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To first understand Wislawa Szymborska’s poetry, one must comprehend where she came from and her many life experiences. Szymborska was a Polish poet born in 1923 and spent the entirety of her life living in Poland. This, of course, means that when she was alive she experienced WWII (as this war occurred between 1939 and 1945) firsthand. This explains the many themes of war she incorporates throughout her poetry, as clearly demonstrated in “The End and the Beginning,” as well as many other works produced by her. Without her encounters pertaining to the impact that World War II had on her life, more likely than not would readers not have the many poignant and beautifully written poems she has produced. Szymborska also writes in numerous interesting points of view, adding a sense of uniqueness to her poetry and allowing her audience to experience different versions of a story she has conveyed. The emotion is raw and portrayed beautifully throughout her poetry.

Starting off with “The End and the Beginning,” readers can obviously see the effect that WWII had on Szymborska. Of course, without the prior knowledge of who she was as a person, this would be more difficult to infer, but after some simple research, it is clear that these were the events which inspired this poem. The opening stanza makes it evident that this piece is surrounding the theme of warfare, beginning with

“After every war

someone has to clean up.

Things won’t

straighten themselves up, after all.”

Not only is it made extremely clear what the topic is in this poem that Szymborska has produced, but in four short lines, Wislawa was able to convey such powerful emotion that her audience becomes automatically hooked. The post-war, almost apocalyptic world which she painted with words gives readers a clear image of post-WWII incidents, so disturbingly emotional and detailed that it almost places readers directly within the scene. Szymborska continues, later in the poem:

“Someone has to drag in a girder

to prop up a wall.

Someone has to glaze a window,

rehang a door.”

Again, the image of post-war occurrences Szymborska wrote about are not only incredibly detailed given the few words she used, but also filled to the brim with heart wrenching, sorrowful emotion. To touch briefly on point of view, it is unclear if Wislawa is writing “The End and the Beginning” from her own perspective, but it is definitely one of someone who is regretful of all the damage the war has caused, pondering if all the bloodshed was worth the outcome.

Continuing on the topic of perspective within Szymborska’s poetry, “Unexpected Meeting” is an interesting piece which makes the reader question who is supposed to be the narrator of the poem. To me, as an audience member, I was constantly switching back and forth reading this work from an animal’s point of view and a human’s point of view. There is a sense of human ownership given when Szymborska referred to animals as “ours,” as shown below:

“Our tigers drink milk.

Our hawks walk on the ground.

Our sharks drown in the water.

Our wolves yawn in front of the open cage.”

This leaves readers to possibly have been given the impression that these creatures are owned by a human, leaving the poem to be read from a human’s point of view. However, the line at the end of the poem is left open to interpretation:

“Our people

have nothing to say.”

The phrase “Our people” which was used could possibly show an ownership over the human race that the animals have, leaving audience members to wonder if Szymborska has made the point that humans are actually worse beings than those in the animal kingdom. (Side note: Mark Twain wrote a wonderful essay on this topic, providing evidence as to why humans are far more destructive and cruel than other animals.) It is an interesting poem because the perspective of the narrator is played with so much, making readers question who, or what is supposed to be telling the story. Szymborska was a poet who played with this aspect a lot, giving her poetry much more depth, and has to be thought about a lot more.

Looping back to the theme of warfare that so often comes along with Szymborska’s work, “Reality Demands” surrounds the common reality of hardship that each person seems to face. Again, without Wislawa’s experiences within the WWII era, this is most likely a poem which would not exist (or, at least, to the same extent of how successful it is). The point of this poem is to demonstrate that even though each person deals with constant sadness and tragedy, one must move forward with their lives, much as how Szymborska had to do during the war. It is indicative through the lines

“Letters fly back and forth

between Pearl Harbor and Hastings,

a moving van passes

beneath the eye of the lion at Chaeronea…”

that this poem is directly relative to what happened during WWII, and how this impacted the author. Again, there is a great sense of emotion present within this piece, as Wislawa was able to portray the misfortunes of the time in such a descriptive yet heartbreaking manner.

Overall, Szymborska, in my opinion, is a very skilled poet and has the ability to portray so many interesting aspects throughout her writing, such as point of view, emotion, and the common theme of warfare. To reiterate, it is also important to know this authors circumstance, as it is important to know all authors circumstances, before reading her work.


Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” revolves around a hunger artist’s career, mainly focusing on how this individual starves himself for his audience, rather than a personal reason (being a disorder, religious purposes, or what has now become a popularized diet plan). While the plot of this story seems to be straightforward, there are many themes throughout the text which make for a much more complex message, which also relates to “The Vegetarian” in some aspects.

     First, within “A Hunger Artist,” there are many details pertaining to the artists’ starvation as an act which the protagonist speculates about, such as only being allowed to not eat for a maximum of 40 days (a regulation set in place by the impresario). Also included is the ritual which occurs during the artists’ mealtime. These details lead to the most obvious, but possibly the most important aspect of “A Hunger Artist”: the protagonist’s relationship with food. The hunger artist does not find it difficult, in the slightest, to go 40 days with no nutrition. In fact, he finds it quite easy to not eat for this amount of time. Once the ritual of being fed arrives, the hunger artist thinks to himself:


“…how easy it was to fast. It was the easiest thing in the world…Why stop fasting at this particular moment, after forty days of it? …why stop now, when he was in his best fasting form, or rather, not yet quite in [his] best fasting form? …he felt that there were no limits to his capacity for fasting.”


     Clearly, the hunger artists’ relationship with food is one which is convoluted and (almost) non-existent. Because he is so familiar with the feeling of ‘hunger,’ a feeling which does not plague him in a negative way, and is actually seen to be comforting, he feels constrained by the impresario. This is also a relationship with food which can be somewhat applied to Yeong-Hye in “The Vegetarian,” and after reading both of these stories I was able to make this connection. The feeling of constraint regarding dietary choices seems to be largely thematic in both of these texts and relates seamlessly to the next topic: trustworthiness.

     Regarding the hunger artist’s relationship to food, there is always the question of whether or not the public that views him as an act believes if he is actually going 40 days without food. Kafka portrayed this to readers when he wrote


“Such suspicions, anyhow, were a necessary accompaniment to the profession of fasting. No one could possibly watch the hunger artist continuously, day and night, and so no one could produce first-hand evidence that the fast had really been rigorous and continuous; only the artist himself could know that, he was therefore bound to be the sole completely satisfied spectator of his own fast.”


     The protagonist of this story is seemingly concerned with the ‘belief factor’ that he is not eating. While he does not attempt to actively prove that he is not indulging in meals when there is nobody else around, his own knowledge of this fact provides him with enough satisfaction that he is doing what he is supposed to be doing (in this scenario, not eating). Alternatively, when taking a look at “The Vegetarian,” Yeong-Hye must prove to not only her familial members but as well as medical professionals, that she is getting enough nutrition. The reason as to why she is in a medical facility also relates back to the theme of honesty, as nobody trusts her enough to eat on her own. These are two contrasting viewpoints of the relationship to food that intertwine with honesty, a component of these two stories which I found to be extremely interesting.

