Han Kang’s The Vegetarian: Deconstructing the Human-Animal Divide

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian starts off as a deceptively normal domestic narrative: a Korean man describes his wife as a typical, regular woman, whom he only begins to properly notice after she announces she is a vegetarian. This seems normal enough, until we realise that her vegetarianism is motivated by deeply disturbing psychological reasons. As the text continues, it quickly delves into a multitude of themes—the human-animal divide, plant/animal sentience, animal cruelty, ecofeminism, misogyny and the restrictive East Asian culture, to name a few.

Particularly interesting to me were that of ecofeminism—the association of the feminine with nature, one many scholars now argue is a false one—and the character Yeong-Hye’s descent into a sort of madness and hers and others’ perception of this descent.

The story is complex, and very deliberately written. The narrative is told in three parts, beginning with Yeong-Hye’s husband’s perspective, then her brother-in-law’s, then her sister’s, In-hye. The story is almost never told from the main character’s point-of-view, except for a few italicised paragraphs in the first section (italicised to reveal her thoughts). This is done deliberately. Yeong-hye refuses to eat meat as she identifies with animals and cannot bear to do so and it all begins with a dream in which she sees and identifies with the cruelty eating animals inflicts. As the story continues, she begins to identify with plants as well; at the end of the book, she is seen to be slowly and literally starving to death as she refuses to eat anything at all.

The other characters both objectify her and superimpose their ideas on her. In the beginning, as her husband describes their marriage. He depicts her as plain and unremarkable. He treats her disrespectfully, denying her any opinions or even a personality. In the second section, her brother-in-law, learning from his wife that Yeong-hye still retains a Mongolian mark, develops an intense sexual fetish for her body. He is an artist, and he obsesses over an image he feels the need to create out of her: of her body painted in bright florals, filmed having intercourse with a man similarly painted in a sort of pornographic video. She refuses to make love to him. At the same time, it turns out that the only time she is sexually aroused ever since she refuses to eat meat is when she sees a man similarly painted. It appears her arousal isn’t human—she wishes to make love as plant to plant. The only way her brother-in-law can copulate with her is if he decorates himself as well. In the last section, her sister In-hye tries to help her, but she is unable to understand. At this stage, Yeong-hye, descending into her psychological and physical vegetative state (she acts like a tree, standing on her hands, which she sees as roots, in the sunlight), almost completely ceases to speak. In-hye must interpret Yeong-hye’s actions through her own understanding of the world. As such, refusing Yeong-hye a first-person voice in the narrative echoes the objectification she is subjected to throughout the story.

Beyond this, she is also seen to be physically manhandled, abused and sexually objectified; this is similar to many animal rights advocates’ argument that animals, especially those in factory farms or which are similarly subjugated to such abuse, are treated as such due to denying them a voice and imposing derogatory narratives on them (Donaldson and Kylimka 161-2). In Yeong-hye’s husband’s narrative, she is seen as nothing more than a domestic figure; the excessive focus on what she does and how she looks like, even the seemingly excessive detail to the way she walks, portrays her as a solely physical being with no inner complexities. In Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law’s narrative, she is completely a sexual being, with barely any other significance. He is obsessed with her body and only manages to access it when he unexplainably identifies her as a plant-like being instead of a human being and interacts with her as such: “His red flower closed and opened repeatedly above her Mongolian mark, his penis slipping in and out of her like a huge red pistil… Every time he closed his eyes he could see the lower half of his body dyed green, soaked from the stomach to the thighs with a sticky, grassy sap” (Kang 160). This objectification only finds some redemption at the very last section, when it is told from In-hye’s point-of-view. By then, it is too late, however. Turning almost completely into a plant, Yeong-hye is incomprehensible. To understand her, In-hye must weave her own narratives around what is happening: “If her husband and Yeong-hye hadn’t smashed through all the boundaries, if everything hadn’t splintered apart, then perhaps, she was the one who would have broken down, and if she’d let that happen, if she’d let go of the thread, she might never have found it again” (Kang 265). Yes, there is some recognition on a very human level of what Yeong-hye might be going through—her sister gives insight to the abuse Yeong-hye suffered as a child and the oppression women are under—but Yeong-hye’s narrative is still told and interpreted by another person. This objectification is subversively feminist, however: throughout The Vegetarian, only the women have names, the men are only identified by their roles in society, such as “her husband” and “my brother-in-law”. On a structural level, only the women are made subjects and named.

