Meditations Inspired by The Vegetarian, Han Kang by Paul Thomas
Out, damned spot! out, I say!…
Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the
perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little
Lady Macbeth, The Tragedy of Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 1
Gregor’s body was indeed completely dried up and flat, they had not seen it until then, but now he was not lifted up on his little legs, nor did he do anything to make them look away.
The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
“Because I had to fast. I can’t do anything else,” said the hunger artist.
A Hunger Artist, Franz Kafka
I have come to recognize that bookstores are a sort of polar opposite of a Trump rally, a sanctuary, a place where you are surrounded by books and lovers of books—except bookstores have also become havens for WiFi vampires and coffee fiends (although these can be gentle souls as well).
I am one of those triple-sinners—book lover, WiFi vampire, and coffee fiend—but I am in my bones a book lover who walks the aisles of bookstores, ravenously gazing at book spines and covers, occasionally allowing myself simply to take a book in hand to stroke the cover without its consent.
And then there are days that rise above the simple and perverse rituals of worshipping in a bookstores. Days when a book reaches out and demands I read it.
There on the shelf of new hardback fiction was Han Kang’s The Vegetarian—a slim volume designed to enflame us like a bullfighter’s cape:
At first, I simply had to hold and caress this book—the texture as inviting as the colors and graphics—but then I read the inner jacket blurb.
“Nightmare” hooked me, and then “Kafkaesque” reeled me in.
The Vegetarian delivers on aesthetics inside the beautiful and haunting cover, its silhouette hinting at the macabre nightmare that entangles the titular character, Yeong-hye, whose life is unraveled by and entangled in a violent dream that drives her to become the vegetarian.
Originally published as three novellas, Yeong-hye’s story is revealed by a masterful use of shifting point-of-view and verb tense. One of the most powerful elements in this novel is narration: Part I: The Vegetarian narrated in first-person by Yeong-hye’s husband; Part II: Mongolian Mark narrated in third-person limited omniscient, focusing on Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law; and Part III: Flaming Trees narrated in third-person limited omnicient, focusing on Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye.
Han Kang’s craft is a testament to the power of that craft to create and reinforce meaning: Yeong-hye’s story is absent her voice, except for brief italicized glimpses of her dreams in Part I.
The narrative decisions keep Yeong-hye behind the voices of two men, in fact, before her sister—the person possibly closest to her biologically and psychologically—closes the novel; although even then, In-hye, as the men have, turns Yeong-hye’s story into her own.
Like the Kafkan emaciation of Gregor in The Metamorphosis, a work many scholars have come to admit is about the family more so than Gregor, Yeong-hye’s decent into vegetarianism metamorphoses into a suicidal eating disorder and surreal longing to become a tree—vegetarian to vegetation—and exposes through this nightmare-journey the essential nature of her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister along with her parents at a somewhat greater narrative distance but no less important.
Yeong-hye’s terrors manifested by, reflected by, or both, her recurring dream result in those closest to her slipping themselves into not recognizing Yeong-hye, acts of violence, sexual obsession, and the existential vertigo of self-awareness/self-doubt.
“Life is such a strange thing, [In-hye] thinks,” we read near the end:
Even after certain things have happened to them, no matter how awful the experience, people still go on eating and drinking, going to the toilet and washing themselves—living, in other words. And sometimes they even laugh out loud. And they probably have these same thoughts, too, and when they do it must make them cheerlessly recall all the sadness they’d briefly managed to forget. (pp. 173-174)
There is a dark, dark beauty to Han Kang’s existential nightmare that offers nothing simple or clean while raising essential questions about human nature, human autonomy, human sexuality, and the very human urge to create and destroy.
About a week before I wrote about raising my daughter without the threat of physical violence,The Vegetarian reached out to me while I scanned new hardback novels.
As a former English teacher who spent much of his career helping students learn the evil art of literary analysis, I am well aware of both the skepticism by many that literary analysis is too often imposing meaning onto text and the reality that human beings see what they want to see, or possibly more fairly, what they are primed or equipped to see.
The latter, I feel, is the great human gift of being able to revisit texts again and again in order to have new and different experiences—even though the words on the pages have not changed. The change is in us.
And although I was clearly primed to read The Vegetarian as an allegory about the world’s violence against women, I am trained sufficiently in New Criticism’s cult of textual evidence to trust Han Kang weaves this motif with great purpose and intent throughout the disturbing atrophy of Yeong-hye.
The Vegetarian, for me, speaks in some ways to cultural norms as they echo so-called universals—reminding me of Haruki Murakami’s work, which offers a tangled thicket of reflecting paternalism and misogyny while not-so-clearly confronting or challenging either.
Han Kang, however, seems more purposefully handing the reader on a gothic plate a very clear condemnation of the eviscerating of women by that paternalism and misogyny.
Part I being narrated in first person by her husband strips and dehumanizes Yeong-hye immediately in the reader’s mind. He is cold, superficial, and merciless as our only conduit to Yeong-hye’s sleeping and lived nightmare seemingly linked to some guilt about or fear of all-encompassing violence:
Dark woods. No people. The sharp-pointed leaves on the trees, my torn feet. This place, almost remembered, but I’m lost now….