     Finally, an important aspect concerning “A Hunger Artist” is the protagonist’s relationship to the public and his dissatisfaction with their reactions to his circumstance. This also applies to the overseer which is incorporated within “A Hunger Artist,” and the audience learns of the artists’ feelings on starvation as an art when the two characters have a brief conversation.


““I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger artist. “We do admire it,” said the overseer, affably. “But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist. “Well then we don’t admire it,” said the overseer, “but why shouldn’t we admire it?” “Because I have to fast, I can’t help it,” said the hunger artist.”


     These are clearly two conflicting views the hunger artist had on his situation which he never genuinely portrayed until the end of his life. The relationship the protagonist had with the public relating to what he did with his “nomadic” life was a complex one and showed that maybe he did not believe that what he was doing was truly artistic, as it was being advertised. In fact, the act of starvation should not be seen as an attraction, but rather a debilitation, or a negative (maybe even positive?) mindset. Overall, the deeper themes within this specific story made for a very interesting and entertaining read, and I am happy to explore them in-depth.


This was my favorite story that we have read during this class, which is funny because it is one of the shortest and simplest pieces, yet I felt it was so deep and touched upon multiple points which I found interesting. The story was about a fat man who came into the restaurant this woman was working at, and the reactions that multiple people had to him. At least that is what I thought it was about at first. As I read and re-read it however, I now feel that it is more about how the way we view and speak about others s only a reaction of ourselves. The woman whose eyes we saw the fat man through was kind to him the entire time, but while recounting the story to her friend was so incredibly shocked by his size she kept making little comments about it. The part that I found to be the most telling about her character was at the very end when she was telling the same friend how when she and Rudy are having sex at the end of the day she feels that she is “terrifically fat, so fat that Rudy is a tiny thing and hardly there at all.” Also, she makes a comment to the fat man when she is bringing him his  desert and he apologizes for eating so much, that she wishes that she could gain (weight). Eating disorders are never explicitly mentioned within this piece, but there are many parts that point the reader in that direction both in regards to the fat man and the woman. The fat man (I absolutely hate using that phrase but I don’t know what else to call him since this is what he has been dehumanized down to), quite obviously has a binge eating disorder which is what led him to gain such an incredible amount of weight. The woman seems to struggle with at the very minimum, body dysmorphia. These two characters seem to be connected in the unhealthy habits they have and the negative light they view themselves in, which broke my heart so much to read. The woman goes home at the end of the day miserable, miserable with herself and it seems the life she has made for herself. We don’t get to see what happens to the man after he leaves the restaurant, but I assume by the way he kept apologizing for himself and the way he ate that he’s sad in his life and with himself as well. In regards to self-control the audience can see that the man lacks control over his eating habits. He is very aware of it and seems to be quite embarrassed by it, but he can not bring himself to stop. The woman even defends him to a coworker at one point saying that he cannot help his eating and his weight. What was fascinating for me about this story was getting to see the two extremes of unhealthy eating side by side without ever being directly given a label. The audience got to see how the feelings surrounding eating disorders seem to be the same at both ends of the spectrum, and the shame and negative views of the self are very present in each case. The story also sends the message that we tend to want the opposite of what we have, which is displayed when the woman is telling the man that she eats and eats and can’t gain weight, and the man tells her he says that he wishes he had a choice, because this wouldn’t be his. Have I mentioned that this broke my heart? This story was so beautiful and raw, and went about discussing these issues in a way that was not in the audiences face, but still made it’s point beautifully.

Franz Kafka is such a beautiful writer, and does such a phenomenal job of remaining distant whilst talking about such an emotionally deep situation. Before reading this short story I had never heard of professional/artistic fasting, I had only ever heard of spiritual and religious fasting and then on the complete other end of the spectrum, eating disorder centered fasting. I was a bit confused about the time period that this artistic fasting was popular during, and I couldn’t figure it out just by reading. I thought the concept was fascinating, a professional faster. There was a section that really stuck with me on the second page, when the author was talking about how easy it actually was to fast, and how no one believed him when he would vocalize this.

I personally struggled with an eating disorder for a little over a year, and can attest to the fact that not eating is very, very easy. There is no science to it, it is not some grand feat that should be admired, it requires zero self control. To be completely honest, I feel like it requires an immense loss of control to be able to starve yourself for prolonged periods of time. As can be seen in this piece, the hardships start when it is required for one to start eating again. It becomes a mental game. How far can I go? How much can I cut back? What exactly are my bodies limits? For me, and it seems for this hunger artist, it was thrilling, orgasmic even to push the limits of our very existence. It is like an internal battle with yourself, a divide between the physical and the mental and they are battling to see whose will is stronger.

I think Franz did an absolutely magnificent job of showing the deadly impacts that this unhealthy pattern of thinking goes. Fasting, in any sense boils down to an eating disorder, no matter the reason to begin in the first place. The mental choice to starve yourself for any amount of time is an eating disorder plain and simple. I think the ending was the most intense part of this story for me. When the hunger artist said no one should admire him because “I have to fast. I can’t help it.” I wanted to absolutely cry. That for me, is what portrayed the message of this piece the most prominently which is that fasting is a psychological war that has been glorified and exploited throughout time. Even the hunger artist himself cannot fathom why people are so fascinated with his fasting, why it is so difficult for them to believe that it is so much simpler than they can comprehend.

Fasting is a very deep, and internal journey, if I can even call it that. It makes you very aware of every part of your being, yet it also eventually makes you numb to every aspect of your being. I think the reason fasting is used as a spiritual tool (typically over shorter periods of time) is because it makes you hyper aware if done properly. The massive danger however stems from people like me who after their first experience with this awareness becomes addicted to that feeling and is scared it will disintegrate once the fasting stops. This mentality can be seen when it is time for the hunger artist to leave his cage and join the feast that was set up in his honor and he doesn’t want to leave… he wants to stay longer, starve longer. He explicitly says “Why stop fasting at this particular moment, after forty days of it? He had held out for a long time, an illimitably long time; why stop now, when he was in his best fasting form, or rather, not quite in his best fasting form? Why should he be cheated of the fame he would get for fasting longer, for being not only the record hunger artist of all time, which presumably he was already, but for beating his own record by a performance beyond human imagination, since he felt that there were no limits to his capacity for fasting?”

This piece shed so much light on a topic that goes so much deeper than people want to address these days. The eating disorders that are talked about seem to be confined to three very small boxes (starving, throwing up, and bingeing) when fasting for various reasons, and to various severities seem to be greatly overlooked. I was so moved, and so impressed by the style of writing, and the portrayal of the message.

One of the aspects of “Fat,” by Raymond Carver that made an impression on me was the ways in which both the narrator and the patron of the restaurant seemed to be dehumanized by others throughout the story. The way Carver writes the descriptions of characters and their interactions seem cold and distant in a way that made me almost uncomfortable reading it the first time with no context or background provided by the author. It seems to begin from the very start of the story with the physical description of the man.

