By Dan Clendenin
Han Kang, The Vegetarian: A Novel, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (New York: Hogarth, 2015 English translation), 188pp.
When we first meet the protagonist of this novel, Yeong-hye, she’s a plain and unremarkable woman. Her husband Cheong married her, in fact, precisely because of her “passive personality” and run-of-the-mill character. But five years into their placid marriage Yeong-hye began having horrible nightmares of violence and brutality, and exhibiting strange behavior. Totally out of the blue, she announces that she has stopped eating meat because of the bizarre dreams.
Set in modern Seoul, and told in three parts by three narrators, Yeong-hye is more of a third person object that others try to control than a first person subject, although in one reading her vegetarianism is the ultimate act of agency and independence. In part one, told by her husband Cheong, Yeong-hye’s family blames her for obstinacy, defiance, and shaming the family. Her father physically abuses her and they even try to force feed her. Yeong-hye becomes suicidal and is eventually hospitalized. Part two is told by Yeong-hye’s unnamed brother-in-law, an artist, for whom she is an object of erotic obsession. In part three, set in a psychiatric hospital, her sister In-hye struggles with her own guilt, shame, and anger toward Yeong-hye.
There are several themes at work here — mental illness in general and anorexia in particular, independence from Korean culture’s demand for conformity, family violence, the archetypal struggle between thanatos and eros, and the faltering efforts of everyone to empathize with the tragic Yeong-hye. The novel was originally published in 2007 in Korea, in 2015 in Great Britain, and then in 2016 in the United States, when it won the Man Booker Prize and was named by the NYT as one of the five best fiction books of the year.
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