In the animal body: Review of The Vegetarian by Han Kang

by Chandra Ganguly

VegetarianI was sitting in an open air café, out under a midday sun, as I read Han Kang’s Booker prize-winning book, The Vegetarian. I was cold. That is what the book does to you. The story turns the choicelessness in the life of a woman into a motif that chills and frightens the reader. The story centres around the decision of the protagonist, Yeong-hye’s decision to become a vegetarian. Her husband had married her because as he says in the opening lines of the book that he, “always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” The book then proceeds to turn that statement on its head.

Following a series of violent dreams, Yeong-hye decides to stop eating any form of meat. That begins a violent story of her fight for freedom and the societal suppressions and consequences of a woman’s right to choose and own her own body. The book is rife with instances of human cruelty, man to animals, man to man. “The lives of the animals I ate have all lodged there. Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny, and though the physical remnants were excreted, their lives still stick stubbornly to my insides.” (p.56) These animals that were slaughtered in her childhood that she ate haunt her in the book. They and the dog that was tortured before being killed and eaten because it had bitten her, “… the dog is frothing at the mouth. Blood drips from its throat, which is being choked with the rope. Constantly groaning through its damaged throat, the dog is dragged along the ground…. As blood and froth mix together, I stand stiffly upright and stare at those glittering eyes.” (p.49)

The descriptions of such human cruelties are compelling in their plain but detailed descriptions. When the protagonist does not want to eat meat, she is forced, slapped, hospitalized, ostracized and eventually put in a mental institution. The extreme results of such an apparently simple decision is disturbing. Running parallel to this story of human cruelty in its basest forms is the story of human sensuality and the experience of pleasure in its also almost animal and primeval forms.

Sensuality is explored in the relationship that the protagonist develops with her brother-in-law who is an artist. He hears about the birthmark Yeong-hye has on her buttocks and is deeply and strangely stirred by it. “He held her at the waist and stroked the mark, wishing that he could share it with her, that it could be seared onto his skin like a brand. I want to swallow you, have you melt into me and flow through my veins.” (p.121) It is only in this relationship with him that Yeong-hye displays any joy. She cries, she laughs and she revels in the sensuality that take away her dreams of cruelty that had stopped her from eating meat in the first place.

In the end, Yeong-hye displays all signs that she is becoming a tree or a vine. She stands on her hands for hours like a tree standing on its arms, and she feels herself leave the animal state, and says, “I am not an animal anymore, sister… I don’t need to eat anymore.” (p.159)

Is this the only way to escape the human condition? The humanness that makes us cruel knowingly or unknowingly by the choices we make in food and clothing, the humanness that makes us need food, the state that exalts in pleasure and pain? Is it because as a woman, she and by extension all women have so little say for what she wants, that this is her only way out? This annihilation? “It’s your body, you can treat it however you please. The only area where you’re free to do just as you like. And even that doesn’t turn out how you wanted.” (p.182)

We are animals, our lives and our bodies meaningless receptacles of pleasure and pain, our existences an endless series of occasions where we create more pain and our actions are inevitably cruel. There is no solution, there is no answer. Such is the human state and the book leaves us bewildered, lost and looking for answers. But perhaps there are none?

Chandra Ganguly lives in Palo Alto, California.She writes about the clash of cultures, loss of identities and the search for meaning.She is a pursuing her MFA in writing at Bennington College.