 I first notice the fingers. They look three times the size of a normal person’s fingers—long, thick, creamy fingers.

The first description of this person is one that asserts him as being abnormal.  The depiction of him carries on in the same vein for the rest of this story as the workers discuss his obesity callously as the narrator attempts to defend him at some points in the story.  The very detailed and somewhat critical description of his food consumption reminded me of people marveling at the way animals eat. Although his behavior seems to be very kind and polite it is made obvious that his defining factor is his weight, and because of that any other redeeming quality he may possess takes a background. The narrator addresses this when she says,

Rudy, he is fat, I say, but that is not the whole story.

It seems that, towards the end of their interaction, the narrator begins to feel a connection with him and the way he is immediately ridiculed because of a physical characteristic.

I think think that the connection between the characters is cemented at the end where the reader is shown the ways in which her personal agency and respect is taken away, albeit in a more severe case than the overweight man.

But right away, as soon as he turns off the light and gets into bed, Rudy begins. I turn on my back and relax some, though it is against my will. But here is the thing. When he gets on me, I suddenly feel I am fat. I feel I am terrifically fat, so fat that Rudy is a tiny thing and hardly there at all.

I interpreted this to mean that when Rudy began to violate her she felt “Fat,” in that suddenly she was reduced to objectification and debasement at the hands of someone else.


Carver does a remarkable job of inferring the connection between control in gender, as the beginning of the narrative starts out with the unidentified woman waitress asking her fat male customer “might I serve you?” as the fat customer replies that he is set to ORDER. Reading this surface level, the reader would consider this as a waitress just being polite and helpful to her customer, but as the narrative goes on, there is a sort of compulsion this woman has to help this customer, with a kind of inferred standard that it is the woman’s job to be serving the man (as this is seen again at the end of this narrative).
The narrative goes on with this unidentified woman preparing a salad for this fat customer. While at first look this is nothing but the starter course, the salad has been (and still is) viewed in association with something that women eat, or something that women can prepare (versus meat, which is a food that men prepare as it was in this narrative). In addition to this, salad is something that is viewed with weight loss, which is another part of ideal feminine identities (to be slim). This is brought up more when the unidentified waitress tells her fat customer “I’d like to gain,” but is reproached from this male customer as he replies that “If we had our choice, no. But there is no choice.” First, he is reinforcing the stereotype of females being slim and fragile (“dainty fingers poking in her hair”) vs. men being strong and masculine (“long, thick, creamy fingers”). In addition to this, he is stating that there one has no control over what happens to him, whether or not he tries.
I think what I find most disturbing in this piece is the use of vulgar sexual innuendos with the word fat relating to a man’s penis. This is seen with the description of the fat customer’s fingers, along with his orders made to this waitress. This can be inferred even more the snide remakes made, as Rita says “He’s not the kind of person you’d forget” (this could be referring to a man’s sexual performance) or when Rudy says “sounds to me your sweet on fat stuff.”
Revisiting the second paragraph, the topic of control is seen most at the end of the narrative, when Rudy has sex with this unidentified waitress, even though she doesn’t want it. Thus, she imagines herself being fat (symbolizing the lack of self-control she has) during sex. This reinforces the underlying message of men holding all of the control with women having to deal with this lack of control from the man.

One question that I do have is how this narrative ends. I am confused by it.

It is a known and accepted fact in the science of psychology that people’s relationships with food, particularly eating disorders, can relate directly to control. Often people diagnosed with disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia have suffered a certain amount of psychological or emotional distress at the events of their life, and when they turn to starving or over-indulging themselves it is a way to manage the chaos in their life. This idea of exerting control over one’s life through control over what and how much they eat is a theme that is present in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Raymond Carver’s “Fat”, and Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist”.

Yeong-Hye, the main character in Kang’s novel, exerts control and attempts to quell the violence in her life by removing meat from her diet. She is haunted by graphic dreams of blood and the animals that she has eaten and refuses to eat meat after they begin. Even as her physical and mental health decline, she refuses to sustain herself with the meat, and eventually any food, that would heal her, because she doesn’t want to. On page 179 of the novel Yeong-Hye tells her sister, “I … don’t … like … eating!”

The relationship between the narrator in Carver’s “Fat” and control is very different; she is unhappy with the circumstances of her life, particularly her relationship with Rudy, a man she works with. She begins to realize this through waiting on a fat man with “long, thick, creamy fingers.” As she serves him, all of her coworkers mock the man’s weight, and the narrator is the only one to come to his defense. During one of her brief conversations with the man, she mentions that she eats too much but cannot gain any weight, to which the man replies, “If we had our choice, no. But there is no choice.” It is not until she is home, beneath her boyfriend, “though it is against my will”, that she gets the feeling that she, too, is fat … “Terrifically fat.” When she claims that she can no longer feel Rudy at all, the reader becomes aware of her realization that she is unhappy and feels that she has no control, like the man in the diner who had no choice but to eat. At the end of the story, she says, “My life is going to change. I feel it.” It is not made explicitly clear to the reader how her life will change, but it can be inferred that she will begin to take control in her own life, likely by breaking up with her boyfriend.

In Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” the relationship between food and control is more blatant; the artist performs in the realm of fasting, an art that relies directly on one’s control when it comes to food. The rule for fasting performers is that their time spent fasting may not exceed forty days. The hunger artist is not satisfied with this timeline and thinks that he can do better, that he can be “the record hunger artist of all time, which presumably he was already”, thus showing that he not only enjoys the control he has over his relationship with food but that also he takes pride in it. When he joins a circus he is allowed to fast for as long as he would like, and he is overjoyed at this. It is not until the other members of his crew stop counting, as he does as well, the days that his fast continues, that he becomes despaired, telling the overseer that he had wished for everyone to admire his fasting. When the overseer says that everyone admired it, the hunger artist tells him that he shouldn’t, to which the other man asks why, and the hunger artist tells him, “Because I have to fast, I can’t help it.” 

Each of the relationships with food and control in these three very different samples of literature shows the ways that the characters wanted to gain control over their circumstances, and how they did until they lost it once more. Control became their only choice in attempts to cope and it led to a loss of the very thing that they attempted to hold onto.

In The Vegetarian by Han Kang, “Fat” by Raymond Carver, and “A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka, most of the people suffering from obese or anorexia are tortured souls looking for something beyond themselves or their circumstances. Their actions concerning food represent how they seek out this greater existence. In The Vegetarian the woman wants to lose the marks and paint that she has gotten from living and transcend into a pure existence unmarked by what she has become in life. I think that this captures the essence of what the others characters in “Fat” and “A Hunger Artist” are striving for, though perhaps not to the extent of losing everything that shaped them into the person they are.  

