Feed on

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.

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