I had formed the impression from publicity I’d seen that The Vegetarian, by Han Kang, was a novel about patriarchy pushing back when one woman attempts to make a relatively mild assertion of will: woman goes vegetarian, male state goes mad.
I suppose the first section, at least, of this book, can be read that way. Woman does indeed go vegetarian. Male relatives do indeed get mad.
But there are other things going on here. British novelist Ian McEwan sums it up well, describing The Vegetarian as “a novel of sexuality and madness”. Mostly madness, for me.
The narrative unfolds through three sections, from three perspectives: Yeong-hye’s husband; her brother-in-law; and her sister. I found the final section, the sister’s perspective, most compelling.
In keeping with a feminist reading, neither of the two men have any interest in Yeong-hye’s personhood. She’s an object, for both. The book’s opening line is “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” The husband (“Mr Cheong”) goes on to innumerate the many ways Yeong-hye seemed to him entirely ordinary, and why this very ordinariness qualified her to be his wife. (In short: inadequate man seeks woman he can disregard.) He only ever refers to her as “my wife”.
Her brother-in-law, in contrast, sees Yeong-hye as distinct, even unique, and exotic. For him, she embodies sexuality. Vitality.
Both men are projecting like crazy. (“Crazy” being a technical term.)
In her marriage, Yeong-hye goes mad. Pointedly, her husband reports this in terms of her ceasing to dedicate her being to his service. He has no feelings of concern or compassion. Instead he feels revulsion.
Witnessing Yeong-hye’s madness, her brother-in-law goes mad. He conflates his madness with “art”. He feels he’s come alive. The comedown is – how shall I say? – deflating.
In the final section, Yeong-hye is certifiably mad and confined to a secure psychiatric ward. Her sister is the only family remaining by her side, figuratively and in fact. Her sister meditates on the nature of madness, its origins, and concludes that only a fine string ties us to sanity. Any one of us could untie that string and be ”absorbed” by our dark dreams.
When Yeong-hye is asked why she rejects meat, she can only say, in a perverse of echo of Martin Luther King, “I had a dream”. As someone who watches Korean TV drama, I recognise this notion of “What is your dream?” as a catechism of aspiration. What do you want for your life? What is your ambition?
What Yeong-hye had (and has) is not a dream but a night terror. Her only apparent desire is to disappear into a forest, to join the plant world. This is her survival strategy, even if it kills her.
Yeong-hye’s older sister recognises she too pursued a survival strategy. In her case, she adopted the persona of the sane one, the capable, conscientious older sister. She had cosmetic surgery (double eyelids), promoted a pleasing demeanour, and built a business selling cosmetics. None of that ensures her psychic survival.
The most troubling character, for me, is the older sister’s young son. With the adults gone mad, he is abandoned. Who will protect his survival?
The Vegetarian begs comparison with Cho Nam-joo’s controversial 2016 Korean novel, I am Kim Ji-young, Born 1982. Cho Nam-joo is a former TV scriptwriter who took a career break after having a child. She wrote her book fast, apparently in just two weeks, using elements of her own experiences. Footnote sociological research citations firmly anchor anecdote and individual composite in statistics and legislation.
The novel is presented as a case study – a psychiatric case study, as we come to realise. Stylistically it’s a very straightforward, not to say clinical, read. By stepping us through Kim Ji-young’s life history, Cho shows the ways a female in Korea is disadvantaged from birth relative to her male peers.
Inevitably, the book prompted a backlash of ‘Whataboutism’, intergenerational beefs and male resentments, as did the film adaptation.
I lent the novel to my mother, born 1934, knowing some of Kim Ji-young’s workplace experiences mirrored hers. My mother read it, handed it back, commented wryly, “All women, all over the world.”
Like Yeong-hye, Kim Ji-young (a common name, a kind of Jane Doe) goes mad. As at the novel’s conclusion, her prognosis does not look good. The male psychiatrist who is purportedly writing her case study reflects privately on how her story relates to his own experience. He, like Ji-young’s husband, is a caring and intelligent man. He believes his desire to help is sincere.
The sting in the tail? Even recognising the structural and systemic inequities that resulted in his patient’s breakdown, as his attention moves elsewhere, the male authority figure disregards what he might have learned. Instead of being a change agent, he perpetuates the way things are.