However, despite this common goal, there is a notable difference in the character’s behavior in their search for something greater than themselves. Should one starve, cutting themselves off from the rest of the world, or should one reach out and gorge themselves in living? Yeong-hye in The Vegetarian chose starvation, isolating herself in the hospital away from almost everyone but her sister. However, the man in “A Hunger Artist” also doesn’t eat for days on end and eventually dies from it, but he does not find the satisfaction in his decision or understanding from at least one other person that Yeong-hye had with her sister. Thus the ‘moral’ of “A Hunger Artist,” if one can call it that, is hiding away from the world is not the way to find self-satisfaction. One should connect with the world as the panther did to fill that need for something greater, not withdrawing.

This distinction from Yeong-hye’s choice is also seen in the short story “Fat.” Rita reaches out into the world to connect with an overweight man eating at her dinner. She sees his unhappiness and recognizes her dissatisfaction with her life and herself and knows that something will soon change even if she can not say what. The fat man himself also leans away from Yeong-hye’s choice. He chose to deal with his hunger by stuffing himself. Even with the peer pressure around, he is not stupid, could probably hear the fat jokes, and see the sly glances of disgusted amusement with every spoon full he took, he continues to eat because, “If we had our choice, no. But, there is no choice.”

In the end, it is not those with eating disorders that are unaware of the consequences of food. It is us ‘normal’ ones that are ignorant.

In The Vegetarian, Han Kang deals with the extreme desires of Yeong-hye.  Yeong-hye becomes vegetarian, and by the end of the novel we learn that she wishes to become a tree.  Not only does she want to become a tree she believes she already is one.  She even stands on her head for hours at a time, convinced that her “roots” will sink into the earth.  She believes that she no longer needs food, that the earth will provide her with sustenance.  Kang has noted that she wrote The Vegetarian after she became obsessed with the quote “I believe humans should be plants.”  Kang has taken this simple idea and twisted it into a dark reality for Yeong-hye.  Kang does this throughout the story.  Kang discusses sexual extremes as well.  Yeong-hye’s brother in law is obsessed with Yeong-hye and wishes to fulfill a sexual fantasy revolving around Yeong-hye’s Mongolian Mark.  Kang asks her reader to address uncomfortable extremes time and time again.  In the case of the artist, it is to address sexual desire.

Raymond Carver does the same thing in Fat.  Carver’s main character is obsessed with a customer of hers that is obese.  The whole story, which is only three pages in length, is all about the fat man yet, this story isn’t about the fat man at all.  In the last few sentences the main character says she feels depressed.  Every time she and Rudy has sex, she begins to feel like she is so fat that Rudy is “barely there at all.” Carver uses these extremes to address this irrational fear.  But the last few lines of the story are confusing.  The character suddenly exclaims that everything is going to change.  What is about to change?  The whole story has this frantic feel to it and the last few sentences heighten this feeling.  It is almost like time is running out.

Kafka’s The Hunger Artist deals with extremes to address the hunger artist’s desire for attention.  He feeds on the amount of people who watch him fast.  As the people fall away (and the attention towards him fades), the hunger artist wastes away.  No longer surrounded by admirers, he can no longer live.  He believes that attention is the only thing that feeds him.  This is very similar to The Vegetarian where Yeong-hye believes that she is a tree so she now requires sustenance from the ground.  Both of these characters are disillusioned as to what will keep them alive.  Both of these characters cannot be fulfilled by “normalcy.”

In the story “Fat” by Raymond Carver, the waitress talks about a man who came into her restaurant. He is only referred to by his weight and the waitress makes a comment about his speech. “He has this way of speaking – strange, don’t you know” (Carver, 64). This is then dropped as if it were unimportant, but his language is unique and seems important to the story. The “we” may be used as a way to shift blame from the fat man. If he claims that there is another part of him, it isn’t all his fault for being the weight he is. When he is talking, he speaks as if he has never referred to himself otherwise. It almost seems like second nature for him to say “we.” This is similar to The Vegetarian because Yeong-hye doesn’t say she is doing it for herself. She says it’s because of the cruelty towards the animals we eat. Both characters are shifting the blame onto other objects or ideas. The fat man shifts blame to another being, and Yeong-hye shifts blame to a dream. Both stories and characters have an obvious connection to food. The fat man overeats, choosing anything he wants on the menu. However, Yeong-hye denies food and nutrition that her body needs. We know the reason Yeong-hye stopped eating meat, which was, “I thought it was all because of eating meat… I thought all I had to do was to stop eating meat and then the faces wouldn’t come back. But it didn’t work… But I’m not scared anymore.” (Kang,) Unfortunately, we do not find out enough about the fat man to get a reason for his overeating, much less why he speaks in first person plural. Shifting blame is not uncommon in real life, which makes the characters more relatable and realistic. We, as humans, don’t like to accept our faults or do things without reason. We create reasons or something to blame when those around us don’t agree. Yeong-hye and the fat man have their similarities and differences. These two characters are different in terms of their food choices, but are connected through the same thing that separates them.

Raymond Carver was an American writer of short stories of fiction. His style is recognized as being a part of an American literary movement which is called dirty realism. The definition of dirty realism is given by Buford in his explanatory introduction of Granta in 1983:

Dirty Realism is the fiction of a new generation of American authors. They write about the belly-side of contemporary life – a deserted husband, an unwed mother, a car thief, a pickpocket, a drug addict – but they write about it with a disturbing detachment, at times verging on comedy. Understated, ironic, sometimes savage, but insistently compassionate, these stories constitute a new voice in fiction.

We can see in Fat that Raymond Carver is totally in this movement. Indeed, he focuses the whole story on a scene that is told from a character point of view and that deals with an ordinary day in a waitress’ life. It especially focuses on her serving a table where a “fat man” is having dinner. We can see the dirty realism by how the attention of the reader is always focused on this man and how he is eating, what he is ordering. The narrative is told from the character’s point of view and it gives the opportunity to have observations that seem to be nothing as how much bread the fat man is eating for instance. The descriptions are also significant as they don’t give the reader any setting about where the scene takes place, how are the characters or anything but only what is the man doing and how the main character and her colleague are reacting. It’s interesting to see how we react to this kind of story that seems unusual but also insignificant. The whole point is there, writing about the insignificant to make it significant. We can see how the main character seems disgusted by this man during the whole story and in the same time how she is kind of tender towards him cause she focuses all her attention on him and not on the other people she had to deal with that day. But the most interesting in my opinion comes at the very end of the story when we can see the impact that this scene has on her. The vision of this man is actually calling her out about her own physical appearance and how she feels in her relationship. When the reader could think that there is no insight or anything in this story, it appears that it is, in fact, significant to the main character. The fact that this appears as a detail in the story is also part of the dirty realism cause it comes late in the story and it doesn’t appear as the main focus if we consider that the main one is the subject that takes the most place in it. Finally, the last point that makes this story relevant of this movement is the fact that the story is not straightly told to the reader but from the narrator who is the main character to another character who has a name but no real essence in the story. It gives the opportunity to have an oral style, with the repetition of “he says” for instance, and creates another level of reading because the story is not addressed to the reader in a first intention but to another character who doesn’t talk, doesn’t answer and is used to create another everyday life’s situation of a talk between two friends.

