While living in Seoul, I excitedly pursued Korean literature as a way to learn about and tie myself to this new place that had become my home. Amongst the books that I devoured, I came across The Vegetarian, which was recommended to me by a friend. Having no context, I admit I took one look at the cover (never judge a book by its cover, I know) and thought it might be a guide to clean eating or a novel that was going to make me regret the bulgogi I had for lunch. I was in for a shock.
What Han Kang really crafted was a disturbing and moving story of a woman, Yeong-hye, who begins having bloody nightmares about herself devouring raw meat while soaked in the blood of the animals she has just killed. As the nightmares progress, so does Yeong-hye’s aversion to meat. She cares less and less about society’s expectations and becomes more and more withdrawn. The more her family and the people she meets try to force her to eat meat, the more resolute she becomes in her decision, and the less compelled she feels to fulfill expectations of her wifely and familial duties.
Although Yeong-hye is the protagonist, the only part of the story told from her perspective is the nightmares. This is representative of Yeong-hye’s life before the nightmares start; as a woman in a patriarchal society, she’s always had to put the priorities of her parents and husband first, and in doing so, she lost much of her personal autonomy. Withdrawal is her way of focusing inwards.
Instead, we hear the perspective of her husband, who angrily and violently tries to get her to revert to his ideal of her: passive, ordinary, and dull. Next, we hear the perspective of her brother-in-law, who increasingly obsesses over her and wants to portray her in his art. The third perspective is from her sister, who continues to take care of Yeong-hye as she deteriorates.
I wasn’t prepared to feel the emotions intertwined throughout the book: anger, frustration, indignance, alienation, sadness, and pity. I closed the book in shock, not knowing what to think but knowing I had just read something tremendous. Although my experiences were not the same, I found these strong emotions were connecting me to my past and my family and friends’ experiences with toxic relationships, violence, sexual assault and mental health. I knew right away that it was both one of the best and most horrific books I had ever read.
The beauty of the book shines through the characters of Yeong-hye and her sister. We gain insight into Yeong-hye’s resolution and her persistent pursuit of self-discovery. Her sister is unfailingly loyal and loving but relatably self-deprecating. In contrast, the horror of the book is in the characters of Yeong-hye’s husband and brother-in-law and the vivid imagery of her nightmares and experiences.
I found that it was easy to want to cheer for Yeong-hye while she rebelled against society and sought her true self, but I was also aware of the damage she was doing in the process. Her mental illness manifests in many ways, and watching her destroy her body made me ache for the injustice. I found myself longing for a world in which Yeong-hye could find her true self without having to sacrifice her life, her spirit, or her dignity.
I heartily recommend this book but urge caution because of its difficult and alarming content, which includes graphic violence, sexual assault, struggles with schizophrenia, and an eating disorder.
I know I’ll be thinking about this book for years to come.