There is a primal side in each of us, one that disrespects social norms, has needs, makes demands. In her remarkable novel, The Vegetarian, South Korean writer Han Kang explores the irreconcilable conflict between our two selves: one greedy, primitive; the other accountable to family and society.
“Existence precedes essence” is a central tenet of Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy—first a human exists and then she creates her essence, the values and meanings that define her as human. The Vegetarian’s heroine, Yeong-hye, gradually sheds her essence, emotionally isolating herself. She devolves into something that exists without meaning, like a plant or animal, and in doing so she ignores the societal norms that require a suppression of the primal.
The Vegetarian consists of three long chapters that were originally published in Korea as separate novellas. Yeong-hye is the focal point of each chapter, and when read together the narratives fashion a novel that is greater than the sum of its parts. Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr. Cheong (referred to as such throughout), narrates the first chapter. In choosing a mate, Mr. Cheong sought a woman who would be unassertive and bland. And at least initially, Yeong-hye does not disappoint:
She was a woman of few words. It was rare for her to demand anything of me, and however late I was in getting home she never took it upon herself to kick up a fuss. Even when our days off happened to coincide, it wouldn’t occur to her to suggest we go out somewhere together. While I idled the afternoon away, TV remote in hand, she would shut herself up in her room. . . . Only at mealtimes would she open the door and silently emerge to prepare the food. To be sure, that kind of wife, and that kind of lifestyle, did mean that I was unlikely to find my days particularly stimulating.
Everything in their staid lives changes when, prompted by a dream, Yeong-hye stops eating meat, and persists in her abstention despite pressure from Mr. Cheong and her family, not relenting even in the face of the awkward social situations that result. So strong is Yeong-hye’s vegetarian conviction that she attempts suicide after an altercation in which her father uses physical force to shove meat into her mouth. The second chapter is narrated from the point of view of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law (whose name is never shared with the reader), a video artist, who never gave Yeong-hye much thought until his wife makes the casual comment that Yeong-hye has a birthmark on her buttock. From that point forward he becomes obsessed with incorporating Yeong-hye’s birthmark into his art. The final chapter takes place three years after the opening of the novel. Yeong-hye is now in a psychiatric hospital, and her sister In-hye is the only member of the family who has not abandoned her. At this point Yeong-hye refuses all food, causing In-hye to feel helpless in the face of her sister’s self-imposed starvation. In-hye experiences her own emotional crisis when, prompted by a recurring dream, she abandons her husband and young son one night while they are asleep.
Yeong-hye, her sister, and her brother-in-law all experience dreams or visions in which they see their own reflections distorted, their faces altered or obscured. This recognizable but distorted self is the primal self, and while only Yeong-hye surrenders herself completely to it, both In-hye and her husband give in only temporarily to its seductions. In-hye envies her sister’s total surrender:
She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner.
Apart from its very imaginative plot, what excels in The Vegetarian is the consistent vitality and sensuality of Kang’s writing, the quality and rhythms of which shine through in Deborah Smith’s excellent translation. Kang’s language pulsates with color, texture, taste, and emotion:
First he [her brother-in-law] swept up the hair that was falling over her [Yeong-hye’s] shoulders, and then, starting from the nape of her neck, he began to paint. Half-opened buds, red and orange, bloomed splendidly on her shoulders and back, and slender stems twined down her side. When he reached the hump of her right buttock he painted an orange flower in full bloom, with a thick, vivid yellow pistil protruding from its centre. He left the left buttock, the one with the Mongolian [birth]mark, undecorated. Instead he just used a large brush to cover the area around the bluish mark with a wash of light green, fainter than the mark itself, so that the latter stood out like the pale shadow of a flower.
Every time the brush swept over her skin he felt her flesh quiver delicately as if being tickled, and he shuddered. But it wasn’t arousal; rather it was a feeling that stimulated something deep in his very core, passing through him like a continuous electric shock.
Even the sensation of silence pierces the reader’s consciousness and is palpably felt in Kang’s hands:
When she spread out the food on the table in the visiting room, Yeong-hye would silently go through the motions of chewing and swallowing, like a child diligently tackling homework. If she tucked Yeong-hye’s hair behind her ears her sister would look up at her and smile quietly. These were the moments when there might have been nothing at all the matter, the moments that never failed to lighten her heart.
In The Vegetarian, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, are all inscrutable to one another. After In-hye leaves her husband, she reflects:
Had she ever really understood her husband’s true nature, bound up as it was with that seemingly impenetrable silence? She’d thought, at one time, that it might be revealed in his work; in his video art In fact, before she met him, she hadn’t even been aware that such a field of art existed. Despite her best efforts, though, his works proved incomprehensible to her. Nothing was revealed.
The failure to comprehend the very people with whom we should be closest is an underlying theme of the novel. Kang punctuates our erroneous faith in the ability to understand one another by silencing Yeong-hye and instead allowing her story to be told by her husband, her sister, and her brother-in-law. Their inability to “know” Yeong-hye creates frustration, disillusionment, and isolation. Only In-hye, who, in the midst of her own personal crisis, rejects the temptations of the primal, ultimately finds some meaning in Yeong-hye’s choices. Kang’s provocative novel calls into question our reliance on others for emotional sustenance when the primal side of our natures remains always unpredictable, always incomprehensible.