Franz Kafka’s short story, “The Hunger Artist,” tells the story of a man who fasts professionally, first as a traveling act in towns, then in a circus.  Before he dies in the circus, he tells the overseer that he fasts not because he enjoys it, but because he can’t find any food he actually likes (2).  A few lines in this story caught me off guard: “The longest period of fasting was fixed by his impresario at forty days, beyond that term he was not allowed to go, not even in great cities, and there was good reason for it, too. Experience had proved that for about forty days the interest of the public could be stimulated by a steadily increasing pressure of advertisement, but after that the town began to lose interest” (6).  It is really funny, in a dark sort of way.  When the reader encounters the first line, they think the “good reason” for the limit on the hunger artist’s is in the interest of his health.  It turns out, though, it’s just because the public loses interest after around forty days.

As I read this story, it became clear that the hunger artist requires recognition for nourishment, not food.  He isn’t able to find towns to put him on exhibit, so he joins the circus.  Visitors to the circus, however, run right past his cage in favor of seeing the animals.  Here in the circus, he fasts for longer than forty days; something he has always longed to do and thinks will get him more notice from circusgoers.  He doesn’t get any attention for it, since almost none of the visitors are interested in his “art,” and eventually dies.

The lively panther that is moved into his empty cage is such a contrast to the previous occupant.  “His noble body, furnished almost to the bursting point with all that it needed, seemed to carry freedom around with it too” (6).  The panther needs food in addition to the adoring crowd to flourish, while the hunger artist needs to fast for longer than he ever has before besides having an admiring audience.  One is becoming more alive; the other is dying.

Hunger Artists

“A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka is a short story written in 1922 that tells the story of a professional hunger artist, or a performer who attracts spectators by refusing to eat any and all food for a specified amount of time.  It is speculated that Kafka was inspired by real life hunger artists, as the short-lived fad of fasting for an audience took place during his lifetime.  His character is also similar to an Italian hunger artist who attracted crowds all over Europe to watch him starve himself professionally.

The main character in “A Hunger Artist” is interesting because he seems to relish the challenge of fasting, and longs to go beyond the 40 days his impresario (manager) allows.  It becomes apparent, though, that one of the reasons why he fasts because of the attention he receives.  The 40 days seem easy to him, and he may have wanted to fast for even longer is so that he could gain more public attention.  He is disappointed that his impresario will not allow him to do so, even though it would most likely be very detrimental to his health.

An article that I found provides some background on hunger artists.  The majority of these people throughout the years seem to have performed fasts simply for public attention, and also to compete with one another.  Hunger artists in general strike me as “Kafkaesque” – a term inspired by Kafka’s life and works that means something is nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical.  “A Hunger Artist,” like his other works, seems to explore situations such as social isolation and unlikely circumstances.

Raymond Carver’s story “Fat” is a curious one from start to finish, both in plot and in writing style, but there is one element that stuck out to me particularly – the fat man referring to himself as “we.” Upon greeting the narrator, the man says, “I think we’re ready to order now” and the narrator comments that “he has this way of speaking – strange, don’t you know” (64). This seems to be the only comment she makes in regard to the “we,” despite the man referring to himself that way constantly throughout the rest of the story. The narrator does not seem to suggest that this way of speaking is important to the story she is telling, but it stands out nonetheless. One analysis I read suggested that the use of the word “we” meant that the man is connecting himself with the narrator. This could explain the narrator’s reaction to her body at the end of the story. “When he gets on me,” she says, “I suddenly feel I am fat. I feel I am terrifically fat, so fat that Rudy is a tiny thing and hardly there at all” (69). She then tells Rita that she is depressed but that she won’t go into the situation with her. Perhaps the reason she chose to tell the story about the fat man was a way of suggesting to her friends that she felt fat and was insecure about herself. She might feel that her friends reactions to the fat man would be similar to how they reacted to her if she was or if she became fat. Rudy, for example, makes jokes about the man, and the narrator tells him, “Rudy, he is fat, but that is not the whole story” (68). Here she defends the man and maybe herself as well. This follows along with the idea that people sometimes project onto others what they cannot accept about themselves. The narrator does not want to face her insecurities about her weight, so she tells an elaborate story about this man who, other than calling himself “we” and being extremely overweight, is nothing out of the ordinary. Her friends’ negative reactions then cause her to react negatively about herself.

Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” and Raymond Carver’s “Fat” demonstrate how society often defines people by their looks. In “A Hunger Artist”, public fasting is a popular activity, with many citizens traveling from all around the world to view the fasters in their cages as though they were zoo animals. In “Fat”, the opposite is true; most of the main characters spend the entire story ridiculing the unnamed customer for his size. In both cases, the identity of each character is their size and effects the level of respect that they receive from others.

Both stories can also serve as examples of how we sometimes tend to view such people as mere spectacles for our own entertainment; there are countless reality shows that revolve around overweight people and their journeys back to health. Likewise, models and actors are often idolized for their slender figures; they are the stars of innumerable commercials, magazine covers, and advertisements that all serve to pander to the public’s need for young, thin, beautiful people to obsess over and aspire to be.

Going back to this notion of identity, the way that these characters are treated—the fat man as a nuisance and the hunger artist as a hero—couldn’t be more different to their actual personalities. The fat man is portrayed as a polite, well-dressed gentleman, and the hunger artist is shown to be rather arrogant and cynical with no humility in the least. However, because of their looks, everyone else around them has already made up their minds about them. The hunger artist can be as unpleasant as he chooses, but because of the incredible feat he is undertaking, his admirers are unwilling to hold his flaws against him; the fat man can dress as nice as he pleases and be as polite as he chooses, but because of his size, the people around him assume that he is just some slob with no real value.

Both Kafka and Carver do a magnificent job of working social commentary into their stories; reading these stories today, this commentary feels even more relevant than ever before. However, there is a timelessness to both of these stories for their shared and simple message of not judging a book by its cover.

