Prose

Prose Study: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

“Humanity is harmful, rageful, murderous, violent, grasping, jealous, greedy – all things she [Yeong-hye] doesn’t want to be. And so she defies us humans not only by becoming vegetarian, but by trying to become vegetation itself. She doesn’t want to stop living. She wants to stop living like us.”

Hana Masad writing in The Guardian
In this interview with Christian Lund in May 2019 at the Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, South Korean writer Han Kang reveals the story of how she became an author, and how writing helps her pierce her distrust in human beings.

Introduction

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is one of the most internationally well-known Korean novels. It is not a story about a vegetarian per se; rather, it is a work that investigates what constitutes suffering. It tells the story of Yeong-hye as related through the eyes of three members of her family: her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister In-hye. The story begins when Yeong-hye, seemingly from out of the blue, tells her husband she will no longer eat meat and proceeds to throw all the meat in their house away. However, in Korean society, social conformity is regarded as one of the most important social virtues. Yeong-hye’s refusal to eat meat therefore brings considerable embarrassment to her husband and father. So her decision backfires into a devastating conflict against an almost indomitable enemy: the reigning norms of the patriarchal Korean society of which she is also a member. When she determines to quit eating meat, all of society, including her own husband and family members, turn their backs against her and become her enemy.

Han Kang was born in Gwangju, South Korea, and studied Korean literature at Yonsei University. She wrote The Vegetarian in 2007, and following its translation and publication in English by Deborah Smith, Han Kang won the Man Booker Prize. In an interview, Han Kang revealed her obsession in college with a line from Yi Sang, a poet who lived through the Japanese occupation of Korea:“I believe that humans should be plants” — a line which became a source of inspiration for The Vegetarian.

IB Student Learner Profile: caring

When Yeong-hye makes her decision not to eat meat, her husband’s immediate reaction is to call her crazy. He makes no effort to understand her, or ask how she feels. Her father and mother are even worse, trying to force her to eat meat against her will. Her brother-in-law appears to have sympathy with Yeong-hye – but later he exploits her vulnerable condition for his own benefit. Only her sister appears to care about Yeong-hye, visiting her in hospital and belatedly coming to understand why Yeong-hye is willing to suffer so much. As you read Han Kang’s novel, think about the IB Learner Profile and consider how things might have turned out differently for Yeong-hye if some of the people in her life were just a little more caring, and a little less selfish, than they are.

IB Lang and Lit Concept: identity

Throughout part one of The Vegetarian, Yeong-hye recounts vivid and disturbing dreams filled with blood and meat. At one point she sees a reflection of her own face in a pool of blood, an image that throws her into confusion about herself: “What had i done?” she asks, and then, “My face, the look in my eyes . . . my face, undoubtedly, but never seen before. Or no, not mine, but so familiar . . .” Yeong-hye suffers severe confusion about her identity, because she has realised that the face of the meat-lover is her own. Her paradoxical statement that the face is strange and familiar at the same time shows her confusion about her own identity and difficulty to accept herself as a meat eater.

This image is what catalyses her decision to become vegetarian, which throws her into conflict with wider society. Therefore, a poignant theme of the novel is Yeong-hye’s struggle to hold onto her own identity in the face of strong opposition from her friends and family – even her own parents, husband and sister disagree with her decision to become vegetarian and try to force her to eat meat. Faced with these overwhelming odds, the novel traces Yeong-hye’s descent into madness and the gradual destruction of her independent identity.

Areas of Exploration Guiding Question

Han Kang’s unusual perspective on South Korean culture is only accessible to English readers because of the act of translation, which is the transformation of the original Korean language. It is only because of this transformation that a reader from outside South Korea can ‘hear’ Kang’s voice and understand her subversive, counter-cultural depiction of Korean society. However, the act of translation itself can sometimes be problematic. Read through the following resource, which tackles an issue in the translation of Han Kang’s work as well as the way an advertising company used parody in a new campaign. This will help you discuss the question:


1. Becoming Vegetarian

“By the time the twelve magnificent courses were over, my wife had eaten nothing but salad and kimchi, and a little bit of squash porridge.”

The Vegetarian, page 25
This image by Jen Yoon shows the moment when Mr Cheong returns to find his wife throwing away all the meat in the house. You can find more amazing artwork by Jen Yoon, inspired by The Vegetarian and other works of literature, by visiting her blog.