In-hye also identifies with birds and trees, fantasising about taking off from her life and the forest as a savage and wild animal. However, the identification of women with “nature” also brings to light to problematics associated with ecofeminism.

The only time Yeong-hye “speaks” fluently and coherently in the story is through the earlier mentioned italicised sections, which are all short and disjointed. These give insights to her behaviour: it is not so much that she is stubborn or strange, as the men perceive, or staging a riot against societal norms and expectations of wives and mothers as her sister assumes. She refuses to eat animals, and then plants, because she psychologically, when physically, identifies with them. The italicised paragraphs only appear when she still identifies only as an animal. She dreams of herself bodily identifying with the animals she has eaten before:

“Barbecuing meat, the sound of singing and happy laughter./ But the fear. My clothes still wet with blood. Hide, hide behind the trees… My bloody hands. My bloody mouth. In that barn, what had I done? Pushed that red raw mass into my mouth, felt it slick against my gums, slick with crimson blood./ Chewing on something that felt so real. But it couldn’t have been, couldn’t. My face, the look in my eyes… my face, undoubtedly, but never seen before. Or no, not mine, but so familiar… that vivid, strange, horribly uncanny feeling”.

Kang, 29

Through these dreams, she simultaneously recognises the horrible act of violence eating an animal inflicts upon the animal and identifies in a very physical way with the animal. When her family corners her and forces meat into her mouth, she violently responds by slashing her wrist so hard with a knife she ends up in hospital. In light of the dreams she has, this act is almost as if to say “I am one with this animal you are inflicting this violence upon”.

Another main trope in The Vegetarian is that of nudity. As Yeong-hye becomes increasingly animalistic, she begins to become increasingly comfortable with nudity. Her husband finds her sitting nude at home and at the hospital in front of everyone there. This nudity is explicitly tied to her identification as an animal: “She had removed her hospital gown and placed it on her knees, leaving her gaunt collarbones, emaciated breasts and brown nipples completely exposed. She had unwound the bandage from her left wrist, and was slowly licking at the sutured area as through the blood was leaking out. Sunbeams bathed her face and her naked body” (80-1). It even turns out that she has in her hand a bird she has caught and killed and bit into, as if a predatory animal. The identification of animals with nudity is an age-old one. To be uncomfortable with the naked body is explicitly a human trait.

Jacques Derrida shares about the discomfort he feels when standing naked in front of a cat: “Because it is naked, without existing in nakedness, the animal neither feels nor sees itself naked. And therefore it is not naked… Before the cat looks at me naked, would I be ashamed like an animal that no longer has the sense of nudity? Or on the contrary, like a man who retains his sense of nudity? Who I am therefore? Who is it that I am (following)? Whom should this be asked of if not of the other? And perhaps of the cat itself?” (Derrida 374).

Yeong-hye complete ease with her nakedness categorises her an “animal”. This nudity, however, discomfits those around her—it makes them look into the face of the other in a fellow human, one who should not be “other”. Confronting this animal otherness in another person also makes them recognise and confront the uncanny otherness within themselves. Yeong-hye holds this dystopian mirror up to them; her husband states—”I would be unable to conceal a feeling of abhorrence when I looked across at her” (Kang 53). Perhaps, this abhorrence he feels is directed towards himself.

The Vegetarian is an uncomfortable read because it makes readers contemplate these uncomfortable questions, of what makes us human, and how easily the boundaries of that definition can be challenged. Is turning the human into an animal as simple as dietary choices, or taking off one’s clothes? Is being “human” and not “other” dictated by but narratives? What about humans who are treated as “other”—where on the scale does that place them and what does this ambiguity say about ourselves?

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is a fascinating take on the contemporary animal rights movement, challenging the scaffolding of how we relate to the animals we eat, our food and perceived otherness.

You can get a copy of The Vegetarian to read here.

Other books related to the topic: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, Michael Pollan’s and The Omnivores’ Dilemma, which give more insight into how and what we eat.

Works cited:

Derrida, Jaques. “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow).” Critical Inquiry, vol. 28, no. 2, 2002, pp. 369-418.

Donaldson, Sue and Kymlicka Will. “Animal Rights and Aboriginal Rights.” Canadian Perspectives on Animals and The Law, 2015, 159-186.

Kang, Han. The Vegetarian. Translated by Deborah Smith, Hogarth, 2015.

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