When I heard the news that Han Kang had won the Man Booker International Prize for her novel The Vegetarian, I was delighted with the decision and still am. Not only is it a wonderful work of fiction, but as someone who has spent a good deal of time in South Korea (with two trips to North Korea as well), I was also glad to see Korean literature reaching a broader audience and gaining the respect and recognition it deserves. Korean cinema and of course Korean pop music, aka K-pop, have been well-known for quite some time, but Korean literature has remained off the literary grid for most people, except for those with some connection to or knowledge of all things Korean. Perhaps now that will change and readers will find good reason to explore other works of Korean literature past and present.
Aside from the time I’ve spent in South Korea — my work focuses mostly on law and politics in North Korea and South Korea — I was intrigued by Han Kang’s novel because I also happen to be a vegetarian. Being vegetarian in South Korea is not an easy thing to do, and for someone who is already an outsider in a relatively closed society, adding vegetarianism to the mix pushes one even further to the social margins.
The Korean title of Han Kang’s novel is ch’aesikjuuija (채식주의자), a word I know all too well. It is certainly the Korean word for vegetarian, but it doesn’t translate the concept in the same way that the word does in English. What it literally means is “a person who eats vegetables” or “eater of plants.” The problem is that in Korean cuisine, it is often seen as acceptable or even necessary to “flavor” vegetables with fish or shrimp or even meat. A dish like tofu stew, for example, will usually be cooked with meat and will almost certainly use some sort of meat-based broth.
For many Koreans, those dishes could still be considered vegetarian because they contain less meat than other Korean dishes, or because meat (or fish) is not the primary ingredient. So in a place like Seoul, where Han Kang’s novel is set, if I am speaking Korean and tell someone I am vegetarian, I then have to provide additional clarification by stating that I don’t eat any meat or fish at all. The response is usually a blank, sometimes uncomfortable stare, as if I have just said “I don’t eat at all.”
Koreans only understand vegetarianism, and even then it is a thin understanding, in the context of some sort of religious vow, usually a Buddhist one, where it is interpreted as some sort of spiritual act of renunciation or self-denial from what is otherwise a “normal” diet. Ethical vegetarianism, based for instance on opposition to animal cruelty and the violence of killing animals, is pretty much incomprehensible in the Korean context. Thus when Yeong-hye, the central character of Han Kang’s novel, decides to give up eating meat and does so not for religious reasons, everyone around her has no idea of how to deal with it, ultimately deciding that she must be insane.
So how does a vegetarian read The Vegetarian? Han Kang’s novel is by no means a manifesto advocating a vegetarian diet, so anyone expecting that will be sorely disappointed. So no, it’s not an advocacy novel, nor should it be, and it certainly wouldn’t be the rich work of fiction that it is if it were. Any reader wearies quickly of overly moralistic books or ones that offer simplistic, self-righteous enlightenment, whether on vegetarianism or any other topic. But I do think the book does a potential disservice to its own narrative integrity by ultimately reaffirming the violently coercive forces of social normativity that it tries to unmask.
The cultural sources of ambient violence
At its heart, Han Kang’s novel is a relentless critique of the ambient violence generated by the pressures of social conformity and normativity. These pressures certainly exist in any society, but they are especially palpable in Korean society, where conformity is highly valued and socially expected. Cultural and social homogeneity is considered an asset and a positive virtue in Korea (both North and South), and Koreans often find a reassuring comfort in sameness, as witnessed, for instance, in the endlessly-replicated architectural style of the residential buildings in which so many Koreans live.
But this emphasis on cultural cohesion comes at a substantial cost. While on the surface it may appear that Korean society is orderly, tight-knit, and peaceful, the reality is that this social formation requires a tremendous amount of structural violence to maintain and enforce its cohesion. That structural violence is pushed inward, into interpersonal relations, into family relations, into work relations, and it becomes visible and breaks the surface only in moments where that cohesion is questioned or threatened.
Thus when Yeong-hye decides to become a vegetarian, she faces immediate pressure to change her mind. In one of the novel’s more disturbing scenes, Yeong-hye’s family becomes so upset with her unwillingness to eat what everyone else is eating that her father tries to shove a piece of meat into her mouth, leading Yeong-hye to slash her wrists in protest.
