The 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.