As a vegetarian myself, I had mixed feelings about this book.
In The Vegetarian, the main character (although is she the main character, if we so rarely see the story from her point of view?) Yeong-Hye has a series of violent dreams which make her realize that meat is repugnant. But then, you know, she totally disintegrates mentally and spends her last tortured days trying to metamorph into a tree, so. I can speak from experience and say that’s not the general vegan trajectory.
*Warning: this contains many, many spoilers*
Moving on, damn this was a very dark book. As I’ve described above, the central conflict that gets everyone in a tizzy is that Yeong-He, a homemaker in South Korea, stops eating meat. Simple enough, right? Wrong. The three very distinct sections, or “acts,” as the dustjacket of my copy claims, are told from different points of view.
The first section is a first-person perspective from Mr. Cheong, Yeong-Hye’s husband. This first section was my favorite because Mr. Cheong is so unapologetically awful, it’s intriguing. Unlike some narrators who are bad but try to convince you that everyone else is bad, Mr. Cheong plainly, almost innocently, says exactly how he feels about the situation:
“I’ve always inclined toward the middle course in life. At school, I chose to boss around those who were two or three years my junior, and with whom I could act the ringleader, rather than take my chances with those my own age…”
Right? Absolutely no pretense about his shittiness as a person. His self-reflection is honest but it is not the type that leads to any self-improvement.
His wife’s independent choice to avoid meat completely throws him off. He sees her as a utility in his house. She cooks the food, gets his clothes ready for him, sometimes has sex with him. When she stops performing the functions that he expects, he is absolutely flabbergasted. When she becomes paler and skinnier from not eating meat , he gets her family involved. (As a side note: not eating animals or their secretions doesn’t instantly make someone weak, frail, and sickly. Yeong-Hye’s got other problems. It’s not the diet! It’s not the diet! See? My view of this book is totally skewed.)
The next act of the book is told in the third person, from the point of view of Yeong-Hye’s brother-in-law. He is a video artist who becomes infatuated with the idea of painting flowers on Yeong-Hye and filming someone having sex with her. As one does? Unlike the refreshingly horrible Mr. Cheong, he’s the sort of guy who’s awful but guiltily languishes in his own misdeeds. He’s sexually attracted to his clearly mentally ill sister-in-law, and this is the sort of thing he says about it:
“Right at that moment, he wanted nothing more than to spit at those red, lined eyes. He wanted to pummel his cheeks until the blood showed through beneath his black beard, and smash his ugly lips, swollen with desire, with the sole of his shoe.”
Like Mr. Cheong, he sees Yeong-Hye as little more than a collection of body parts that suits a purpose. He’s overcome with desire for a woman who has clearly begun to separate from reality. Whereas Mr. Cheong only wanted a woman who existed in sturdy material form, the brother-in-law fetishizes those unmoored and strange qualities she displays. But both men are, in their gaze, aggressively asserting their own agenda onto Yeong-Hye’s body and spirit.
The third and final section is told from both the third person and first person point of view of In-Hye, Yeong-Hye’s sister. She’s the only person who remains by Yeong-Hye’s side while the rest of the family has utterly abandoned her. I found the language to be the most beautiful in this section, with long and ruminative descriptions as Yeong-Hye, now incarcerated in a psychiatric ward, stops eating altogether, soaks in the sun, and does handstands to try and turn into a tree (again, just to be clear, most vegans don’t take this route).
In this section, we follow In-Hye’s thoughts as she suffers from insomnia and extreme depression following the loss of her husband (the weird video didn’t go over too well) and the aftermath of her sister’s incarceration. Like the men in the two chapters before, In-Hye has always used her sister. Unlike the two men, In-Hye comes to a realization of this behavior in one of the book’s most poignant moments of self-reflection:
“Yeong-Hye had been the only victim of their father’s beatings… As the eldest, In-hye had been the one who took over from their exhausted mother and made a broth for her father to wash the liquor down, and so he’d always taken a certain care in his dealings with her. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, In-hye could see that the role she had adopted back then of the hard-working, self-sacrificing eldest daughter had been a sign not of maturity but of cowardice.”
Out of all the characters, In-hye comes the closest to understanding Yeong-hye’s mental state, only because she herself is also falling apart. So we have these cycles of exploitation present in the book. Mr. Cheon uses Yeong-hye to achieve an average family life. The brother-in-law fetishizes her for his creepy-ass artistic vision. In-hye uses Yeong-hye to make herself into a sacrificial martyr figure so she can stay smug and protected.
Reading the book, a book that centered on Yeong-hye’s very intense pain during her transition from woman to tree, I felt almost complicit in these characters’ treatment of Yeong-hye. There are very few instances in the book where we get to hear from Yeong-hye’s point of view. Once or twice, in the first act, we get to hear her first-person description of the dream that drove her to vegetarianism, but that’s it. Aside from that, we just get to see the way her disintegration and separation from reality affects the people around her.
She receives no genuine empathy or compassion. Her family sees her as a reflection of their own desires. In the end, even Yeong-hye’s wishes for her own body remain unfulfilled as the doctors force-feed her to save her life. Everything’s an imposition.
Is this something we do to people? Especially people who are different? If they make us uneasy, to we want nothing but distance from them? If they’re vulnerable, do we use them to make ourselves feel brave?
The woman at the center of this story stops eating, stops wearing clothes, and separates completely from reality. But how much do we hear from her? A couple sentences? One lone paragraph description of her dream amid a sea of other people’s self-centered perceptions?
To me, this was a novel about ultimate loneliness. About manipulation. Control. The ways people use each other. And although I felt frustrated throughout the book that Yeong-hye never got her own “act” in a story that was, after all, totally about her, I understood by the end of the novel that the point of view was important here.
Yeong-hye is onto something with her vegetarianism: she recognizes the inherent violence of treating living creatures as objects. Because of her dreams, she no longer wants to engage in the brutality of objecthood. Each act of the novel demonstrates that veil of objectivity we place in front of others. Too often, we relegate others to mere players in our personal narratives instead of seeing them as subjects in their own regard, deserving of empathy and compassion.