider it a must-read.

  3. I agree with Elle about The Girls, for what it’s worth. It had promise but I was underwhelmed. But as far as this one goes, I think it’s one of the strangest and most memorable books I’ve ever read. I’m glad it was so short! It was so disturbing that I couldn’t have hung in there for 400 pages!

    • Teresa says:

      It will be interesting to see if this or The Girls is still around and being read in 10 years. I think The Girls will be easily superseded by other, similar books.

      And I agree that this couldn’t have been much longer. She’d upped the stakes about as much as she could, without totally turning toward fantasy. It could have been interesting to get a section entirely in Yeong-hye’s head, but that might have broken the spell.

  4. I’m not sure I agree with you about “rejecting realism” here. That characters behave oddly doesn’t mean realism has been rejected. And just how unusual is this behavior in South Korea? It’s been many months since I read this, so I may not recall all the details correctly at this point. I will be re-reading this one someday, in any case.

    I’m going to disagree with Jeanne, too. The Vegetarian is very big in Korea which has to be figure in to the equation. America may move on, we’ll see when Han Kang’s new book comes out, but there’s the rest of the world to consider. Time will tell.

    • Teresa says:

      When I mentioned rejecting realism, I was thinking less about the events in the book and more about Yeong-hye’s intention for herself. Surely deciding to become a tree is a rejection of realism? But, yes, everything the characters do is within the bounds of realism, even if what they’re doing is strange.

  5. B.B. Toady says:

    You nailed it by saying the realistic connection that is so unsettling. I read this earlier this year, but just added the review to my blog. The Vegetarian is one of my favorite books of the year. On the surface it is strange, but look further, and there are bits of each of us in there.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, the weirdness is just weird, nothing to really be upset about. But thinking about why Yeong-hye would do this and the consequences she faced was pretty disturbing.

  6. Stefanie says:

    I liked this book so much because it was so unsettling and uncomfortable. The relationship between the sisters was beautiful and the ending made me cry.

    • Teresa says:

      The final section, with her sister, was such a relief after the first two because, as upsetting as the events were, it was nice to see someone really caring about her.

  7. Ann Marie says:

    I’m so sorry I didn’t get to this one. Would it be a good book club read?

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