The Vegetarian (Chaesikju-uija), by Han Kang, is a South Korean novel which won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. It is a short novel about a young woman Yeong-Hye, who after a strange dream, suddenly decides to become a vegetarian. The novel is divided into three parts, each focusing on a different character. The first part, “The Vegetarian” begins the story from the first person POV of Yeong-Hye’s husband, Mr. Cheong. In it, readers learn about the kind of person Yeong-Hye is, through the eyes of her cold, controlling husband. The first part also gives the reader an idea of what kind of man Mr. Cheong is, as well as the kind of family Yeong-Hye belongs to, with an abusive father, and brother, a submissive mother, and an independent older sister, who, at a young age, leaves home to make it on her own in Seoul. The first part also recounts the strange events leading to Yeong-Hye’s strange transformation after shunning meat and all meat-related products.
The second part of the novella, titled “Mongolian Mark,” is told from the 3rd person POV, following Yeong-Hye’s brother-in-law, her older sister’s husband. Yeong-Hye’s brother-in-law is an artist who is known in Hyeong-Hye’s family as a bum, relying solely on In-Hye (Yeong-Hye’s sister). The second part is focused on In-Hye’s husband’s sudden obsession with Yeong-Hye, after learning that she still had her mongolian mark (the discoloration in the buttocks of infants and young children) despite being an adult. He’d dreamed of using Yeong-Hye as the model of his most recent artistic project, which involves painting flowers on her naked body. Though being the primary source of his latest inspiration, In-Hye’s husband has also developed a strong sexual desire for Yeong-Hye, despite her strange situation.
The final part of the novel, “Flaming Trees”, is also told from a 3rd person narrative, this time focusing on In-Hye, Yeong-Hye’s older sister. The third part takes place roughly 2 years after the events of the 2nd part, and deals more with In-Hye’s life, her role in their family, and her relationship with Yeong-Hye. In-Hye reflects about her choices in life, and whether or not they could have helped Yeong-Hye or prevented certain terrible events from happening, including the destruction of her family.
Though the main character of The Vegetarian is undoubtedly Yeong-Hye, except for brief excerpts of her dreams and thoughts in the first part, the novel never really focuses on her. Rather, it paints a picture of Yeong-Hye through the eyes of those around her. Through her husband, brother-in-law, and sister, the novel shows Yeong-Hye’s transformation from taciturn young woman to a vegetarian, to something even stranger, as her mental condition worsens.
Though rather short, The Vegetarian is a very complex and strange novel that deals with themes of mental and physical abuse, violence, depression, and sexual yearnings. It also highlights the strict and oppressive relationships within the family, and the expectation of total submissiveness of women by men, whether they be fathers, brothers, or husbands. The novel also focuses on the struggles of individuals with their inner thoughts and ideas, which sometimes goes against conventional beliefs or practices, and of the loneliness of not being able to share those private thoughts with loved ones. The novel sheds light on the intricacies of mental illness and its consequences not only on the sufferer, but also on those around them.
I finished this novel in 3 days – longer than expected, but I’m still at a loss at how to describe my feelings toward it. There were times I could relate to Yeong-Hye and In-Hye, but mostly, I was just confused by the themes, and imagery presented in the novel. Of the three different parts, the hardest one to really comprehend was the second one – Mongolian Mark. There were times when I thought that this second part was nothing more than gratuitous.
After reading several “easy” reads in succession, I found myself in a rut, and thought that The Vegetarian could get me out of it. Unfortunately, I feel like the novel left me in an even deeper rut than before. The Vegetarian is a strange, deep, novel that may not be for everyone. I still can’t really decided whether I liked it or not, or what I think about it. And though other readers may call it confusing, disturbing, or bizarre, one thing is for sure, The Vegetarian is absolutely thought-provoking and will leave you thinking about it long after you’re done reading it.
The Vegetarian (Chaesikju-uija) (2007) – Han Kang
Hogarth; 188 pages (Hardbound)
Personal rating: 2.5/5