But the fear. My clothes still wet with blood. Hide, hide behind the trees. Crouch down, don’t let anybody see. My bloody hands. My bloody mouth….
Chewing on something that felt so real, but couldn’t have been, it couldn’t….Familiar and yet not…that vivid, strange, horribly uncanny feeling [original in italics]. (pp. 19-20)
Yeong-hye’s husband sees his wife’s transformation as it impacts his life, and his response is sort of a passive-aggressive violence which appears little different than his perception of her before her commitment to being a vegetarian—his disdain for her not wearing a bra, for example, that offers a twisted commentary on objectifying women through the motif of Yeong-hye’s breasts throughout the novel.
It is in this first section that we witness the violence first-hand of Yeong-hye’s father, who attempts to force Yeong-hye to eat meat, spurring Yeong-hye’s dramatic slicing of her wrists and then her being committed by Part II.
Switching to limited third-person, the narration of Part II remains through the eyes and lust of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, an artist.
His life as an artist is resurrected by a disturbing combination of Yeong-hye’s suicide attempt, his discovering Yeong-hye’s lingering Mongolian mark on her buttocks, and the sexual/pseudo-artistic compulsion that culminates in what can be viewed as the violence inherent in human sexuality.
Yet, it is the brother-in-law who bears witness to the absurd violence of Yeong-hye’s father:
But that her father, the Vietnam War hero, had actually struck his rebellious daughter in the face and physically forced a lump of meat into her mouth, that was something else. However much he thought back on it, he couldn’t convince himself that it had actually happened—it was more like a scene from some bizarre play. (pp. 73-74)
In Part II, Han Kang investigates art through art while wrapping a meditation on art inside Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law’s fetishizing the Mongolian mark and the need to document on film his sexual coupling with Yeong-hye—a video discovered by In-hye.
And then, in Part III, Yeong-hye is institutionalized and her story is handed to her sister. In-hye must navigate a world dominated by their father, Yeong-hye’s huband, and In-hye’s now ex-husband.
This last section will not allow us, I think, to ignore the violence, the paternalism, the misogyny.
This last section is about women as sisters, literally and figuratively:
Yeong-hye was four years younger than her, enough of an age gap for them not to have been in competition with each other growing up. As small children their young cheeks were frequently left throbbing by their heavy-handed father, and Yeong-hye had provoked in In-hye a sense of responsibility that resembled maternal affection, a need to expend all her energy in looking out for this younger sister. (p. 135)
However, we learn eventually that the violence of their home had a primary target:
Only after all this time was she able to understand why Yeong-hye had said what she did. Yeong-hye had been the only victim of their father’s beatings….Only Yeong-hye, docile and naive, had been unable to deflect their afther’s temper or put up any form of resistance. Instead, she had merely absorbed all her suffering inside her, deep into the marrow of her bones. (pp. 162-163)
Again, not so different than with Yeong-hye’s husband and brother-in-law, In-hye adopts Yeong-hye’s story as her own: “Could I have prevented it? Could I have prevented those unimaginable things from sinking so deep inside of Yeong-hye and holding her in their grip?” (p. 163).
The violence of the father seems to have destroyed Yeong-hye and hardened In-hye: “The feeling that she [In-hye] had never really lived in this world caught her by surprise. It was a fact. She had never lived. Even as a child, as far back as she could remember, she had done nothing but endure” (p. 167).
There is an existential absurdism to Jeong-hye and then an existential realism to In-hye—each a side of In-hye’s realization that “[l]ife is such a strange thing.”
The Vegetarian builds to a parallel existential/Kafkan depiction of human existence as a mental ward:
Perhaps it is because the patients here are not free to leave….
They’re trapped here, In-hye thinks. Just like this woman, Hee-joo is bound up with the guilt she feels over having had Yeong-hye incarcerated here. (pp. 177, 183)
Has In-hye acted in conjunction with her familial and cultural paternalism and misogyny to determine her sister’s fate?
At least feeling complicit leaves In-hye contemplating female agency:
It’s your body, you can treat it any way you please. The only area where you’re free to do as you like. And even that doesn’t turn out how you wanted. (p. 182)
Like Yeong-hye, In-hye also becomes consumed by dreams:
When she lifts her head, the face she sees reflected in the mirror is wet. Eyes from which so much blood has spilled in her dreams. Eyes from which that blood always refused to be wiped away, no matter how fiercely she scrubbed it with her hands. But the woman’s face is not crying, not now. It’s only staring wordlessly back at her, like always, betraying not even the faintest hint of emotion. (p. 182)
The Vegetarian starts and ends in dreams—and these are nightmares of the sort we associate with Kafka but also the blurring of alternate realities found in Murakami.
The real world, however, remains rapacious and violent, especially for women—some of whom wilt while others harden.
Beware the Roadbuilders: Literature as Resistance by Paul Thomas