Being the longtime crunchie veggie that I am, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was a must read. The drama-inducing and rather sensual, dark purple book cover piqued my curiosity. Don’t be fooled by the title; Cowspiracy it is not. This story has everything to do with social normativity and very little to do with food, animal rights, or the environment. So don’t let the title dissuade you, you guiltless meat eaters and those of the omnivore persuasion.
The protagonist is a petite South Korean lady, Yeong-hye, a rather unremarkable wife and homemaker. She transforms from meat-eater to strict vegan, mirroring her growth from submissive housewife to taboo-and-general-social-expectations-rule-breaker. What she eats and wears are just a physical and external manifestations of this internal change. This does not go over well with her family, and here the conflict of the story is born.
What was the trigger? Embarrassment. And discomfort. The husband and family were embarrassed because the people with opinions that mattered to them (aka people who represented and were a part of society) were uncomfortable. Yeong-hye’s dress and actions made those people feel uncomfortable. Eventually, her family member’s embarrassment turned to fear. They feared that they wouldn’t move up in the world, climb that social ladder, and check the boxes of “success”. Yeong-hye’s choice to forego wearing a bra at a nice business dinner made the other members of the party uncomfortable, and that negative response sparked the husband’s fear of being passed up for promotion. Apparently that feeling alone was enough to justify asking her to change, to not be herself, and to ignore her convictions.
While the story is certainly centered around Yeong-hye, much of the content is written from other characters’ perspectives and follows their own inner turmoil. To contrast her personal growth, her sister’s husband is there as a male counterpart, mirror, and antithesis. Yeong-hye denies herself anything coming from an animal, to lessen her guilt (from a recurring and condemning nightmare about animal death) her impact on other living creatures, and to reduce her ego and her self. The unnamed husband comes up with reasons to indulge his passions, particularly one fantasy of body painting and sleeping with Yeong-hye. For the sake of art, or perhaps for the sake of his rightful personal pleasure. Whatever will be sufficient justification in his own mind to do the dirty deed. If it were not for lying and his generally distasteful approach, the sister’s husband could even be empathized with and his selfish nature overlooked.
[Trigger Warning: sexual abuse beyond this point. Avoid strikethrough text to avoid this content should you want to read on. This section also contains the portion of the review that reveals major events and the ending of the novel.]
Mr. Cheong, the protagonist’s husband, however, takes the brunt of the readers righteous anger. While it could be argued that the parents and more distant relatives perhaps just do not understand, the husband is close. The foreshadowing grows throughout the book and hints of the atrocity about to occur, and with a style typical of the novel, brief and ambiguous, it becomes clear that Yeong-hye is being raped. Mr. Cheong’s attempt to control his wife and force her to conform manifests in a violent and horrifying act.
The Vegetarian is a personal, close up documentary of what can happen when individuals confuse social norms with morality. It is an exhibit of the potential cruelty of those, even and especially, those who are close to us. It is a compelling account of how easy it is to hurt and justify hurting others when the moral high ground is based only on society’s standards. Yeong-hye’s family attempts to force her and coerce her into conforming and uses logic based on the legality of social norms. “This is right because it’s normal” or “this is how we’ve always done things” or “it’s natural” are not arguments. They are defense mechanisms against situations in which we feel uncomfortable.
How many times, how many people have been in that situation? Asked to stop being different and instead remain within the proper social guidelines to placate family, so that their family feels safe and secure in their respect and financial security. Maybe you’re catching on to where I’m going with this, and why this book is an important commentary on societal change and flawed human nature, no matter what time period or geographic region.
What would have happened if the husband had not gotten a promotion? It would not have been the end of the world, that is for sure. And true, some taboos if broken can bring severe repercussions, including death depending on the local laws accompanying social norms. Some taboos should be broken with caution. Perhaps families are right to prevent social norms from being broken to protect the rebel from physical or emotional harm. And I respect people who, despite actively disagreeing with a societal norm, stay silent. The Vegetarian is not about the necessity of breaking out of normativity, it is about how utterly awful we all are capable of being to those who do.
In the end, Yeong-hye dies. Nothing is solved. No grandstand against injustice occurs, only perhaps on an individual scale in Yeong-hye’s decimated mind. Sure, she was a hero in her own right, but from a utilitarian perspective, she only saved a couple animals and prematurely ended her life. Only her older sister, In-hye, has some semblance of empathy left, and there a seed is planted. In-hye stays with her sister even after being admitted into a mental health facility and losing all material possessions, other personal relationships, and physical well-being. In-hye is the one who sits with her younger sister in the last moments of her transformation.
Let us all be the sister. Whenever we disagree or do not comprehend another human being, let us remember that, especially if society is on “our side”, there is no excuse to act without compassion. We may be tempted to find justification in the safety and security of the contemporary mindset, but at least I will try to refrain from doing so. If my argument and my convictions are not 100% founded in a loving philosophy, then the social norm that I am defending is probably not worth keeping in society anyways.