The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith) – #BookReview

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Synopsis of The Vegetarian (by Han Kang):

In The Vegetarian (by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith), Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life before the nightmares began. But when splintering, blood-soaked images start haunting her thoughts, Yeong-hye decides to purge her mind and renounce eating meat.

In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision to embrace a more “plant-like” existence is a shocking act of subversion. And as her passive rebellion manifests in ever more extreme and frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement begin to send Yeong-hye spiraling deep into the spaces of her fantasy.

In a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, her now dangerous endeavor will take Yeong-hye—impossibly, ecstatically, tragically—far from her once-known self altogether.

First Sentence:

“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her.” The Vegetarian (by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith).

My Opinion of The Vegetarian:

The first time I read The Vegetarian (by Han Kang), I thought it to be a very strange book. But after the second and third times I read it, I finally understand why it was considered such a great book.

Especially in a time where the #MeToo movement is spreading across not just the United States of America but also South Korea and the rest of the world.

Just take a look at these protest movements by Korean women this year:

“My Life is Not Your Porn” – 60,000 South Korean women take part in the fifth protest against hidden-camera photography in Seoul (South China Morning Post, 13 October 2018)

“How a masturbating monk and ‘Korea’s Obama’ drove Seoul to say ‘me too’ (South China Morning Post, 9 March 2018)

#MeToo movement takes hold in South Korea (BBC News, 26 March 2018)

Despite being published earlier than these kind of #MeToo movements across the planet, The Vegetarian is all about the suppression of the freedom of thought and action of women in South Korea.

The start of The Vegetarian begins with Yeong-hye’s husband talking of his wife. He says that she was unremarkable in every way. That the first time he met her he wasn’t even attracted to her. Yeong-hye is described to have a passive personality and to be the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world.

(Love Korean books? Then you need to check out The Good Son by You-Jeong Jeong!)

This description is given by a man who describes himself as mediocre and wanting nothing extraordinary from work or life. This too reveals that he wants nothing extraordinary or unpredictable in his wife. He wants to merely be married with a simple woman and spend his days idling his time away watching TV while his wife silently reads dull books in her room.

But this simple life of passivity and plainness changes suddenly when Yeong-hye has nightmares of blood & meat and decides to become a vegetarian.

“But the fear. My clothes still wet with blood. Hide, hide behind the trees. Crouch down, don’t let anybody see. My bloody hands. My bloody mouth. In that barn, what have I done?”
The Vegetarian by Han Kang p.20

This seems to be a great shock to Yeong-hye’s husband.

The one time where his wife decides to do something for herself is where everything starts to fall part for him as well as the other people in Yeong-hye’s life.

(Don’t know where to start with Korean literature? Check out our post – “A Beginner’s Guide to Korean Literature” to help get you started!)

Why must making decisions for oneself that goes against the grain of society push everyone else’s lives off a cliff?

Why does attempting to go outside the tiny box of an uninteresting, submissive wife and mother cause everyone to jump ship?

Why must Yeong-hye live her life according to the expectations of her husband, her family and other strangers?

“What threw him was the way that his brother-in-law seemed to consider it perfectly natural to discard his wife as though she were a broken watch or household appliance.”
The Vegetarian by Han Kang p.78

Just a simple choice of deciding to stop eating meat can cause so much trouble… why?

These kind of choices by individuals no matter their background, gender or personality are deemed to be so normal by people in United States, Australia and the UK. But here, in Han Kang’s novel this is the start of a nightmare for not just Yeong-hye but everyone in her life.

Han Kang on the Passivity and Oppression of Korean Women:

In fact, this theme of passivity and oppression of women is a common thread in other novels written by Korean women.

In South Korean modern literature, women are often depicted as helpless and presumed to be merely passive and uninteresting characters. Also, it is presumed that Korean women must be submissive and unyielding to not just men and society but also the forces of capitalism and the state.

“Don’t you understand what your father’s telling you? If he tells you to eat, you eat!”
The Vegetarian by Han Kang p.45

This theme of the hopelessness of Korean women gives a feeling of sadness and despair in most other novels. (Of course, the poor, the marginalized and workers of South Korea are also depicted in Korean novels in this way too).

