It’s easy to read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, a novel in which a woman goes vegan (and beyond), scandalising her family and disrupting her marriage, as a critique of repressive patriarchal Korean culture. But to stop there, with a sigh of relief at our relative freedom to eat as we please, would be to do Han’s masterpiece an injustice.
Haunted by violent dreams, the reticent Yeong-hye shuns meat, mortifying her husband, while her father tries to force-feed her. At this point, in the first of three linked novellas, it’s easy to empathise or even identify with her resistance; not hard to understand why she’d slash her wrist. And when, in the second part, she has sex with the artist husband of her sister, it’s easy to see his besotted objectification of her as an improvement on her cold-blooded businessman husband’s rape.
But in the third part, when Yeong-hye renounces all food, if not sunlight, having begun to identify with trees, some so-far-sympathetic readers may feel distanced, and interpret Yeong-hye’s subversive acts as symptoms. And madness is one of the novel’s main themes, but it’s not confined to Yeong-hye. Though she rates diagnoses of ‘anorexia nervosa’ and ‘schizophrenia’, the story still stands as an indictment of brutal Korean – and Western – society.
Some feminists or vegans, prone to literal reading, might feel betrayed that Yeong-hye succumbs to delusion, finally rejecting her own humanity. But it’s easy to misread characters (or creatures) if they don’t speak, or not in ways we understand. Which possibly makes it easier to compartmentalise compassion and, for instance, shun animal exploitation through ‘veganism’ than to renounce the ego, and know kinship with plants, not just animals.
Late in the novel, accused by Yeong-hye of being the same as psych-ward staff, her sister, In-hye, yells, ‘I’m acting like this because I’m afraid you’re going to die!’ After a silence, Yeong-hye asks, ‘Why, is it such a bad thing to die?’
No fate is worse than death from the perspective of the ego, which madness, by definition, unseats. But don’t all spiritual practices exist to free us from the ego’s prison – practices that represent the antithesis of today’s cult of the self? That Han, now 45, was ‘a very ardent Buddhist’ in her twenties comes as no surprise. And for critic Laura Miller, ‘the novel transmits a feeling of great stillness’.
Readers perplexed by the ambiguous ending might question Han’s intentions, and critics’ labels – fable, parable, allegory etc. – offer answers. But despite all analyses, the story retains rare power to haunt.
‘Buddhism is looking at things very clearly, without any preconceptions,’ Han says. ‘I don’t have religion any more, but that’s what I try to do in my writing.’