There is an emotional violence here as well. Yeong-hye’s husband, whose perspective dominates the first part of the novel, has clearly exploited Yeong-hye for his own needs. He decides to marry her because he sees her as so unremarkable that he wouldn’t have to try to please her and wouldn’t have to worry about his own appearance. When Yeong-hye chooses to become vegetarian, his only concerns are about himself, about potential social embarrassment if others find out about his wife’s “crazy” vegetarianism, or about how he can survive if his wife won’t cook meat for him. The husband is utterly self-absorbed and indifferent to Yeong-hye, showing that social cohesion and conformity do not produce empathy or altruism, but rather a relentless ambient violence to keep individuals within the narrowly-defined boundaries of social propriety.
Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, who is an artist, similarly uses Yeong-hye for his own needs, and his exploitation of Yeong-hye ends up being a form of emotional violence that affects not only Yeong-hye but also his wife, who is Yeong-hye’s elder sister. There is also an emotional distance between Yeong-hye and her elder sister, and the general sentiment portrayed throughout the novel is that there isn’t a single interpersonal relationship that doesn’t have some element of violence, exploitation, or cruelty embedded in it, even as each character struggles to give the outward appearance of normality.
But Yeong-hye’s choice to become vegetarian is drawn not from an overt ethical stance but rather from a dream she has. Her desire not to eat meat slowly transforms into a desire not to eat anything at all and then into a desire to become a plant herself. Even at the psychiatric hospital where Yeong-hye ends up, doctors endeavor to force-feed her, another act of coercive violence that overrides Yeong-hye’s personal desire to control her own life.
Yet here is where Han Kang’s novel provides for at least two different readings, one of which ultimately allows the ambient violence of Korean society to have the last violent laugh. In the novel, Yeong-hye’s decision to become vegetarian is initially written off as an act of madness, and yet as the story progresses and Yeong-hye begins what is in fact a descent into madness, the dismissal of her vegetarianism as a form of madness becomes accurate, which renders her protest harmless. Those around her are reassured: vegetarianism is a form of madness, not a sane choice and not an effective challenge to violence. Yeong-hye’s rebellion has been contained, institutionalized, and marginalized.
The novel in larger context
When I read Han Kang’s novel, I was reminded of the provocative critique put forth by Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe in his wonderful novel A Personal Matter (個人的な体験 kojinteki na taiken). In Oe’s novel, Bird, the narrator and central character, goes on a self-destructive binge when he is informed that his son has been born with a severe birth defect. When the doctors tell Bird the news, they suggest that it would be best to let the child die, because growing up “abnormal” in Japanese society would be worse than death, and because Bird, as the father, would face a life of social shame, as if this were somehow his fault. In the end, Bird musters his courage and keeps his son, making a personal choice that flies in the face of what social and culture norms expect and require. Like Yeong-hye, Bird reveals the ambient violence of Japanese society and culture, where a peaceful and harmonious exterior masks a violent and dysfunctional interior.
Some of the themes developed in Han Kang’s novel also resonate deeply with the work of Vietnamese writer Duong Thu Huong, whose novels can collectively be read as a critique of the ways that tradition and culture become negative tools to silence dissent and difference, especially for women.
In the end, however, Han Kang’s use of vegetarianism as a response to and critique of the ambient violence that surrounds us and the difficulty of extricating ourselves from it may not be as crazy as it seems. In Jainism, for instance, where vegetarianism is the norm, the vow of sallekhana, a sort of gradual fast to the death in which a devotee vows to take in no more food or liquids, is seen as a highly-respected way to end one’s life as it extricates the devotee from the endless cycles of violence in which we are embedded, seemingly from birth. In that sense, Yeong-hye’s decision to become vegetarian can be seen less as a descent into madness and more as a first step in an effort to stop what appears to be unstoppable. As any ethical vegetarian will tell you, just because you can’t stop every act of violence doesn’t mean you can’t stop trying. In that sense, Yeong-hye’s choice finally creates something that is so lacking in any of the lives depicted in Han Kang’s novel — empathy.