There is nearly always a theme of sadness and hopelessness in Korean novels:

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

Please Look After Mom (엄마를 부탁해) by Kyung-Sook Shin (translated by Chi-young Kim) is a story about how the disappearance of sixty-nine-year-old So-Nyo causes her family to undergo a process of self-discovery in how much they actually know their mother. This book also explores the self-sacrifice of mothers in Korea for their children and families.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a story about Sunja who immigrates to Japan after falling pregnant by Koh Hansu. Koh Hansu is in fact a married, wealthy business person and to hide the shame of the pregnancy Sunja marries Baek Isak, a Christian minister. This book explores the themes of the Zainichi in Japan (Koreans who immigrated to Japan after the Japanese colonization of Korea in 1905), who are considered as undesirable, second-class citizens.

One Hundred Shadows by Jungeun Hwang

One Hundred Shadows by Jungeun Hwang (translated by Yewon Jung) is about the people who work in a set of buildings scheduled for redevelopment. It considers the lives of people who are stuck in the cycle of poverty, as well as the underclass who live on the margins.

But, in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian there is an important difference:

Yeong-hye’s quiet and passive resistance to the outside forces pushing her to conform to society’s expectations is led to its conclusion.

“I expected an answer from my wife along the lines of ‘I’m sorry, Father, but I just can’t eat it,’ but all she said was ‘I do not eat meat’ – clearly enunciated, and seemingly not the least bit apologetic.”
The Vegetarian by Han Kang p.45

Without spoiling the ending of the novel, I can’t describe exactly what happens.
But I can say that it isn’t what you would expect.

Han Kang on Passive Resistance and Rebellion

There is a kind of special form of resistance to be found in Han Kang’s novel. As seen in the recent protests in Seoul this year, this kind of resistance can be found in many young and old woman’s hearts.

Like Gandhi has shown the world in his passive resistance to the British, rebellion can take many different forms. What is surprising is that those with all the power can lose to someone with little power.

This is seen in Han Kang’s novel as well. Let me explain:

The Vegetarian is written in three sections. The first is titled “The Vegetarian” and is from the point of view of Yeong-hye’s husband.

“Look at yourself, now! Stop eating meat, and the world will devour you whole. Take a look in a mirror, go on, tell me what you look like!”
THe Vegetarian by Han kang p.55

The second section is titled “Mongolian Mark” and is from the point of view of the husband of Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye. While the third section is titled “Flaming Trees” and is from the point of view of Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye.

What is interesting is that Han Kang decided to write the novel from the point of view of everyone surrounding Yeong-hye, while denying Yeong-hye’s own voice from coming through the novel.

We never hear from Yeong-hye’s perspective directly, and only have the dream-like sequences of nightmares that Yeong-hye had which started her desire to become vegetarian. So truthfully, we never get to experience first-hand why Yeong-hye is doing these acts of desperation in her struggle to remain free of the pressures of society and her family. The only voices we hear are those outside of her plight. That is, those who are the agents of the suffering she has to endure while attempting to have a little independence and freedom in her life.

(Love translated books? Read the latest book from Korea here: The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo)

Despite these kinds of forces in her life, Yeong-hye is able to continue to her passive resistance. In the last section, her sister In-hye is the only one left who attempts to understand what is happening in Yeong-hye’s life. The others have all deserted her.

But in the end, it seems that Yeoung-hye did achieve what she set out to do.

Who is Han Kang (author of The Vegetarian)?

Han Kang is a South Korean writer who the Man Booker International Prize for fiction in 2016 for The Vegetarian. The Vegetarian is a novel which deals with a woman’s decision to stop eating meat and its devastating consequences.

Han Kang is the daughter of novelist Han Seung-won. She was born in Gwanju and at the age of 10 moved to Suyuri in Seoul. She studied Korean literature at Yonsei University.

Han Kang got the idea of writing about plants or vegetation when she came across a quote from the Korean author Yi Sang. The quote was: “I believe humans should be plants.”

Han Kang has a lifelong fascination of the themes of violence and humanity. She writes about these themes in her other books as well, including: Human Acts (Portobello Books, 2016) and The White Book (Portobello Books, 2017).


The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith) is one of the most popular and fantastic books to come out in recent years.

It won the Man Booker International Prize for fiction in 2016 and has been wonderfully translated into dream-like prose by Deborah Smith.

If you haven’t read The Vegetarian yet, you really need to get a copy and read it today!

My Rating: 5/5

Find all details about The Vegetarian (written by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith) on Goodreads and Amazon.

A.J. McMahon
(P.S. Got any other books you want me to review? Then…)

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    • Thanks for your comment! Yes definitely! I really do think that reading books in translation gives you a need to understand the cultural context. It’s very difficult but might help if u start reading the English newspapers of that country or do a few searches on twitter using some of the language.
      It really is another experience completely. You need to suspend what you thought you knew and just keep reading. What do you think?


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