I really enjoyed reading this novel, it had such a wonderful plot line and I think the narration style was incredible and unique. I want to talk about the ways in which becoming a vegetarian/vegan can be incredibly eye-opening, and yet can have such a detrimental impact on the way one views the world post lifestyle change. One of the major themes in this novel, is the way that others view Yeong-hye when she transitions to a vegetarian. There is so much negativity surrounding vegetarianism, and that is very openly and violently put on display here. Multiple characters degrade, and abuse her for her decision, and then by the end are using it as a scapegoat to blame her mental illnesses on. I have been vegan for two years, and I can attest that it is truly traumatizing when someone, especially a family member who you love, does not take your view seriously and tries to force you to eat an animal. The entire reason Yeong-hye became a vegetarian is because she had a traumatic dream about the meat industry and the ways in which animals are treated just so that humans can eat them. People these days have become so disconnected from their food, and mindlessly shove things in their mouths without thinking about where it came from, or what went into making it. When Yeong-hye became enlightened to that, it was incredibly upsetting and had a remarkable impact on her life. We see, through the progression of this novel, and from the eyes of the different narrators the way that interactions between Yeong-hye and the other people in her life changed since she made the great switch. She felt as though she could not eat around other people because it was so upsetting, and she felt incredibly pressured, and then felt as though she was being judged and disrespected for her opinions. I want to touch upon the disrespect that vegetarians and vegans endure from others as well because I feel that it is very important. It is very, deeply, hurtful when others make comments on the foods that I choose to eat when I feel that what I am doing is morally correct for myself. Most vegetarians do not try and force their opinions upon others, so it has always confused me as to why people feel the need to make such vicious and cruel comments in regards to the PLANTS that we feel comfortable eating. Just a bit of a tangent. Moving onto vegetarianism and Yeong-hye’s mental health, her sister at the end seems to think that her vegetarianism is what triggered her mental issues when in my personal opinion I do not think that is the case in the slightest. I think that the ways in which she has been treated post-change in eating habits is what triggered her mental breakdown. When the people you love are that harsh, violent, and judgmental towards you because of decisions you have made that only affect you personally, it is extremely difficult and traumatic. All in all I think that this novel shines a light on a very real, and very relevant issue and I am very grateful that we got to read and discuss it in this class.

“The feeling that she 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.
Han Kang, The Vegetarian

In reading this novel, I immediately found the characterization of the women very interesting.  Both Yeong-hye and In-Hye seem as if, before the catalyst of Young-hye’s decision to stop eating meat, they were consumed with fulfilling the wishes of the men who in turn offered abuse and derision. This interpretation could give Yeong-hye’s desire to turn into a plant an entirely different connotation as plants are objects to be seen and moved at others will. My first instinct was to focus on the feminist aspects of this novel and how it could mirror the struggles women face in reality. In reading interviews and articles about Han Kang, I found that although the feminist themes in this novel have been highlighted by a lot of readers, her main concern seemed to be the increasingly inhumane nature of the world. She is quoted in an article as saying,

 I wanted to show the extreme core of a dog-eat-dog world.

After reading this, I began to wonder if this novel was supposed to be more of a critique on society as a whole rather than just Korean patriarchy. The novel does show abuse against women but Kang points out in several interviews that she attempted to show how abuse is instilled in society as a whole.

But I think if you interpret the novel just as a female voice it could be reducing this book. Yes, there is the father of this protagonist Yeong-Hye, who is a veteran of the Vietnam War. There is a very violent scene where he forces his daughter to eat meat by a physical act. This scene is overlapped when the medical doctors are force-feeding Yeong-Hye in the psychiatric hospital. At the risk of oversimplifying, you could say that they are personifying violence against the determination of Yeong-Hye.

– Han Kang, dw.com


The Vegetarian is a novel that contains many aspects of Korean culture. Of course, this is the case, as it was written by Han Kang, a South Korean author, originally in Korean. The storyline surrounds Yeong-hye’s choice to no longer consume meat after having dreams of the abuse animals face at the hands of humans, and the negative impact this has on her life. The story is told not from Yeong-hye’s perspective but in three parts from the perspective of her husband, brother-in-law, and sister.

There are numerous ways in which the Korean culture is presented to the reader throughout The Vegetarian. The way in which emotions are discussed is one of them, as Asian societies have different societal norms than Western cultures do when regarding feelings and reactions. I was able to recognize the Asian influence within the text almost immediately, as I have experienced living in China and have traveled through Asia extensively (an explanation as to why I found this component of the story all the more interesting). A fascinating example which embodies how this specific culture responds to events differently than Westerners would is found when Yeong-hye and her sister, In-hye, are at the hospital.

“The nurse unlocked the door to the six-person ward and led them in. Yeong-hye remained composed as her sister greeted each of the nurses in turn…You will not be weak, In-hye told herself, her lips pressed tightly together” (149-150).

In-hye suppressing the tormented feelings she experiences while admitting Yeong-hye to the hospital is a perfect example of the common low-arousal emotions Asian cultures tend to present. (A person who experiences low-arousal is less reactive to events happening around them than one who experiences high-arousal.) While she is obviously upset about the circumstances that surround her and her sister, In-hye composes herself in a calm and collected manner. The only sign of distress that she allows to be seen is her lips tightening. Nangyeon Lim writes about this cultural difference specifically in Cultural Differences in Emotion: Differences in Emotional Arousal Levels between the East and the West:

“In Western or individualist culture, high arousal emotions are valued and promoted more than low arousal emotions. Moreover, Westerners experience high arousal emotions more than low arousal emotions. By contrast, in Eastern or collectivist culture, low arousal emotions are valued more than high arousal emotions. Moreover, people in the East actually experience and prefer to experience low arousal emotions more than high arousal emotions.”

Of course, there is still emotion present throughout The Vegetarian. The novel addresses many difficult topics, such as child abuse, suicide, unfaithfulness/betrayal, and more. Yet the emotional reactions to these events are demonstrated in a way that rings very true to how members of this culture show how they are feeling. Another example of this comes from Yeong-hye’s husband’s point of view, after witnessing his wife sitting outside the hospital, naked, with blood spilling from her slashed wrists:

“I thought to myself: I do not know that woman. And it was true. It was not a lie. Nevertheless, and compelled by responsibilities that refused to be shirked, my legs carried me toward her, a movement for the life of me I could not control. “Darling, what are you doing?” I murmured in a low voice, picking up the hospital gown and using it to cover her bare chest” (59).

Even though seeing your wife in that state could be a traumatizing experience, Mr. Cheong acts and responds in a way that is mild and, by definition, low-arousal. It is odd to think what a westerner would do if faced with this and the differences in emotion which would be displayed.

It is captivating to revisit through a text a culture with which I am so familiar, and even more so interesting to me to be able to recognize these differences between the East and West cultures. While there are many ways to explore the aspects of Eastern culture presented in The Vegetarian, I felt that the expression of emotion was one which isn’t as obvious but is extremely important.


The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a novel with more than one twist. Not only do we not read the book from the main character’s point of view, we read it from three separate narrators who all have a connection to the main character. The first point of view we read through is the husband where she first tells him and the readers that she is a vegetarian. She doesn’t seem to think it has anyshock value whereas from his point of view, we see it does. “Before my wife turned vegetarian,” This is the first part of the opening line of this book. We can already tell the tone of the tone of the husband’s voice. “I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her.” (Kang, 11) We, as readers, can tell that the husband doesn’t have high regards and high thoughts of his wife.

