Winner of the Man Book International Prize in 2016, The Vegetarian is quite a horrifying novel to read as I often found myself clenching my teeth in agony as Yeong-hye, the protagonist, suffers. Narrated in three parts by Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr. Cheong, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, and Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye, the novella reveals how Yeong-hye’s spiral downwards into schizophrenia, anorexia and mania affect each of their lives. The plot begins from the perspective of Mr. Cheong, as he explains that Yeong-hye, after experiencing a violent dream, suddenly renounces meat, finding her throwing all of the meat in their kitchen in garbage bags. When pressed, she simply says: “I had a dream.” She rapidly looses weight as her mind unfurls, also refusing to wear clothes and abide by conventional social norms, alarming her husband and her nuclear family. One day, at a family dinner, Yeong-hye’s father announces he has had enough of his insolent daughter disrespecting her husband’s and his own demands for her to eat meat. To the horror of the other family members, he forcibly grabs her, attempting to shove meat down her throat. After writhing away, she grabs a knife and slits her wrists.
The second part of the novella, Mongolian Mark, is told by In-hye’s husband, who realizes he has a perverted sexual desire to be with her. He convinces himself that as an artist, he has the authority to ask her to pose nude for him, so he can paint flowers on her body. His ultimate goal is to film them having sex, under a fabricated guise of artistic creation. He is disgusting; having witnessed her slash her wrists himself, he knows she isn’t sane, yet pursues her relentlessly and incessantly, pushing his wife and young son aside. Eventually he does make the film of the two of them; Yeong-hye at first feels that the flowers painted on both of their bodies has freed her from her bloody nightmare, but she realizes somehow he is raping her as he ejaculates inside. While he is asleep, In-hye comes to check on her sister, only to discover the film of her husband raping her sister. Yeong-hye is admitted to a psychiatric hospital while In-hye separates from her husband, unable to stomach what she now knows.
In-hye narrates the third part as she cares for her sister in the hospital and the reality of being a single mother sets in on her. She witnesses Yeong-hye begin to refuse to eat as Yeong-hye tries to become a plant, claiming all she needs is sunshine. Yeong-hye’s mental state worsens as predictably, the doctors do nothing but medicate her, even tranquilizing her in order to insert a feeding tube. In-hye’s life looses vigor as she struggles to stay afloat, contemplating suicide herself, but feeling she needs to live for her young son who is she says is still a happy child. Perhaps Yeong-hye turned out like this because their father abused her, her husband failed to protect her and her brother-in-law used her. In any case, there is no resolution at the end as Yeong-hye presumably looses her life because she refuses to eat.
Han’s prose is stunning, even translated in English. I was astonished how horrendous each of the male characters were portrayed as mysoginistic and egoistic beings who punished women at the expense of their carnal desires. One of the most gut wrenching lines was when In-hye’s husband says of her nude body something along the lines of it being something any man would desire as it was stereotypically beautiful, yet the body itself had renounced all desire. It was distressing how Yeong-hye says that nobody understood or listened to her, that all the doctors, nurses and her sister were the same. I wanted to help Yeong-hye, but her will to become a plant was so strong I had to let her go. In the end, I can’t say I liked the novel, but I appreciated Han’s explorations of mental illness, abuse and guilt and what the manifestations might looks like in a patriarchal and normative Korea.