The Vegetarian (Chaesikju-uija) by Han Kang is a South Korean novel that 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. Here, readers learn about the kind of person that Yeong-Hye is through the eyes of her cold, controlling husband. The first part also gives readers 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 for Seoul to make it on her own. The first part also recounts the strange events leading up 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 third-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 who relies solely on In-Hye (Yeong-Hye’s sister). The second part focuses on In-Hye’s husband’s sudden obsession with Yeong-Hye after learning that she still had her mongolian mark (i.e., the discoloration in the buttocks of infants and young children) despite being an adult. He dreamed of using Yeong-Hye as the model of his most recent artistic project, which involves painting flowers on her naked body. As the primary source of his latest inspiration, In-Hye’s husband develops a strong sexual desire for Yeong-Hye despite her strange situation.
The final part of the novel, “Flaming Trees,” is also told from a third-person POV and focuses on In-Hye, who is Yeong-Hye’s older sister. The third part takes place roughly 2 years after the events of the second part and deals more with In-Hye’s life, her role in their family, and her relationship with Yeong-Hye. In-Hye reflects on her choices in life and whether 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 a taciturn young woman and vegetarian to something very strange, as her mental condition worsens.
Though rather short, The Vegetarian is a 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 in a family and the expectation of total submissiveness of women by men, whether they be fathers, brothers, or husbands. The novel also focuses on individual struggles with inner thoughts and ideas, which sometimes go against conventional beliefs or practices, and 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 for the sufferer but also for those around them.
I finished this novel in 3 days, which was longer than expected, but I’m still at a loss as 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 comprehend was the second one. There were times when I thought 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. Although other readers may call it confusing, disturbing, or bizarre, one thing is sure: The Vegetarian is absolutely thought provoking and will leave you thinking about it long after you have finished reading it.
The Vegetarian (Chaesikju-uija) (2007) – Han Kang
Hogarth; 188 pages (Hardbound)
Personal rating: 2.5/5