The tone of the husband is different from the tone of the other two sections. The different points of view are important so we can get many angles of the three dimensional character. The section told by the brother in law has a different tone, one we can see right away. “The oxblood curtain fell over the stage. The dancers waved their hands so vigorously the whole row became a blur of movement, with the individual figures and possible to make out.” (Khan, 63) One can tell that his main focus is the visual effect, how the audience reacts to the story on stage. HE doesn’t starts off talking about the performance not his feeling for the main character. By using the different tones and points of view, the author chose this so she can show the characters ideas and personalities, but she also creates four three dimensional characters while focusing on Yeong-hye story and life.

The last point of view is of Yeong-hye’s sister. “She stands and looks out of the rain-swept road. She is at the bus stop across from Maseok terminal. Huge goods vans thunder past, speeding along in the fast lane. The raindrops drum against her umbrella, so forcefully it seems they might rip through the material.” (Khan, 129) the sister is one that pays more attention to detail, even more so than her husband. While she, compared to her husband, has a more specific creative tone whereas her husband’;s tone paints a picture of the bigger scene. I believe she did this set up for her novel because she could create four believable characters while still focusing around a main point.

A theme in The Vegetarian is the exploration of the two “sides” that exist in every human being. The more primitive part of our being that deals with our wants and needs is selfish and doesn’t consider the effects that our actions will have on the people around us. Then there is our more socially acceptable side that is concerned with how we fits into the society that we belong to. This side of us is more aware of the circumstances that surround us and attempts to blend in, leading us to ignore or deny our more primitive side.

I want to point out that I didn’t say that this environmentally aware side is more logical than its counterpart. The distinction made in The Vegetarian is not the same as the West’s habit of dividing cold hard logic from wildly uncontrollable emotions. An article by Lori Feathers states that the theme of The Vegetarian is, “Existence precedes essence.” Yeong-hye removes her essence from the world by becoming plant-like, needing only water and sunlight and completely cutting herself off from the more environmentally aware side of her and embracing her primitive side. That said, she does not lack either emotions or logic while she is in this state of pure existence. Emotionally, Yeong-hye smiles for her sister in the hospital and seems to hold some affection for her. Is it distant affection? Absolutely, but the emotion is not altogether erased. As for logic, this is harder to see because we do not directly hear Yeong-hye’s voice and cannot get inside her head as we do with the other characters. That said, I think that In-hye finding meaning in her sister’s actions provides the reader with a sense of the logic of Yeong-hye’s choices.

Food, especially the Korean attitude towards food, is a large part of The Vegetarian.  It is also one of the many example of how Korean culture impacts the novel.  Food is a very important part of Korean culture, and we see this early on in the first section.  Kang writes:

I couldn’t think of her family without also recalling the smell of sizzling meat and burning garlic, the sound of shot glasses clinking and the women’s noisy conversation emanating from the kitchen. All of them — especially my father-in-law — enjoyed yuk hwe, a kind of beef tartar. I’d seen my mother-in-law gut a live fish, and my wife and her sister were both perfectly competent when it came to hacking a chicken into pieces with a butcher’s cleaver.

This passage is one of the many that is telling of how important food is to Korean culture.  I think it is easy for Western readers to question the outrage that Yeong-hye’s family and friends express when she becomes “the vegetarian.”  It isn’t uncommon for people to be vegetarian or vegans, but in a culture where food is this important, that outrage makes sense.  In Korea, confucian ideals of how society is supposed to work are still heavily rooted in everyday life.  It is expected that members of society are to work as hard as they can.  Those who work the regular 9 to 5 in offices are called “salary men.”  These people do nothing but work and when their shift is over, they gather with their friends at food stands and sit in little plastic chairs outside restaurants.  They do this for several hours, visiting several different establishments.  The meals often contain meat and lots of alcohol. It is a tradition, a way to socialize and gather with those around you.  By not eating meat, Yeong-hye is in a way shunning tradition and beginning her strange transformation.  She detaches from the world around her with just this one simple act.


The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a small novel with a disproportionately large load of controversy.  The translator who helped create the English version of the novel, Deborah Smith, had only begun to learn Korean six years prior to her work on The Vegetarian, and many reviewers who were familiar with the original language were surprised to find numerous mistranslations.  An article from the Los Angeles Times said that Smith’s edits not only resulted in minor mistakes, but also altered the style and tone of the writing.  The main thing that I appreciated about the novel was the writing style, and I found it surprising that the original novel did not have that same flow to it.  A  great deal has already been said about the novel’s translation, but I, too, found it interesting.

Another interesting aspect of the novel was how, although Yeong-hye was the focus of the story, the only direct narration we received from her was from her dreams.  I suppose it’s better for the clarity of the novel to have its main speakers not suffer from an increasingly worsening case of schizophrenia, but it made me wonder if this choice had anything to do with Yeong-hye’s desire to become a plant.  As plants are not capable of speech, they would not be able to narrate a novel, and so, Yeong-hye would also be unable to do so.

I did find myself at odds with the vast majority of reviews that I read.  I agree with reviewers who described how The Vegetarian was strange and so unlike any other novel they had read, and I think there is something to be said about how successful Kang was in writing such a deeply unsettling novel, but it is for those reasons that I did not enjoy reading this book.







Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was translated into English in 2015, bringing about a lot of criticism regarding the translation. The translator, Deborah Smith, made many changes (and some errors) when translating the work from Korean to English. One of the most notable changes was that of the novel’s opening sentence. Originally, Yeong-hye’s husband stated that he never thought of his wife as “anything special,” whereas in English, Yeong-hye was described as “completely unremarkable in every way” (Kang, 11). These two statements have very different tones, as the Korean is simply more dismissive and the English seems to imply that the husband looks down upon his wife. According to an article by Claire Armistread in The Guardian, the translation has been severely critiqued for its changes, and a speaker at a 2016 conference stated that “10.9% of the first part of the novel was mistranslated. Another 5.7% of the original text was omitted. And this was just the first section” (The Guardian). A translator featured in a Los Angeles Times article stated that he felt the English version was an adaptation rather than a translation.

Some people think the translation was a failure while others believe it to be a success despite its errors, but the main question in this discussion remains. How closely does a translation need to resemble its original text? Reading these articles reminded me of the class discussion over The Emissary and how the author would essentially develop different stories when working on translating her works from Japanese to German or vice versa. Are those translations considered failures because they differ from the original, or is the translation of The Vegetarian critiqued this way simply because of its errors (translating “hand” as “foot,” for example)? If the author had translated it herself and made the same mistakes would it still be viewed this way?

Personally, I do not think a translation should be judged harshly for a few minor errors; there are sometimes obvious typos in published books, and those are not critiqued as these mistakes are, even though for the most part, they are small issues that do not affect the overall reading of the book. The plot and metaphors of the book seem to be the same in Korean and in English; a woman takes control of her body and her life in a society in which she is not meant to have much control over either, and her family must come to terms with her bizarre, new life. While some changes may briefly change the way the text is read (as with the first line), the story mostly remains the same. The translation provided a new audience with this story and told it in a way she thought would be most compelling. Therefore, it should be considered a success.

