Book Review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang
An obedient and thoroughly average Korean wife stops eating meat, disrupting her familyâ€™s life.
This book by Han Kang is…strange.
There are a few different ways you could interpret The Vegetarian. Here are a couple of stabs:
The Vegetarian: Theory 1
The Vegetarian isnâ€™t about vegetarianism. Itâ€™s about control.
In a society where she and many other women have so little control over themselves, bowing to their husbandâ€™s demands, identities as sex objects or maids and not much more, and familial expectations, food becomes the only way Yeong-Hye can assert any control over herself.
Yeong-hye can never succeed in this world. The two husbands’ narratives of coveting each other’s wives and disdain for their own show that.
First, she cuts out meat. Then, she cuts out all food. Then, she gains control of herself.
The Vegetarian: Theory 2
The Vegetarian is the epic battle of man vs. nature.
But thatâ€™s not completely right. Yeong-hye doesnâ€™t oppose nature. She wants to become it. The battle is in her effort to turn away from man.
She is the green, light-drenched earth. She is beyond her physical self, reveling in the flowers painted on her body, the dreams that turn from wretched to revelatory, showing her as a tree springing upwards to the sky while her arms hug and anchor her to the ground.
Does she want to become the life-spouting earth, or does she want to float away, weightless?
She wants to escape. Man is oppressive and hurtful.
She wishes to not only be one with nature; she wishes to be nature.
The Vegetarian: Theory 3
There is no hidden meaning. The Vegetarian is about a womanâ€™s descent into madness.
The doctor clearly diagnoses Yeong-hye with anorexia and schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia defined by DSM 5:
schizophrenia tends to involve abnormalities in all five of the emphasized symptom domains: hallucinations, delusions, disorganized thinking (speech), grossly disorganized or abnormal motor behavior (including catatonia), and negative symptoms.
“Negative symptoms” leaves the door wide open for interpretation, but otherwise, it could be argued that Yeong-Hye fits all of these symptoms.
The tragedy lies in the family’s reaction to her mental illness. Her husband ridicules her. Her father tries to beat it out of her. Her brother-in-law is filled with lust. And her sister takes on the responsibility for it like she does with everything else in the familyâ€™s life.
In all of the family, the sister is the only one who thinks about Yeong-hye herself, as opposed to their own wishes and gains.
As I write each of these theories, I find each of them and none of them to be true. Being ignorant of Korean culture, there may also be things I’m overlooking with my American eyes.
Reading The Yellow Wallpaper gave me a little bit of clarity – there are similarities between the two stories. Read my review here.
The Vegetarian isâ€¦meaty.
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