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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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