***Mild Spoilers for The Vegetarian***
A core component of any good horror story is the characters’ apprehension of harm. Most of the time, the dread manifests as physical pain or violent death. Other times there are more abstract, existential ways of experiencing harm—a terrifying realization of past sins, slowly slipping into insanity, or losing one’s soul to a demonic entity. While physical pain will always be a powerful part of any scary story, an existential threat grabs me in a way most other types of horror don’t, probably because I have more to lose from an existential threat.
A realization that shakes a person to his core is, well, horrifying. It’s terrifying. Take the ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus, who realized he had unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. Or The Orphanage, where protagonist Laura realized she was the one responsible for the slow death of her adopted son. Bodily harm is awful and painful, but an earth-shattering existential realization can destroy the very idea of who a person thinks she is.
It can be extremely psychologically tortuous to deal with something like that, to be confronted with our mistakes and the lies we tell ourselves. People go to great lengths to preserve the reality they wish to see, even at the expense of themselves and others.
It’s destructive on a profound level, even more so if I am responsible for the obliteration of my sense of self.
The idea of self-destruction, of an unsettling, dark urge to protect oneself, of refusal, of stubborn persistence, is what fascinated me about The Vegetarian. It’s a novel about confrontation, about purposeful “self-destruction.”
The Vegetarian features a world of people caught up in their own lives and crushing social expectations, where stepping out of line is abhorrent and self-destruction is fearsome yet seductive. The novel asks uncomfortable questions about independence and autonomy, and prompted me to explore for myself how powerful and scary self-destruction can be.
The Vegetarian is an award winning novel, winning the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. Written by Han Kang and translated from the original Korean by Deborah Smith, The Vegetarian is, simply, the story of a strange, introverted woman named Yeong-hye who decides to stop eating meat. This proves to be a monumental shift, a disruption of seismic proportions, as her slimy husband and overbearing family cannot accept her behavior. Not only do they refuse to support Yeong-hye’s choice but they work to actively break her spirit and force her to comply with more “socially acceptable” behavior. But Yeong-hye, haunted by nightmares of blood and violence, will not be deterred from her goal. The more her family pleads with and brutalizes her, the more she holds on to her choice. And the more she holds on to her choice, the more she withdraws from the world entirely.
The Vegetarian is divided into three parts—the first is told from the point of view Yeong-hye’s selfish husband Mr. Cheong; the second from the point of view of Yeong-hye’s unnamed brother-in-law, and the third and final part is told from the point of view of In-hye, Yeong-hye’s more successful and socially agreeable sister. For each of these characters, Yeong-hye’s choices present frightening, existential challenges that upend their lives. For her husband, his formerly plain and docile wife becomes revolting and difficult; for her brother-in-law, she becomes an object of lust and obsession onto which he projects his own issues; for her sister, she represents a counterpart to her own measured, sad life.
The Vegetarian is not about vegetarianism in and of itself though I’m sure many vegetarians can identify with certain scenes where people feel entitled to make passive-aggressive comments to Yeong-hye about her eating habits. Yeong-hye, against the pleadings and physical abuse of her family, refuses to be shamed, which in turn infuriates those around her. People are generally perturbed when someone rejects social mores, but people re especially unnerved when the rejected social more relates to something so vital and quotidian as eating.
The same is true in the Vegetarian. It is a book about a woman’s autonomy and assaults on that autonomy. But while it’s impossible to not read The Vegetarian through a feminist lens, I felt that the story itself transcended a feminist parable. The novel presents a profound question of human existence, regardless of gender or sex. And while The Vegetarian is not a horror novel per se, it is creepy and challenging as hell. (To be honest, a dark and gothic film adaptation could very well push the story over into the truly horrific, especially concerning the more violent scenes of Yeong-hye’s descent into madness.