Resources

One night, Mr Cheong, the narrator of part one of The Vegetarian, finds his wife dressed in her long white nightgown, staring into the open refrigerator. He asks her repeatedly what she is doing, until she finally tells him that she had a dream. He finds his wife so remote that he does not feel able to reach out to her either physically or with words. The next morning, he sleeps past his normal waking time and, as he is rushing around to get ready for work, he is shocked that his wife is throwing out all the meat in the house. When he asks what is going on, she says cryptically that she had a dream.

So begins part one of Han Kang’s novel, beginning the tragic story of Yeong-hye’s physical, emotional and social disintegration. In this section, you’ll learn about the theme of breaking social convention. When Yeong-hye decides not to wear a bra, Mr Cheong’s instinctive concern is what others may think, since this action defied the traditional social conventions of Korean time and place. Secondly, Mr Cheong’s reaction to his wife’s sudden decision to become a vegetarian is severe, suggesting just how far out of convention her decision is.

Appetizer

Throughout most of part 1, Yeong-hye is not named and is only referred to as Mr Cheong’s ‘wife’. In a way, this highlights the essential unknowability of the character who is the story’s protagonist. What other aspects of the novel contribute to this idea?

Learner Portfolio

If you are a Language A: Literature student, at the end of your course you will sit Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis. This paper contains two previously unseen literary passages. SL students write a guided analysis of one of these passages; HL students write about both passages. The passages could be taken from any of four literary forms: prose, poetry, drama or literary non-fiction. Each of the passages will be from a different literary form.

Here are two passages taken from The Vegetarian; as this is a novel, the literary form is ‘prose’. Each passage is accompanied by a guiding question to provide a focus or ‘way in’ to your response. Choose one passage and complete this Learner Portfolio entry in the style of Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis.


2. Resistance and Defiance

“All she said was, ‘I do not eat meat’ – clearly enunciated, and seemingly not the least bit apologetic.”

The Vegetarian, page 38

Two important events play out in the second half of The Vegetarian (Part One). Firstly, Mr Cheong decides to take out his frustrations by forcibly having sex with Yeong-hye. After these interactions, Yeong-hye becomes nearly catatonic – she is not a willing participant in the sexual encounters. These incidents represent Mr Cheong trying to reestablish his control and power over his wife any way he can, since her continued decisions to not wear a bra or eat meat are interpreted as defiance and denial of his power over her.

SOup

A vivid image from this section is of Yeong-hye’s blood flowing up the intravenous tube that is feeding her and into the bag of nutrients. It is a very unusual image as her blood seems to run backwards. Given that blood is representative of a person’s essential life force, the image suggests that Yeong-hye’s life force is being sucked out of her by ‘conventional forces’, such as the traditional medical treatment she is receiving. What other conventions seem to ‘suck out’ her life force throughout the novel?

Secondly, Mr Cheong takes his wife to a family gathering – more of an intervention – which is one of the defining scenes of the novel. We meet the other members of her family, who join together over a lavish meat feast. Her father is a violent bully who leads the family as they gang up on Yeong-hye, taking turns telling her why she ‘needs’ to start eating meat again. By the end of this section, the reader is in no doubt that Yeong-hye’s situation is dire, and it’s unlikely she’ll ever be allowed to live life the way she wants to, as a vegetarian in peace.

Resources

Learner Portfolio

Yeong-hye is the subject of The Vegetarian, but not its protagonist or even quite its main character. Her voice is so rarely heard, her speech so rarely present, it would be more accurate to call her the object of the book if it weren’t for the fact that her actions speak louder than words…  This infuriates her husband, Mr Cheong, the narrator of the first portion of the book. He thinks that Yeong-hye is being ridiculous, whimsical rather than determined. When he finds her clearing out all the meat products from their fridge, including expensive seafood, he is incredulous. How is it possible that his docile, dull, quiet wife has turned into someone like this?’

This extract from a review of The Vegetarian (by Hana Masad) calls attention to the way the events of the story are narrated by everyone other than Yeong-hye. Indeed, apart from the transcriptions of her recurring nightmares, Yeong-hye’s thoughts and feelings are completely hidden from the reader. Therefore, you should write this Learner Portfolio entry from Yeong-hye’s perspective, explaining her thoughts and reasons for her actions in part 1 of the novel. You could include ideas about one or more of the following points:

  • Why you don’t like to wear a bra;
  • Your decision to give up meat;
  • Your refusal to have sex with your husband;
  • Your feelings in public;
  • Your feelings about certain members of your family;
  • Any other thoughts or feelings you want to express.

