Violation is, objectively, one of the key components in meat processing, a euphemistic term, to be sure, that’s code for, ironically, “bloodlessly killing animals” for human consumption. And it is this form of trespassing upon the corporeal body that darkly colors the vast majority of Han Kang’s first novel to be translated into English, The Vegetarian. The glib simplicity of the title is almost jarring when considering its content, which opens from the callous perspective of our heroine’s, Yeong-hye, husband explaining, “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her… However, if there wasn’t any special attraction nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and there was no reason for the two of us not to get married. The passive personality of this woman in whom I could detect neither freshness nor charm, or anything especially refined, suited me down to the ground.”
Yeong-hye’s perceived dispassionate nature being the appeal for her husband draws natural parallels to the docility of most animals before they’re led to the slaughter, suddenly putting up a fight to defy the hands that would take from them their existence. Her whole life is, indeed, a practice in insouciance that begins from an early age with the abusive treatment of her father. But if you beat down an animal too many times, they’re bound to rise up in their own way at some point. Even her sister, In-hye, can’t help but hear Yeong-hye’s voice as an animal’s now, as the narrator describes, “Yeong-hye’s voice, which came to her while she was suspended in that halfway state between sleep and wakefulness, was low and warm at first, then innocent like that of a young child, but the last part was mangled, inaudible, a distorted animal sound.” At this point in the book, we are seeing things from the vantage point of In-hye, the final character in the three section novel to give her account of Yeong-hye’s gradual crackup, starting from becoming a vegetarian merely because she “had a dream” to insisting that she, too, will become a tree like the ones outside of the psychiatric facility she’s ultimately forced into.
The turn of events that leads her here are, in part, due to In-hye’s husband, whose segment, “The Mongolian Mark,” details his physical obsession with Yeong-hye after her husband involves her immediate and extended family in an intervention that results in Yeong-hye’s father forcibly feeding her a piece of meat after which she cuts her wrist with a knife. From then on, it becomes the fantasy of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law to be intimate with her, using his artistry as a false motive for painting her allover with flowers and then doing the same to himself so she’ll agree to be filmed with him on camera. This line-crossing act becomes the torment of In-hye’s life, though, in contrast to her sister, she does not allow herself to go mad from it.
Still, there is something about Yeong-hye’s increasing insanity that is almost jealousy-inducing to In-hye, who, looking at her sister’s lack of concern with even the most basic tenets of “civility,” sees how she herself could have passed through this realm from the “sane” to the mad if not for the responsibility of her five-year-old son, Ji-Woo. After one of her visits to Yeong-hye, In-hye’s state is reflected upon by the narrator: “The proof of her internal pain had been set in front of her as though this were something she’d spent a long time preparing for, as though she’d been waiting for just this moment. All of this is meaningless. I can’t take it anymore. I can’t go on any longer. I don’t want to.” Unlike Yeong-hye, though, she cannot take the plunge toward self-alienation with the same gusto, give up the exhaustion of trying to fit into societal norms. Especially the Korean ones that Yeong-hye shatters most of all in her refusal to eat meat, or, eventually, anything at all. Again and again, Yeong-hye makes it clear that she doesn’t understand why everyone is so emphatic about getting her to eat, asking, “Is it such a bad thing to die?” In fact, it seems likely that this slow death is a poetical bookend to the slow death she was already dying as a complacent housewife in a loveless marriage. Maybe, in her own schizoid way, this is the best method for revenge–the ultimate act of bravado.
Or so In-hye might like to believe in order to feel there’s at least some motive for Yeong-hye’s unconscionable actions. At the same time, In-hye can start to see that maybe there is no logic to Yeong-hye’s staunch anorexia, that maybe she simply is crazy without meaning or intent–that it’s all a culmination of lifelong mental strain. And, yes, as humans, we’re so often expected to just take the blow of emotional anguish and move on as though nothing happened. It is just as In-hye points out: “Life is such a strange thing… Even after certain things have happened to them, no matter how awful the experience, people still go on eating and drinking, going to the toilet and washing themselves–living, in other words. And sometimes they even laugh out loud.”
But not everyone can manage to employ these generally congenital survival tactics of ignoring and suppression, Yeong-hye ultimately doing it for so long that it all just bubbles to the surface. As the narrator assesses, “What seemed to be happening was that Yeong-hye was retreating from herself, was becoming as distant to herself as she was to her sister. A forlorn face, behind a mask of composure.” And isn’t this inward retreat and mask of composure what we all enlist after suffering enough trauma?
The more we see how little Yeong-hye wants to participate in the form of life we call “healthy,” the harder it is for readers to root (no tree pun intended) for her in a conventional manner. Rather than wish for her to go on living, one might find he hopes for her to die in the end, to find the salvation that will allow her to live her dream. But In-hye isn’t quite so sure that Yeong-hye should succumb to the fantasticalness of her dreams, commenting, “‘What I’m trying to say…’ she whispers to Yeong-hye. ‘Perhaps this is all a kind of dream.’ She bows her head. But then, as though suddenly struck by something, she brings her mouth right up to Yeong-hye’s ear and carries on speaking, forming the words carefully, one by one. ‘I have dreams too, you know. Dreams…and I could let myself dissolve into them, let them take me over…but surely the dream isn’t all there is? We have to wake up at some point, don’t we?'” The answer, it appears, for the vegetarian is an emphatic no.