The Vegetarian Summary

Han Kang

The Vegetarian

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The Vegetarian Summary

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The Vegetarian is a 2015 novella by Han Kang, published in Korean and translated to English. The novella is based on the idea from a short story she originally wrote in 1997. It is divided into three sections that circle around Yeong-hye, a homemaker, who the reader doesn’t hear from except for short first-person sections denoted by their italics. Instead, each section is narrated by a different family member: her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. It is set in contemporary South Korea, giving it the context of a polite society that often denies erotic freedom and demands conformism as well as familial devotion. The tone is often uncomfortable, conveyed through stripped down prose, aligning with its main theme of the potential cruelty of humanity.

The first part, titled “The Vegetarian,” is narrated in first-person by Mr. Cheong, Yeong-hye’s husband. He is a traditional and rigid man. Routine is a big part of his life, and one day, when Yeong-hye declares she’s becoming a vegetarian, this routine is disrupted. Not eating meat is also a cultural more and embarrasses Mr. Cheong. Her choice comes from a recurring and disturbing dream about the brutal treatment of animals in the meat industry. In his narration, Mr. Cheong describes his lack of sympathy and love for his wife. He originally married her because he thought she would be as plain and conventional as himself. This held true until she started having the recurring dream, and his controlled lifestyle changes. She rids the house of meat, doesn’t eat out with friends, and has trouble even eating in with her family. Overall, her mental state is becoming more and more unstable as months pass. Mr. Cheong can no longer tolerate it and plans an intervention. At the intervention dinner, her father hits her and tries to force-feed her pork. This disturbs her so greatly that she grabs the knife from the table and unsuccessfully tries to commit suicide by cutting her wrists. It is later revealed that Mr. Cheong has made preparations for divorce.

The next part, titled “Mongolian Mark,” is narrated in third-person by Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, who is married to her sister In-hye. He is a graphic artist, especially interested in erotic filmmaking. He imagines a scene of a couple having sex painted in flowers. When he finds out that Yeong-hye has a birthmark that resembles a flower, he is convinced fate has connected them and she is the woman from his artistic fantasies. He first creates a series of sketches featuring her. His obsession eventually takes over and destroys his marriage. After convincing Yeong-hye to sleep with a fellow artist (which the artist ultimately refuses), he has another friend paint him in flowers, and sleeps with Yeong-hye himself while recording the encounter. His wife finds the tape and reports their actions to “emergency services.” The brother-in-law contemplates taking his own life by jumping off a balcony but remains “rooted to the spot” (a significant plant reference) and is escorted away by the authorities.

For the final part, titled “Flaming Trees,” the narration is transferred to In-hye herself, narrating in alternating present and past tense. In-hye has divorced her husband. In the present tense, she describes a visit to her sister, who now lives in the mental hospital. Her condition is getting worse and worse, where, beyond refusing to eat anything now, she also begins refusing any human interaction. In-hye comes to the realization that Yeong-hye’s actions have all been for the purpose of living an independent life that In-hye herself desires, revealing some of her own tendencies towards depression and mental illness. She believes her sister is courageous.

At the end of the novel, Yeong-hye’s narration reveals that she believes the only way to avoid the cruelty of humans is to become a plant. During her stay at the hospital, she has become more and more plant-like. In an incident where she manages to escape, she is found standing in a forest in the rain, acting as if she were a tree. She later announces that she has in fact become a plant. When doctors attempt to force-feed her, much like the incident with her father at dinner, In-hye bites the nurse holding her down and takes Yeong-hye away with her. As they ride a train together, Yeong-hye looks out the window observing the trees, feeling affinity, love, rightness, truth, and support from them.

In Han Kang’s novella, characters struggle to relate and understand those around them. Both desire and shame are evoked from their failed relationships. Although the novella seriously engages with animal cruelty and the meat industry, the title and Yeong-hye’s choice to become a vegetarian is more symbolic. The meat industry is an allegory for inflicting violence. Her choice to be a vegetarian represents her understanding of human violence and the power of the body. The choice, which is inherently anti-conformist in Korean society, is part of her desire to establish her own identity.

Yeong-hye’s “transformation” into a plant is significant; living as a plant relates to innocence and the ability to entirely avoid cruelty. Plants grow, live in harmony, produce oxygen for the greater good, then die. It is a harmless and innocent existence. Yeong-hye’s life crumbles as she accepts the belief that the world is a cruel place, but in many ways, she is free according to her own definition. In-hye’s story, on the other hand, is about the inability to find happiness. Her attempts to be a good wife, mother, and sister prevent her from finding her own happiness, or even knowing what that would look like. Her story shows how those who seem to have a “perfect life” are not immune to mental illness, depression, and instability. Ultimately, in their rigid conformist society, it is the women who are denigrated for seeking to establish their own identity.