3. Defying Social Convention

‘He knew he had reached a point of no return. But he couldn’t stop now. No: he didn’t want to stop.’

Mongolian Mark, page 96

Part Two of the novel, called Mongolian Mark, shifts perspective onto a new central character: Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, the artist who sprang to her aid after she cut her wrists at the family gathering. When we first meet him again, he is leaving the performance of a sexually charged dance show, reflecting on how he had been disappointed with the performances. ‘The thing he’d been searching for was something quieter, deeper, more private’, he thinks as he rides the train past the home he shares with his wife and son – with no intention of getting off!

As the story continues, we follow the artist’s deepening obsession with Yeong-hye, which develops the novel’s central theme of breaking social convention. To begin with, the artist tries to resist temptation, but will he be able to do so as the relationship with his own wife seems ever more hollow? The artist is a complex character. On one hand, his past actions marked him out from the crowd who bullied Yeong-hye so mercilessly. He showed kindness and compassion. However, his treatment of his own wife, coupled with his increasingly sexually-charged obsession with Yeong-hye, not to mention the way he avoids responsibility towards his son, paint a less than positive picture. In the end, is he so different from the men around him, like Mr Cheong, who he so clearly despises? Read Mongolian Mark and come to your own conclusions.

Entree

During the conversation in the coffee shop between the artist and Yeong-hye, she laughs. This is actually the first time in the story that Yeong-hye can be heard laughing. Do you agree that Yeong-hye is seen at her happiest during Part Two of the novel? Why do you think this might be?

Resources

Learner Portfolio

TBC

4. Reclaiming Autonomy

‘She put her hand on J’s chest and gently pushed him down onto the sheet, then reached out and began to stroke the red flowers that led down his torso…’

Mongolian Mark, page 102

Mongolian Mark juxtaposes two important scenes which are both video shoots. In the first, the artist paints Yeong-hye and another man with flowers and films them in an erotic way – in fact, the scene is so sexually charged that the male model cannot complete the shoot.

In the second scene, the artist has himself painted with flowers and films himself and Yeong-hye together – but this time, they are having sex for real. The juxtaposition of the two scenes shows us both the best and worst of the artist’s character, as he finally abandons his pretence of being motivated primarily by artistry and gives in to his physical desire for Yeong-hye. There is the clear sense, in this moment, that while his initial desire to be a productive artist may have been at least a partial motivator of his actions, it has become overwhelmed by his base sexual desires.

Dessert

A Mongolian mark is a type of birthmark with a wavy, uneven shape. How might this symbolise Yeong-hye’s character? What other ideas from the novel might the Mongolian mark symbolise or represent?

Resources

Learner Portfolio

In 2009, debut film director Lim Woo-seong adapted Han Kang’s novel into his first film. It was released at the Busan Film Festival and, while it was impressive enough to be invited to the Sundance Film Festival in 2010, overall reviews of the film were mixed.

Watch Lim Woo-seong’s version of Han Kang’s novel (titled only ‘Vegetarian’) and read one or two of the reviews. Then, write your own review of this movie, comparing it to the novel you have read. Why do you think the director made certain changes and do you think they worked? What has been gained and lost in adapting the novel into a film like this? Comment on aspects of the adaptation that you feel are successful and less successful.

5. Misunderstanding and Madness

“You’re insane. You’ve completely lost it.”

Mr Cheong, page 11
The novel concludes with an image of trees caught in the sun, as if they are flaming. As the novel comes to it’s end, trees become an important touchstone for both Yeong-hye and In-hye.
Aperitif

At the beginning of Part Three it is raining insistently and In-hye seems shrouded in the gloom of confusion. What happens to the weather as the novel reaches its end? How does the transformation of nature reflect In-hye’s own transformation?

Resources

The perspective shifts once more in the third and final section of the novel, which is narrated from In-hye’s point of view. This is arguably the most cleverly structured part of the story, as it continually shifts from the present, as In-hye proceeds on a visit to the hospital where Yeong-hye is being treated, to the past, where we find out more about Yeong-hye’s childhood and the events that have brought her to this point.

