The Vegetarian by Han Kang

into the flash of flesh…
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Title: The Vegetarian

ISBN: 978-1846276033

Author: Han Kang

Publisher: Random House, 2016

Page: 160

Reviewed by: Bipasha Mandal, Ashvamegh Contributor

Buy the book: Amazon

Understanding the Novel The Vegetarian by Han Kang Through the Characters.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a very complex and unsettling work.  The book was originally published in Korean as three separate novelettes and then compiled into a novel.  My paper will deal with the translated version by Deborah Smith.  The novel raises a lot of disturbing questions which we need to look into and whose answers may unnerve us.  This novel being a contemporary work, not a lot of light has been shed on this brilliant piece of work.  I will try to analyze the three main characters of the novel which will help us understand the novel as a whole.
The novel revolves around the life of Yeong-hye and how her decision to turn into a vegetarian disrupts the normal flow of life of the people around to her.  The novel is divided into three parts.   The first part is told by Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr. Cheong, the second part is told by her brother-in-law and the third part is told by her sister, In-hye.  The main character, Yeong-hye has not been given any voice of her own.  We see her through the perspective of the three narrators in the novel and by the short, abrupt glimpses of her horrific dreams.  However, those dreams do shed a little light on what is going on inside her head but it’s not enough to understand her character or understand the gravity of the questions raised in the novel.  This is where the importance of the three different narrators comes in.

            The novel opens with the narration of Mr. Cheong.  In the very first paragraph, we come to know of his wife’s ordinary and plain appearance and existence.  In fact, the “passive personality”(3) of Yeong-hye suited him.  It made him feel comfortable about his own average existence.  He chose her as his wife for her submissive nature and because she appeared as the most “run-of-the-mill”(4) woman in the world which ensured that it wouldn’t disrupt his carefully ordered existence.  It appears as if the only thing he wants is to live a fairly unremarkable and conventional life without having to face any kind of hindrances or adventures.  He thought Yeong-hye would prove to be an undemanding wife who would fit perfectly into his average lifestyle or the kind of lifestyle that he so earnestly seeks.  He is a man who takes no risks and is very callous and who can’t see anything beyond his own interest.  Young-hye went about things without any distasteful frivolousness and it made him feel in charge of everything-both of her life and his.  He uses the word “ordinary”(4) to describe his wife every time.  He wants to control every aspect of his wife’s life and impose his own view of things on her instead of plainly accepting her wishes and even tries to persuade her to change her views on certain things.  He does not get her hypersensitivity about not wearing a bra and he never tries to understand her even after five years of their marriage.  He does not expect any sort of love or affection from their convenient marriage.  Yeong-hye is basically stuck in a loveless, childless marriage where she serves the role more of a maid who does all the cleaning and cooking for her husband than of a wife who deserves a better life.  The incident where he found his wife standing motionless in front of the fridge very early in the morning which was very unlike of his wife, sent chills down her spine because he found her in that moment not to be her ordinary self but as an unresponsive ghost completely lost in her own world.  This shows that he does not do well with even the slightest bit of change in his own world.  He very easily loses his temper and composure when things are not done according to his conveniences.  Through the portrayal of his character and his narration, we get a view of the Korean patriarchal society where women are supposed to do the household work for their husbands and hand them their things and see them off.  Anything out of this ordinary routine threatened his power position.  After her nightmare, Yeong-hye changed drastically. The incongruous firmness in her voice scared Mr. Cheong because he never thought that there could be another side to his wife’s submissive self, one where she selfishly did as she pleased.  His inability to understand his wife’s decision of becoming a vegetarian makes him seem like a shallow person and he thought of it as a very ‘in-vogue’ thing to do.  Yeong-hye’s refusal to conform to her husband’s wishes is seen as nothing but sheer obstinacy in Korean patriarchal society.  This transformation of his wife made him for the first time, see his wife as someone with a revolting spirit and not as a demurred and restrained creature as women are traditionally expected to be.  Yeong-hye’s decision not only affects the life of her husband but also the people around her.  People turn very hostile towards Yeong-hye because of her decision.  At Mr. Cheong’s boss’s dinner party, everyone present there instantly judges her and even goes on to say that meat-eating is a “fundamental human instinct”(23) and that vegetarianism goes against natural human instinct.  The boss’s wife labels Yeong-hye as a “narrow-minded’’(23) woman and her husband does nothing in his wife’s defence but rather makes up a believable story so that his colleagues do not isolate him.  When his attempts failed at persuading his wife into eating meat again, he resorted to informing his wife’s family members in hopes that they could talk some sense into her.

