The Vegetarian Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 33-page guide for “The Vegetarian” by Han Kang includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 3 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Individual Versus Society and Patriarchy’s Impact on Women.
Translated by Deborah Smith and originally published in 2007 as three separate short stories, Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian still functions as three distinct parts, which weave together in a powerful narrative about the manifestation of childhood trauma in adult life. The parts proceed chronologically as the characters deal with the ramifications of Kim Yeong-hye’s decision to become vegetarian.
In the opening part of the novel, Mr. Cheong articulates his frustrations with his newly vegetarian wife. A man who is distinctly “inclined toward the middle course in life” (12), Mr. Cheong finds himself angry with his wife whenever she breaches the social contract, whether at home or publicly. As she continues inconveniencing him and ignoring his wishes, he begins raping her. He feels “shut out” (25) of Yeong-hye’s dreams and decides “this strange situation had nothing to do with ” (26). As Mr. Cheong continues to find his wife’s behavior both alienating and disturbing, Yeong-hye descends deeper into her frightening dreams of blood and murder. At a family meal designed to intervene in Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism, Mr. Cheong watches her father slap her twice against the face. After her father forces her to put meat into her mouth, Yeong-hye cuts her own wrist. At the hospital, Mr. Cheong wakes up to find that Yeong-hye is missing; he finds her in the garden, naked from the waist up, holding a small bird with bite marks in it. Later, he will divorce her and cut ties with her family.
The second part of the novel takes place about a year later and follows Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, a mixed media artist. After some hesitation, the brother-in-law decides to act on his fascination with Yeong-hye and her Mongolian mark, which he has heard about from his wife and Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye. Throughout this part of the novel, the brother-in-law neglects In-hye, yet on the night he decides to start the painting project, he has sex with In-hye until she cries. The brother-in-law films himself painting flowers over Yeong-hye’s naked body. Yeong-hye is happy with the flowers because they subdue her dreams. The brother-in-law decides to proceed with the next phase of his imagined work and films Yeong-hye having sex with his friend and fellow artist, J, who is also painted with flowers. Unfortunately, J feels uncomfortable during the filming, and the brother-in-law is dissatisfied. Because it appears that Yeong-hye will only have sex with the brother-in-law if he is also painted with flowers, he asks his ex-girlfriend, P, to paint his body. When the brother-in-law arrives at Yeong-hye’s apartment, they have sex multiple times on camera. When he wakes up the next day at Yeong-hye’s apartment, In-hye is waiting for him at the kitchen table. Yeong-hye stands naked at the railing on the porch, and the brother-in-law contemplates throwing himself over the railing. In-hye has called the police, and the medics arrive in time to stop him from killing himself.
The final part of the novel takes place at the psychiatric hospital where Yeong-hye is a patient. In-hye narrates, alternating between the present and past as she reflects on memories. Yeong-hye’s condition is getting worse: Beyond refusing to eat anything, she also begins refusing any human interaction. After the doctors make a final failed attempt to feed Yeong-hye, they decide they must transfer her, and In-hye accompanies Yeong-hye in the ambulance. In-hye realizes that Yeong-hye’s actions have all been for the purpose of living an independent life, separate from her father’s abuse and the cruelty of the world. As the novel closes, In-hye looks out at the trees through the ambulance window, “as if waiting for an answer” (188).