The Vegetarian is a novel written by Han Kang published in 2007. The book vastly explores the interpersonal conflicts we have when deciding to follow social norms or not. The story is set in Korea, a community known for its emphasis on cultural cohesion. It talks about conflicting selves that each one of us has, the greedy and self-centered side and the one that respects family and societal demands. The story is told in three acts with three different narrators. The main character in the book is Yeong-hye, a non-vegetarian who resolves to become a vegan and socially isolate herself, prompted by dreams she has of animals being slaughtered. Her decision to be a vegetarian gradually transforms to not eating and later into her desiring to become a plant and losing her sanity.
The changes of Yeong-hye have been attributed to madness by her family because they do not conform to social norms. However, the main character is merely going through a stage of change in lifestyle because she wants to. It is not because she wants to live a healthier lifestyle but because she is haunted by the dark dreams she has of the gruesome slaughters of harmless animals. Yeong-hye seeks to be independent and not have to follow strict rules that prohibit her from doing what she wants. Her husband complains of how his life has changed for the worse since she decided to become a vegetarian which implies that all she has been doing was to please her husband and not herself. Her transforming her life could be seen as a way to seek her own happiness, apart from satisfying her husband. The second narrator, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law uses her for his personal gain and does not care about her. This further shows how she felt like a captive and wanted to live life on her own. In the third part, her sister In-hye realizes that Yeong-hye was fighting to be independent and not feel held back by social norms.
From the narrators’ perspective, Yeong-hye is losing her mind, and all her family members see her transformation as a descent into madness. Her husband starts treating her harshly because of it, and her father tries to shove meat in her mouth. She is under a lot of pressure because of social expectations and ends up in a mental hospital. From her perspective, she is but only refraining from meat because of her dark dreams haunt her transforming her to a vegetarian. She is conflicted within herself because of the differences between her mores concerning food and those of the society.
The characters in the novel are disoriented and unable to do anything that does not comply to their social norms. Yeong-hye is far much better than them because she decides to break convention and live on her own terms. Her brother-in-law has a passion for art and desires to try out a variety of art that are against cultural norms, so he does it secretly. Her sister also realizes she had been trying to be independent all through, something she had always wanted but as afraid to break convention.
Yeong-hye practices withdrawal and self-control. She refrains from eating meat entirely and even throws meat out of the house. She has control and does not stop being vegetarian despite the problems and separation it has caused. These ascetic practices help her to gain independence and the ability to do what she wishes but also tears her apart from most of her family. She refuses to eat at all and intends to become a tree and abandon her family to live in the woods. Yeong-hye is determined to live on her own terms and also prefers to die that way.