I really enjoyed The Vegetarian. It was original, wonderfully written, and creatively structured. My criticisms are nitpicky and made with the understanding that I read a translation. It’s difficult to criticize a novel when I can’t even read it in its original language. That being said, I felt like while most of the prose was smooth and ethereal, there were parts that got a little too tedious. I understand what the intent was, but it accomplished its point long before the tediousness ceased. That being said, I don’t know if that is flaw of the original novel or of this particular translation, and it’s a small flaw at that.
I would have liked more about Yeong-hye herself. The brief snippets of her dreams and feelings, which are the only parts of the novel written in the first person, were tantalizing. I wanted more of her. I wanted to see more of her internal state. I guess this is hardly a criticism, and is instead evidence that Han Kang created a compelling main character only to stifle her. This storytelling tactic mirrors the way in which the characters ignore and project their own realities onto Yeong-hye. Its oddly fitting that the true protagonist of the novel is never given an equal platform to tell her side of things, though her presence permeates the novel. She feels like a real, flesh and blood woman while being an ethereal ghost of a person. Even without much of a voice, she dominates the story without having to speak.
In fact, it was a bold choice to ground the narrative in Mr. Cheong, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, and her sister. Additionally, I was impressed by how distinctly each of the main characters was rendered. They felt like separate, unique people with their own thought processes, patterns of speech, desires, flaws, and blind spots. They felt organic, fully formed. They are clearly the antagonists to Yeong-hye’s protagonist; but in their eyes, she’s the antagonist. Her independence and rejection of social rules is something monstrous, weird and pitiful yet fascinating. She looms large in the life of each character. She must be controlled in some way, culled into submission once again.
It’s hard to ignore how much Yeong-hye’s body is not her own. Her husband and her brother-in-law may view her differently, but they both seek to dominate her physically as a way to regain their own sense of control in an uncertain world. Her husband is rough towards her and ends up raping her at least once. Her brother-in-law takes advantage of her shaky mental state to engage in intercourse (consent is dubious in that scene) all in the “pursuit” of “his art.” And her sister, adrift and lost in her own life despite being the “good” sister, a successful entrepreneur, a perfect mother, and long-suffering wife, cannot bring herself to honor Yeong-hye’s wishes.
And all because of her eating habits!
After all, Yeong-hye’s refusal to eat is a manifestation of her desire to withdraw from an endless cycle of consumption, of subjecting other living things to her appetites. Yeong-hye cannot bear the fact that her life comes at the cost of others. And so, she chooses to remove herself from humanity, slowly, painfully, but without hurting anything else. “I am not an animal anymore,” Yeong-hye explains to her distraught sister, who cannot understand Yeong-hye but can is terrified by the implications her sister’s condition presents.
On this level, her rebellion is more than just an escape from the perpetual system of subordination that she had experienced and witnessed in her society. She doesn’t want to be inflict harm just like she doesn’t want to be anyone’s object of disgust, lust, or pity. She wishes to abstain completely from violence of any kind, and eating is a violent act. Necessary, but violent. A life is lost to nourish another.
Even herbivores consume life. The only thing that is able to consume and thrive off of inanimate things is a plant. A tree takes sunlight, water, and nutrients from the soil and makes itself beautiful. To Yeong-hye, a tree is pure. To Yeong-hye, the world represents pain and harm and death, and she will have no part of it. In a strange way, her plan makes a lot of sense.
These poignant and astonishing themes made me realize how I too consume life in order to live. I won’t stop eating meat because of this novel, but the Vegetarian made me question my choices. I think of myself as a peaceful and considerate person. Am I really? Am I not complicit in the cruel and dirty practices of the food industry every time I buy milk or eat chicken? Even if I were to eat 100% ethically and become a vegan, I still have to consume. I am forced to confront my contribution and come to terms with a part of me that doesn’t fit in with my sense of self.
It’s a truth I’ve accepted. I’ll continue to consume and devour. I’ve judged my life to be worth more than those of the food I eat.
But am I correct?
My assumption seems safe, until I consider Yeong-hye’s decision and how uncomfortable it makes me.