The Complex Violence of Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”

Hey folks! Before we get into the actual post, I wanted to explain what this series is. I wrote a bunch of essays for my undergrad program and I’d rather put them up than forget about them. They’re a little rough around the edges from my current perspective, and they have a lot of literary jargon (since you need to put that in to not fail your classes). Plus I wrote most of them in one straight shot hours before the due date. I’ve done a little light editing to make sure the spelling, grammar, and general flow make sense, as well as changed anything that has become factually incorrect in light of new information. But for the most part, what you see is what I was two or three years ago as a student. I’ll provide a list of materials that you can read or reference, or just have on hand, to know where I was coming from/where the basis of the knowledge I was drawing from when I can.

This first essay is from a class about the writer Franz Kafka and both his body of works and his influence. It is primarily about the forms of violence depicted in The Vegetarian by Han Kang.

Primary Text: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Useful Materials:

The Complex Violence of The Vegetarian

One of Kafka’s chief concerns and a theme which comes up again and again are the ways in which we enact violence upon each other to the point where it could be said that violence is inherent to our being. Using the character of Yeong-hye, Han Kang explores this violence and the ways in which it is both enacted and received. However, the reason Kang’s depiction of different kinds of violence is so nuanced is that it differentiates both between the types of violence enacted upon Yeong-hye and the types of violence which she, herself, enacts upon others.

The book is framed around Yeong-hye’s sudden transformation: a morning where her husband stumbles upon her throwing away all the meat and animal products in the fridge due to a series of dreams she has. These dreams plague Yeong-hye and drive her further and further towards imitating a plant until it starts to kill her. The surface level of the novel is the physical and emotional violence that she receives. It is revealed that her father would beat her as a child, and her older sister would take up the role of a surrogate mother in order to avoid this. Yeong-hye gets into a marriage where there is no clear indication as to whether or not either party loved each other. Her husband sexually assaults her once she starts to refuse him in bed. And, yet, at the same time, Yeong-hye, herself, in the process of transformation is not entirely innocent either. One of the rare glimpses of her perspective recalls a dream-like sequence where she cuts her finger and a chip of the knife finds its way into her husband’s mouth. “The scarlet color, and now the taste, sweetness masking something else, left me strangely pacified” (Kang 27). Even as she harms herself, she is pacified by the sweetness of the blood, suggesting some remaining desire to indulge in violence. It is an act of self-consumption, of cannibalism, and of self-harm. In this sense, it is clear that the aim of Yeong-hye’s transformation is to redirect the violence toward herself, and to reframe it to be externalized rather than internalized. This, then, is the reason she starves herself, eventually refusing food altogether.

The second layer of violence is that of interpretation or translation. Aside from a couple brief passages that depict the dreams Yeong-hye has, we never get her perspective directly. Instead, we get it from those around her, a first person viewpoint from her husband in the first book, and third person limited viewpoints from her sister and brother-in-law. The act of communication, which in this case we can consider to be translation, is entropic in nature in that something is always lost between emission, reception, and cognition. Having the novel be largely from the point of view of people outside of Yeong-hye means that we get her interpreted, translated, to us. In that sense, they are enacting violence upon her and so are we. There is an almost voyeuristic aspect to the ways in which she suffers and we bear witness, and having our perspective come one level removed means that we, too, are enacting violence upon her character by interpreting the story.

And yet, Yeong-hye’s violence does not cease either. The sweetness of the blood is still masking something while pacifying her. At the end of book 1, her husband finds her outside the hospital, lips drenched in blood, gripping a dead bird. “Below tooth marks that looked to have been caused by a predator’s bite, vivid red bloodstains were spreading” (Kang 60). The repeated symbol of blood as some kind of vitality or energy suggests that these acts are Yeong-hye continuing to consume, whether it be herself or others. Additionally, the psychological toll her condition takes on her family can also be read in this way, as a sort of spiritual leeching of both In-hye and her husband. By the end of their respective arcs, both feel a desire to die, having expended all their life energy. It is only at the end when Yeong-hye has ceased to live as a human being and is convulsing, spewing blood onto the doctors, that she seems to give, energy flowing from inside her to outside.

It is the process of Yeong-hye forsaking her humanity and becoming passive like a plant that ultimately does the most damage to her family. In a sense, she is faultless, and at the same time she is acting in complete self-interest; the story mirrors the Metamorphosis in this way. At the end of the day, the violence experienced by Yeong-hye’s family at her hands turns out to be self-imposed, projected, only catalyzed by her sudden transformation. This becomes clear when In-hye looks into the eyes of her sister, “but all she sees reflected there is her own face” (Kang 172). This, in addition to In-hye’s husband’s obsessive drive for his art are what ultimately drive their self-destructions. The only ones who escape are Yeong-hye who transcends humanity, her husband, and her remaining family who cut off all contact.

The question, then, is to what end does Yeong-hye do this? Her transformation itself is also not actually sudden, but the result of a lifetime of internalized violence, that is, it was inevitable, just as it was inevitable that one day Gregor Samsa would turn into vermin. Her transformation lets her escape the binds of humanity, to let go of all desire and become something not quite human, but not quite an animal either. In-hye asks, “Might it be precisely that, death, which Yeong-hye is after, which she has been after from the first?” (Kang 161). Yeong-hye is, at least from a “normal” standpoint, clearly suicidal in refusing to eat, but this does not seem to be her goal. Rather, it seems that death becomes something almost incidental. It is not that she wants to die, but that she does not seem to care whether or not she dies. Considering this, Yeong-hye’s earlier acts of self-harm are just that: self-inflicted, self-facing violence. It is not the pursuit of suicide, but rather the only way to prevent oneself from enacting violence upon others. This is interesting because it interfaces directly with both Young-hye and In-hye’s positions as women in Korean society, having already been subjected to various kinds of violence. Young-hye is the only one amongst them that finds a way to break the cycle of human violence.

In the last stretch of the novel, In-hye admits, “she’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner” (Kang 148). In this moment, In-hye realizes exactly what the difference between her and her sister is and it deeply harms her. Yeong-hye has managed to escape the cycle of violence that perpetuates itself into oblivion. In-hye cannot cross this boundary, she cannot bring herself to forsake her humanity or to leave her family behind. She dreams about it, at the very end, about her son crying about her having transformed into a bird and flying away, but she reassures him that it is not the case. To be human is to do violence and the only way to escape is to escape personhood itself.

Many thanks to the following patrons who support the various projects I do: Tribalton, David K, Mikey Z, Sean D, SecretlyPaul, Pengwenpenguin, Claire W, Morgan GL, Crobisaur

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