‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang won the Man Booker International Prize for fiction this year (2016) and it has been making headlines all over the country. This is the first time a Korean has won this award. Obviously I had to read it, so when I finally had my hands on it, I read it all in a week. I was curious why it had won such a prestigious award, and I was curious how it would portray Korean life. I thought a whole novel on vegetarianism would be bland, but it was far from it. Although the novel is about a protagonist pursuing a vegetarian life, actually I believe the key themes were;
- Family & Identity
- Force & Conforming
- Mental illness & Self-Destruction
It wasn’t an easy read, but that’s precisely why I loved this novel. It’s very dark, twisted and shocking. These are my thoughts, and there will be spoilers! If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to do so.
Family & Identity
‘The Vegetarian’ reminded me of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which is a short novel framed as a diary written by a woman suffering from postpartum depression, who had been put under house arrest by her husband (and doctor) in an attempt cure her. She begins to hallucinate disturbing images on the wallpaper then her sanity unravels completely .
Both share similar themes, protagonist traits and novel length, however ‘The Vegetarian’ is in second person narrative. The story of the protagonist (Yeong-hye) is all told through her family members. The first part by her husband, second by her sister’s husband and lastly her sister.
Due to this, Yeong-hye is always framed through someone else, so the reader hardly hears Yeong-hye’s thoughts directly. It’s almost as if her voice doesn’t exist, if it weren’t for her family. She is simply defined by her role as a wife, sister-in-law and sister.
As a result, her disturbing behaviour is always a little bit of a mystery. Why did she turn vegetarian? Why did she sleep with her brother-in-law? Why did she attempt suicide? Why does she starve herself? We only catch small glimpses of her psyche through her cryptic utterances.
Korea’s claustrophobic family orientated culture is evident in Hang Kang’s language. Yeong-hye’s identity is shaped around and by her family. What your family wants from you is limitless and slowly one can drift into an abyss of attempting to live up to these expectations, until you no longer know if you want something for you or because you want to please your family.
What Yeong-hye is doing when she stops eating meat and playing her social role, is claiming back her identity. She is doing something that is outside her requirement and this disrupts other people’s lives, and she suffers the consequences.
I think one of the reasons why this novel has gained so much popularity overseas is because of the universal topic of feminism and identity. While Korean rigid family culture is difficult to engage, the timely release of the translated novel during the increasingly trending feminist movement is what made it relevant.
The protagonist suffers a lot from Korea’s patriarchal society, and her main abusers are her husband, her father and her sister’s husband. Her husband traps her in a loveless marriage and rapes her, her father physically abuses her and forces meat into her mouth (causing her to slit her wrists) and her brother-in-law tricks her into having sex with him (and cheats on his wife).
In the end, the two sisters are left together. The men in their lives have rejected them because of their inability to do as the men tell them too. (Later it is revealed that the brother-in-law raped her sister too). Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, is still trapped inside social norms, and she is envious of her mentally ill sister Yeong-hye in the end, because she has escaped (but with a price).
Force & Conforming
Yeong-hye remembers a moment from her childhood when a dog bit her, so as punishment the dog’s collar is attached to a motorcycle and driven around in a circle. The dog is forced to keep up and run in the sweltering summer heat. This is torturous. In the end, the dog is strangled to death in a painful, slow and grotesque way.
In the same way, Yeonghye is forced to eat meat, have sex and receive medical treatment. She is made to conform both mentally and physically, and her consistent rejection is what supposedly kills her.
I think this is a (dystopian) jab at Korea’s modern society. Koreans are forced to keep up with life because they believe that they could suffer if they don’t. After school academies are all optional and not enforced by the law at all, yet every child attends because they could fall behind. Working overtime is also optional, but it is now an expected requirement. We are all forced to do things against our will everyday, like the dog on the motorcycle.
Mental Illness & Self-Destruction
The protagonist first becomes a vegetarian because she has recurring nightmares. They are bloody, violent and she appears to be racked with guilt, so she vows never to hurt any other living thing again.
This innocent reason for vegetarianism spirals out of control when other people in her life force her to stop. She slowly stops eating food all together and slits her wrists when she is forced to eat meat. Then she develops a habit of taking her clothes off in public places and displays peculiar behaviour, such as not speaking and standing on her head. It is revealed in the end that these were attempts to become a tree.
No longer is she a woman pursuing a vegetarian lifestyle. She becomes anti-social, suicidal and develops anorexia. Although it is unclear if she is seeking death, the reader can guess that living is no longer a priority. It’s almost as if she doesn’t want to live if she can’t be free.
Suicide is a common topic in Korea, however Han Kang takes a unique stance by portraying a character who is attempting to be enlightened and reborn as a plant in her current human state, rather than committing suicide to simply escape. This novel also reveals the horrible practices that take place in psychiatric hospitals, which suggests that Korea’s mental health services are far from perfect.
After reading this novel, I can understand why it won the Man Booker International prize. The translator, Deborah Smith, did such a breathtaking job at translating the beautiful phrases that made the novel a vibrant read. I’m glad that this novel broke mainstream, because it shows another side of Korea other than the ‘hallyu’ image.
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