After a series of nightmares, Yeong-hye becomes convinced to stop eating meat. Her unconventional and subversive choice throws the people around her into chaos, forcing her to take her personal choice into more extreme and frightening forms of rebellion. This modern South-Korean novel explores Yeong-hye’s choice through the eyes of her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister to provide an allegory of modern Korean culture. The Vegetarian turns an unflinching eye on social isolation, imprisonment, and individuality that transcends culture and speaks to human nature in a deeply personal and frightening way. Read my First Look here.
Simply put, this book messed me up. It is short and fascinating enough to read in one sitting, and that’s what I did. Yeong-hye’s personal life choice, and how the people around her respond to it, is heartbreaking. The societal response to Yeong-hye has little to do with vegetarianism itself, and more to do with individualism, making this book all too familiar. Yeong-hye’s story is like watching a bird throw itself against a cage until all her bones are broken, and then realizing that every bird feels that same desperate need for freedom. The solution that Han Kang offers to our desire to be free is nothing short of devastating*.
“She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.”
This book reached into me and activated a seething and quiet rage that I think many people, and specifically many women, will recognize as an animal we cradle deep inside ourselves. How we deal with that animal, by letting it free, by feeding it like a pet, or by burying it, is explored through Han Kang’s various characters, most devastatingly in Yeong-hye’s sister in the last section.
“Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”
Many reviews reference Kafka’s Metamorphosis when discussing this book, which I honestly feel is a disservice. Metamorphosis never spoke to me like this book immediately did. The choice to never let Yeong-hye narrate her own story adds another layer of heartbreak, anger, and strangeness, and an additional layer of feminist critique. As I read through reviews for this story, I see a distinct difference in how men and women review this book, and I can’t help but believe that Kang speaks to a distinctly feminine despair and expectation to shoulder the everyday burdens that crush us.
“Look, sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands…they delve down into the earth. Endlessly, endlessly…yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide…”
This short book packs a gut-punch that left me in an existential funk for days. While it is not a happy read, I think it is one book I will be forever grateful to have found. It may make you want to abandon everything and everyone in your life, but sometimes that is exactly the kind of book a person needs to read. The Vegetarian is powerful existential horror with a distinctly feminist lens. It is also just an excellent story, and I’d recommend it to anyone.
Scent Notes: Fresh blood, flower-painted skin, and the forest after rain
*CW: The Vegetarian spends a long time with suicidal ideation, and features suicide attempts in the form of cutting, hanging, jumping, and starvation. In my interpretation, Kang does not discourage any of these behaviors.