“Before the nightmare, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life. But when splintering, blood-soaked images start haunting her thoughts, Yeong-hye decides to purge her mind and renounce eating meat. In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision to embrace a more “plant-like” existence is a shocking act of subversion. And as her passive rebellion manifests in ever more extreme and frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement begin to send Yeong-hye spiraling deep into the spaces of her fantasy. In a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, her now dangerous endeavor will take Yeong-hye—impossibly, ecstatically, tragically—far from her once-known self altogether.
A disturbing, yet beautifully composed narrative told in three parts, The Vegetarian is an allegorical novel about modern day South Korea, but also a story of obsession, choice, and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.”
I’ve had this book for a long, long time. It’s a book that I’ve been a little hesitant to pick up and I needed to be in the right mood to. This book is a pretty wild ride and it’s like watching a horror/psychological thriller movie. The best way that I can describe this book is bizarre and surreal. While reading this book I, as the reader, felt like the line between dream and reality got incredibly blurred. By the end of it I wasn’t sure what the reality was anymore either.
The story is split in three parts. While the story itself centers mostly on Yeong-hye’s descent, it is never taken from her point of view. Each part is separated into three different points of view: her husband, her brother-in-law, and her older sister. Now the novel was originally written in Korean and while I’m not completely fluent in the language it was pretty easy to tell. The style of writing is very Korean. The language is a bit stiff and borders on formal, but that’s just the nature of Korean narration. However, the story in itself is pretty straight forward and each part takes place usually a few months after the previous one so it’s quite easy to follow.
Now I think a large part of this story was carried through the characters. Yeong-hye mentions more than once that she never fully explains why she’s become a vegetarian. She says that no one understands her and through those words, neither does the reader. I never fully understood what was going on, but I just felt like I no longer knew what was reality and what was a dream in the scope of The Vegetarian. This is really emphasized by the fact that we see her story through three different people rather than Yeong-hye herself.
That being said I think each character spoke of different aspects of what I’ve seen in Korean culture.
Yeong-hye’s husband portrayed the pretty typical Korean male. He expects his wife to provide for everything in the home while he brings in the income and when that order is disturbed, he becomes increasingly aggressive.
Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law is a man who is probably the complete opposite. He’s a selfish man who is obsessed with his art but has nothing to show for it. His part of the novel was probably the most difficult to get through. It was incredibly sexual, and frankly, overall creepy. He’s lusting after Yeong-hye whilst being married to her sister and he does a lot of stuff in his part of the novel that are just borderline incomprehensible.
Yeong-hye’s sister is a woman that’s followed everything that is expected in the modern Korean woman. She’s a mother, she cares for the home, and she’s done everything that is expected of her, the only exception being that she’s the main breadwinner of her home. I think her part was probably the easiest to read. She makes a lot of self discoveries while also caring for Yeong-hye and she ends the novel with an open ending that really leaves me with more questions than answers.
I came into this novel thinking that it would be a social commentary on Korean beauty standards, but this was quite the ride. I never expected to be so confused, appalled, and, at parts, disgusted. Yeong-hye’s life choice to become a vegetarian has become the catalyst for a lot of ugliness that was drawn out from the people around her. The novel left me questioning rather than content, but I honestly don’t think it could’ve been written any other way. While I didn’t feel content at the end, it definitely felt like the right kind of ending.
This novel really reminds me of the recent Korean film “The Handmaiden”.
A large, large content warning for: sexual assault, attempted suicide, and gore.