Part Three deepens the web of connections between Yeong-hye and the natural world, even as she tries to sever all her connections to the human world. Yeong-hye’s experiences in the past have propelled her into a kind of transformation, and, ultimately, into a kind of suicide. As she refuses her medication, and even rejects all attempts by the doctors to feed her, the story becomes darker and darker and more difficult to read.

By contrast to all the darkness and suffering, though, the novel ends with a powerful image of trees seeming to burn in the sunlight; this image is so significant that the third part is named Flaming Trees. The trees seem to represent Yeong-hye and In-hye, who increasingly shares her sister’s suffering. On one level, the image reminds us of their destructive experiences, such as at the hands of their father. However, on another level, the image is beautiful and defiant, evoking a sense that In-hye is also being transformed, just like her sister, by her clarity of thought and powerful desire for a new identity.

Learner Portfolio

Write this Learner Portfolio in the style of a practice Paper 2 response. You can use one of the prompts below, or another prompt given to you by your teacher. Although Paper 2 requires you to write about two literary works, for the sake of this exercise you could focus only on your response to The Vegetarian, or you could try to compare your ideas to another literary work you have studied.

Choose one of the following prompts (or use another prompt you may have been given), talk with your teacher about how to approach and structure your writing, then complete your portfolio entry:

  1. How valid is the assertion that literary works are a voice for the oppressed?
  2. Demonstrate how a comparatively insignificant event can take on considerable importance in at least two of the works you have studied.
  3. Can it be concluded that characters are better judged by their actions, not their words?
  4. Identify some of the forms intolerance can take, and discuss how its effects on both the victims and the intolerant are presented in two of the works you have studied.

Towards Assessment: Higher Level Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length. (20 Marks).

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

If you are a higher level student, once you’ve finished studying The Vegetarian you could consider using this novel to write your Higher Level Essay. You might like to think about some of these ideas to help you formulate your line of investigation. Of course, this list is just a starting point and is not exclusive nor exhaustive; you should feel free to come up with your own ideas based on your own interests and class notes instead:

  • Explore the symbolism of eating meat in The Vegetarian by Han Kang.
  • What is the importance of narrative perspective in Han Kang’s novel, The Vegetarian?
  • In what ways does Han Kang develop Yeong-hye’s conflict with society in her novel The Vegetarian?
  • Explore the depiction of suffering in The Vegetarian by Han Kang.
  • Why are dreams essential to the characterisation of Yeong-hye in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian?
  • What is the role of flowers and plants in The Vegetarian by Han Kang?
  • Investigate the themes of misunderstanding and madness in The Vegetarian.
  • How does Han Kang’s The Vegetarian explore ideas about language?

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

“Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

The Vegetarian would be a good choice to discuss in this oral assessment. The novel explores powerful themes such as isolation, madness, loneliness, conforming to social pressure, domestic violence and feminism. Once you have finished reading and studying the novel, spend a lesson working with the IB Fields of Inquiry: mind-map the novel, come up with ideas for Global Issues, make connections with other Literary Works or Body of Works that you have studied on your course and see if you can make a proposal you might use to write your Individual Oral.

  • Field of Inquiry: science, technology and the environment
  • Global Issue; exploitation of the natural world
  • Possible pairings (Lit): John Keats selected poems;
  • Possible pairings (Lang and Lit): Alison Wright’s photography; How Did We Get Into This Mess by George Monbiot; Shell video adverts.

Yeong-hye begins the novel as a model housewife; she cooks for her husband, looks after the house, and is properly deferent. When she suddenly decides to become vegetarian, her husband interprets this as a challenge to his authority. Alongside her father, he tries to force her to eat meat again. For this reason, Yeong-hye’s decision can be understood as one woman’s challenge against the prevailing social patriarchy, where men believe they have the right to tell women what to do with their own bodies.

Yeong-hye’s transformation begins when she has a recurring dream full of disturbing images of meat and murder. These dreams not only represent Yeong-hye’s suppresed memories of abuse, but also reveal her insight into the role of human violence in the production of food. Her choice to become vegetarian has real-world relevance in a time when meat consumption is on the rise – despite the fact that animal agriculture is a prime driver of climate change and in the face of appalling animal welfare issues in the production of meat.

Categories:Prose

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