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  • Marah Heikkila

'The Vegetarian': A Look into Sibling Relationships, Consent and the Male Gaze

Han Kang’s novel focuses on Yeong-Hye, a woman who, after having bizarre dreams, decides to become a vegetarian and the decision becomes one that turns the novel into a thriller.The novel is split into three parts. The first part is told from there perspective of her husband who finds her to be “extremely unremarkable.” The second part is told from her obsessive brother-in-law’s point of view who that focuses primarily on her body. The third part is told from Yeong-Hye’s sister point of view. All of these views give insight into Yeong-Hye’s shift to become a vegetarian and how it becomes compulsive, and then eventually dangerous and toxic, preventing her from eating and essentially wasting away when in the hospital.

The story is gripping, and the chapters reveal something uncomfortable in each. When Yeong-Hye’s husband finds nothing to be notable about her, Kang takes up her first discussion and critique over unhealthy marriage. Kang isn’t afraid to touch on the unhappiness of marriage while also showing how pertinent it was for Yeong-Hye when it came to her parents’ wishes in her Korean household. It also shows the lack of intimacy and even freedom for Yeong-Hye. Her husband not taking her side, and instead focusses on what his wife does not offer.

The second part is a section that is equally upsetting, if not more. The brother-in-law’s obsession had started early, and through his exploration of Yeong-Hye’s body, his noting of her hips and how she’d look in one of his films is contest. It brings out the darker sides in thought we wouldn’t want to think about, to ignore the taboo nature of a relationship that “shouldn’t happen.” And he gets his way, painting over her body literally and through that form of control, he sleeps with her. Kang once again doesn’t shy away from the vitality of toxic relationships. She doesn’t shy away from revealing the brother-in-law’s thoughts, the way he constantly thinks of his sister-in-law, always focuses on a part of her body, but never quite the whole picture. And by doing that, it was memorable given that women across many cultures are looked at in terms of separate parts versus the whole being.

Kang also touches on sibling relationships. Her own family attacks her for being a vegetarian, for not fitting into the confines of their version of “ideal” Korean society. And Yeong-Hye’s sister, In-Hye, is a family member who has to watch her sister wither away. She has to watch her sister dissipate with refusing to eat, the fluids and tube feeding not giving her entirely what she needs. And through their relationship, even when Yeong-Hye is fragmented by In-Hye’s husband’s forced dubious consent, In-Hye sticks with her sister. In fact, Kang’s story reveals just how vital sibling rules are as well as how devastating they are when it comes to watching a sibling’s health dissipate, feeling trapped.

Kang hits on issues that aren’t comfortable for most and turns them into an allegorical thriller. Her novel can purchased through various sites, published in 2007, and is 185 pages long and translated by Deborah Smith.

About the Author: Han Kang

According to Han Kang was born in Kwangju, South Korea in 1970 and eventually moved to Seoul. Always having a passion for writing, Kang first published her poetry in 1993. And her first novel Black year was released in 1988. Her works also include Fruits of My Woman (2000), Fire Salamander (2012); novels such as Black Deer (1998), Your Cold Hands (2002), The Vegetarian (2007), Breath Fighting (2010), and Greek Lessons (2011), Human Acts (2014), The White Book (2016). She currently lives in Seoul and has also gained popularity with her translated with in North America, gaining several interviews and also a following because of her powerful work that transcends language and touches on societal as well as interpersonal issues.

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