            The family intervention initiated by Mr. Cheong is another important incident which will make us see the patriarchal view of every family member.  Yeong-hye’s father forcefully tried to make her eat meat and in his failed attempt he even hit her.  Everyone else around them, Yeong-hye’s mother, sister, brother, brother-in-law, stood there and watched the gruesome incident.  No one said anything against it because Yeong-hye’s defiance goes against the rules of men dominating society because she refused the order coming from the top of the patriarchal chain or in this case of her father and of her husband’s.  Years and years of subjugation, suppressed loathing masked by affection finally came undone and Yeong-hye slit her wrist.  At the hospital, he was least worried about his wife’s health.  All he wanted to do was go home and go to work the next day. We can find a slight trace of responsibility towards his wife at the end of his narrative, “. . . compelled by responsibilities which refused to be shirked, my legs carried me towards her, a movement which I could not for the life of me control.’’(52)  His delusion that he had his wife all figured out, turned out to be wrong because he came to the conclusion that he did not know  “ that woman”(52) at all.

            The second part of the book is narrated by Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law who remains unnamed all through the book and is referred to as Ji-woo’s dad or simply brother-in-law.  He is an art-school graduate and his area of expertise appears to be videography.  He is haunted by dreams of colourful and lively flowers painted on naked bodies.  He has not achieved success as an artist and when he comes into the narrative of the novel we find that he is going through an artist’s block.  He was looking for a way to make his brilliant dream take shape of his art form.  The source of inspiration or the muse for him just happened to be his sister-in-law Yeong-hye and her Mongolian mark which had not faded away like it was supposed to.  He came to know about Yeong-hye’s Mongolian mark from his wife and he was immediately struck by the image of a blue flower on a woman’s buttocks and it became bound up with the idea of men and women having sex.  He could see the picture so clearly that he became obsessed with this idea and this idea got etched into his memory.  Gradually, Yeong-hye became the object of his sexual desire.  He had always been unrestricted when it came to making art but the idea of featuring his sister-in-law as the main attraction of his video which could easily be labelled as pornography did not leave his mind.  His attraction towards his sister-in-law and his desperation to bring his year-long fallow period to an end was so strong that he could not shake the idea off.

            His marriage with In-hye too has been one of convenience and not because of love.  All his life he had tried to find a woman with a beautiful face, figure and a thoughtful nature.  He had found all of these in In-hye but there was still something missing.  Only when he met Yeong-hye that he became aware of what it was that he was missing but could not put his finger on it,  “Everything about her sister pleased him . . . ”(63)  He seemed to be the only one who could understand Yeong-hye’s reasons behind her suicide attempt.  Someone in front of him tried to take their own life and only he could understand the gravity of it.  The sensible person in him made him aware that from then on for Yeong-hye survival would mean an entirely different thing.  He is in a battle with his former self, life suddenly revolted him and he could not cope with all the contradictory feelings that was going inside of him and as a result, his work became a stranger’s work to him, more than that he became a stranger to himself.  Before he knew about her Mongolian mark, Yeong-hye was an object of pity to him, a very inscrutable one.  Mr. Cheong’s behaviour towards Yeong-hye after her suicide attempt disgusted him because he could not grasp the idea how can anyone discard another human being so easily.  Out of all the characters in the novel, he appears to be the most sensible one.  He saw Yeong-hye as a person “ . . . who didn’t belong anywhere, someone who had passed into a border area between states of being.”(71)  Before he knew about her Mongolian mark, his dealings with her had no ulterior motive, but gradually he became obsessed with her Mongolian mark and he turned her existence into a sexual one.  He persuaded Yeong-hye to let him paint flowers on her body and Yeong-hye thinking that it will stop the gory dreams from coming agreed.  When he was done painting her body with colourful flowers of day and night, he became aware of the fact that there was nothing at all sexual about it, it was “more vegetal than sexual.”(83)  This concept of his also changes with time as he is ceased with the idea of having sex with her.  The coward side of him is revealed when they are discovered by In-hye and she calls the emergency services on them.  Instead of facing the consequences of it, he decides to flight, to fling himself over the balcony and end everything, but he could not do that, “And yet he kept on standing there as if rooted to the spot. . .”(119)  His eyes were fixed on Yeong-hye’s body painted with glittering flowers which appeared a lot more intense than when he had filmed it.  He, after all, became a husband who was unfaithful to his wife and forgot to think about the future of their family and in a way shirked the responsibility of their son.

