Book Club Society discusses The Vegetarian by Han Kang

A new society at the university, Book Club Soc had their first meeting on 30 September. The meeting was an unexpectedly riotous success, seeing more than 40 people show up to discuss the book of the month, Man Booker Prize winner Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. A haunting tale of obsession, sexuality, and mental illness, the novel follows Yeong-hye, the eponymous vegetarian, whose graphically violent and disturbing dreams prompt her to stop eating meat. Avoiding sleep and eating as little as possible, she starts to spiral, much to the dismay and anger of her bewildered family. This novel in translation is split into three parts: each one more rife with poignant ideas and themes that bear discussing.

We first considered the dark, sexual themes that pervade the novel, particularly prevalent in the scene where Yeong-hye is force-fed meat by her father at a family dinner in the first part. I hardly need to detail the vulgar connotations of such a violent destruction of boundaries. As if to hammer the point home, Kang echoes this double-entendre at the end of the novel, where doctors try to insert feeding tubes into a slowly starving Yeong-hye as she thrashes and refuses. Male sexual aggression abounds in the book, especially from family members: the obsessive behaviour by Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law is a striking example. His hyper-sexualisation of her Mongolian mark, a symbol of her innocence and childhood, is nothing short of vile. With Yeong-hye described as “the kind of woman whose goodness is oppressive,” this is certainly a novel of women’s power struggle in a man’s world.

Going on to discuss the recurring theme of nature in the novel, we wondered about the significance of Yeong-hye’s obsession with nature. Although she starts unexceptionally by moving towards a plant-based diet, by the end of the novel she becomes insistent on becoming a tree. Trees are sturdy, they do no harm – with her whole life a spinning and shaking mess, it is only in the grasps of nature that she can steady herself. Refusing to eat or sleep she hopes will bring her closer to her goal: “why,” she asks when questioned on her motives, “is it such a bad thing to die?”

Finally, we considered how our own cultural biases impacted our understanding of the novel. Originally written in Korean and set in Korea, there are intricacies of the world Kang builds that Westerners inevitably find it difficult to empathise with. We wondered whether reading the novel in the original Korean would be illuminating. We were all taken aback by Yeong-hye’s family’s extreme reaction to her vegeterianism, a passing annoyance at worst in the West, and her husband’s desire for her to be ‘demure and restrained’, a conservative view that has no place in 21st century liberal circles. Whether this was meant to be a reflection – albeit an overly exaggerated one – on Korean culture, or whether the reader is meant to be appalled by the family’s behaviour remained unclear to us.

 

Book Club Society will next meet at the end of October to discuss Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge.

 

Image: Portobello Books

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