In a 2018 review of The Vegetarian, Jiayang Fan brings to light the challenges of translating books from the language in which they were written. At one point in the article, she mentions, “But her writing, too, is rooted in in Korea’s history. This, according to Charse Yun, is what risks getting lost in translation.” This concept relates to similar ones brought up in class throughout this course. One example is Chimamanda Adichie’s claim that many Americans are unable to see the humorous side of Americanah due to a difference in Western humor compared to Nigerian humor. Another is the cultural significance of oppressed women in Woman at Point Zero. These are things that may still resonate with American readers but will most likely be more relatable to its originally intended native audience who are intimately familiar with specific struggles and concepts brought up in these stories.

Some themes dealt with in The Vegetarian are control, violence/violation, freedom/free will, loss, love, and desire. It is safe to say that all of these are universal concepts that we have all experienced at one time or another, but they are still experiences that are unique to each and every one of one; one thing that can significantly influence these experiences is culture. Throughout The Vegetarian, we witness Yeong-hye come up against adversity from her family, who claim that she is disgracing her family by refusing to eat meat. This notion of family honor is prevalent in Asian culture but isn’t typically found in Western culture, which might make it hard for certain readers to relate to Yeong-hye’s situation. Another topic that is explored is the idea of wifely duty, that a wife’s sole job is to fulfill her husband’s every need; again, this is an idea that readers from other parts of the world may relate to more than Western readers. However, there are certain experiences in this book that any reader can easily identify with, such as Yeong-hye’s abusive relationship with her father, In-hye’s husband’s desire to make a name for himself in his chosen field of art, and In-hye’s desire to be more than just a wife and mother. Overall, though there are definitely certain ideas in stories that can get lost in translation due to differences in culture, there are often many familiar underlying themes—freedom, tragedy, fulfillment, etc.—to be found when these works are examined closely enough.

Link to article: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/01/15/han-kang-and-the-complexity-of-translation

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is a three-part novella that shatters Western culture’s ideas of what literature should look like; this haunting account of a woman’s choice to become vegetarian is told through every viewpoint but her own. The first installation is written in the first person point-of-view of her husband, the second through the third person view of her obsessive artist brother-in-law, and the third through the alternating first and third person view of her older sister, In-hye. Kang’s use of changing perspectives and the tenses in which they operate allow the structure of this novel to simultaneously collapse and come together. By focusing the novel on Yeong-hye but never telling the story through her perspective (apart from the italicized sections that reveal the nature of the woman’s terrifying dreams), Kang succeeds in alienating the main character and the “method to her madness” from her readers, while bringing them closer to her through the thoughts and feelings of the people around her. In this sense, the author also succeeds in the “show don’t tell” idea that is so favorable in literature. 

The novel also operates in a world of violence. In her 2016 New York Times book review of The Vegetarian Porochista Khakpour writes, “‘The Vegetarian’ needs all this bloodletting because in its universe, violence is connected with physical sustenance — in meat-eating, in sex-having, even care-taking.” The first section, titled “The Vegetarian” is told by Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr. Cheong, and introduces these realms of violation. On page fourteen he finds Yeong-hye in front of the fridge looking disheveled. When he questions her, the only response he is given is “I had a dream” (16). When he wakes up the next morning, angry because she did not wake him for work, he finds Yeong-hye in the kitchen again, putting all of the meat from the freezer into trash bags. Her behaviour and revulsion for meat increase as the section goes on, while Mr. Cheong’s anger and confusion increase as well.

On page twenty-six he says, “Even given the extreme unpredictability of her condition, I wasn’t prepared to consider taking her for an urgent medical consultation, much less a course of treatment… This strange situation had nothing to do with me.” Immediately following his inner monologue is one of the strange italicized sections that describe Yeong-hye’s dreams, only this one pertains to exactly how her husband has contributed to her behaviour, specifically, his anger towards her. The morning before I had the dream, I was mincing frozen meat–remember? You got angry, her dream says, If you knew how hard I’ve always worked to keep my nerves in check. Other people just get a bit flustered… I gazed vacantly at your distorted face as you raged.

Eventually, Yeong-hye’s distaste for meat transfers directly to her husband in that she will not sleep with him. When he asks her why, she tells him, “The meat smell. Your body smells of meat” (24). Mr. Cheong grows more and more agitated with this area of his wife’s behaviour until he decides he can bear it no longer. On page thirty-eight he says, “But it was no easy thing for a man in the prime of his life, for whom married life had always gone entirely without a hitch, to have his physical needs go unsatisfied for such a long period of time. So yes, one night when I returned home late and somewhat inebriated after a meal with colleagues, I grabbed hold of my wife and pushed her to the floor…” As his violation of Yeong-hye continues, so does her bizarre behaviour, as well as his indifference towards her, confirming Khkapour’s statement in The Times that all of these instances of violence are so intricately connected with physical sustenance.

In “Mongolian Mark”, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law becomes entirely fixated on her after her sister’s revelation of the birthmark on her buttocks, to the point that he engages in sexual intercourse with her (Yeong-hye). On pages one-hundred twenty and twenty-one he describes the act, and at the top of one-hundred twenty-one describes the end of the filming process, when, “…this was where the filming had to stop. He waited until her sobs subsided before laying her back down on the sheet. In their final minutes of sex she gnashed her teeth, screamed rough and shrill, spat out a panting ‘stop’ and then, at the end, she cried again.” On the next page, Yeong-hye discloses that “I thought it was all because of eating meat… I thought all I had to do was to stop eating meat and then the faces wouldn’t come back. But it didn’t work… But I’m not scared anymore. There’s nothing to be scared of now.” When her sister discovers the two she is horrified that her husband would do such a thing with Yeong-hye, being as unstable as she is, highlighting even further the insanity behind Yeong-hye’s earlier statement.

In “Flaming Trees” readers learn of the depth of Yeong-hye’s father’s abuse, something that was revealed in earlier sections, but not disclosed as fully, as well as of her captivity in the mental ward of a hospital. Her sister, In-hye, is the only person that will visit or take care of her, and the guilt that In-hye feels at her sister’s fate leads to lots of looking back on their childhood. In particular, the memory in which Yeong-hye suggested that the two run away. On page one-hundred sixty-two she says, “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 father’s temper or put up any form of resistance.” This revelation of Yeong-hye’s past and her relationship with violence explains her reaction to the events of the novel; her fear of eating meat stemmed from the violence she had suffered from the hands of others. Once she was “awakened” and became aware of this, the further acts of violence and violations against her only increased her inability to cope. She believed, in the beginning, that the dreams were her fault, an effect caused by violent acts that she had committed (eating meat), though it comes to light in the ending of this novel that they were a series of repressed events and emotions, fighting her subconscious to emerge and be handled. Only Yeong-hye could not handle them, nor could she handle the violence in her everyday life that stemmed so far as to the very structure of the novel, through which Yeong-hye’s story becomes largely about the people telling it, their thoughts and emotions and how her actions impacted them, instead of herself. 

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