            The third and final part of the novel is narrated by Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye and it is entitled “Flaming Trees’’.  I feel this is the most important narration of the novel when it comes to understanding the novel because a lot is revealed in her narration- her family history, oppression, desires being not fulfilled.  As she is Yeong-hye’s sister, she has spent the longest amount of time with Yeong-hye among the other three narrators.  We get a sense that she will be able to understand the nature of her sister’s defiance against everything.  It is through her narrative that we find the missing parts of the puzzle.  Everyone decides to abandon Yeong-hye in her dementia laden condition except her.  Yeong-hye evoked in In-hye a sense of maternal affection and responsibility.  The psychiatric ward became their place for sanctuary – “ Here, where she didn’t have to speak if she didn’t want to, didn’t have to eat meat if the thought repulsed her? Couldn’t the two of them get along just fine with these visits?”(129)  But as it turns out, it was not enough for Yeong-hye seemed to drift apart.  In-hye could not figure out her husband but hoped that she will get some sort of sense about her husband from his works.  But his works proved incomprehensible to her.  She could see herself in the image of her husband’s exhausted existence.  Her husband had always been distant to both her and her son, leaving her to think that they were all alone.  The depression, the sense of isolation also reached her and she began to dream horrible things which led to insomnia.  This shows that she too is not beyond the vicious grip of the haunting past, of things that she could have done differently but could not.  Her nightmares consisted of Yeong-hye and herself- “ Yeong-hye’s voice, the forest with the black rain falling, and her own face with the blood trickling from her eye, shiver the long night into fragments like potsherds.”(135)  When she was all alone and could not sleep, she tried to do the little things in hopes that all of it would make sense, like listening to some of her husband’s old records and dancing to it or falling asleep in the bathtub with her clothes on.  That narrow, cold space appeared cosier than anywhere else in the apartment.  In these moments she started to wonder –“. . . when did it all begin to fall apart?”(136)  The lives of all the people around her started to crumble into a pile of dust and there was nothing she could do about it. She, being the older child in the family, the sense of responsibility in her towards everything is so strong.  She felt that it was her duty to shield everyone from every trouble that came their way.  In the end, she ended up blaming herself that she could have prevented everything but she did not do anything or maybe she could have done something else “Wasn’t there something she could have to prevent it? Again and again, doubts raced through her mind.”(136)  In times like these, when we all need all the support we can get from our family, her family decided to abandon both of them because In-hye reminded them of the way they treated Yeong-hye and it was too much for them to bear.  Yeong-hye’s mental condition reminded In-hye of the social constraints that Yeong-hye was able to free herself from, the social restraints that In-hye was not even aware existed.  She was still a prisoner of responsibilities and this is why In-hye could not cope with all that her sister reminded her of.  In-hye, to some extent, is a very passive person.  She absorbed all the wrongs done to her, all the injustice to her bones, without ever rebelling against them.  It was her survival tactic.  Yeong-hye made her aware of the fact that In-hye actually had not lived her life. She had lived for others but not for herself.  All her life she endured everything, not once did she voice her own wishes.  She was left with only one option and that was moving forward, to not think about stuff and just look ahead, to carry on with her life as she had always done.  This too was not enough to keep her going after all human beings can bear certain things to a fixed extent and soon the thoughts of suicide consumed her, “All of this is meaningless. I can’t take it anymore. I can’t go on any longer. I don’t want to.”(165)  She felt that the pain and insomnia that she was feeling, maybe Yeong-hye felt it too in her earlier stages of mental dementia but she progressed through it faster and because there was no bond that tied her to the world or in this case a child.  If it was not for her son, she too might have “relinquished her grip”(168) on the thread of sanity.  No matter how awful the experience people still keep on living in general.  According to In-hye, the only place left where you can do whatever you want to is your body, but even that does not turn out how one wanted it too.  When reality becomes too much to take, In-hye too wants to dissolve in her dreams.  At the end of the novel, the look in her eye is distant indicating that she too has fallen into the bottomless pit of detaching oneself from everything.

            The Vegetarian, above all, is a novel about being different in a monotonous society and how society reacts towards anyone who dares to be different.  Human wish is oppressed and people are not free to do whatever they would like to do.  If you turn out to stray from the path of ‘normalcy’, the whole world would turn into a hostile place.  We all are expected to follow a certain trend, a certain order.  If you dare to be different, everything will go downhill after that.  The novel captures the essence of reality really well. It does not end on a hopeful or positive note but a real one.  It reverberates the idea that there is actually no escape from anything.  You have to face everything and this is what makes The Vegetarian a remarkable novel of our time.