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The Vegetarian
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2016 Book Discussions > The Vegetarian - Part 1 (July 2016)

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Marc (monkeelino) | 2822 comments Mod
This thread is only for discussing Part 1 of the book (no spoilers from anything beyond Part 1, please). Part 1 is told from the husband's perspective.

A few starter questions (feel free to lead off with your own comments or questions):
- What is your impression of the marriage?
- Why do you think Yeong-hye chooses to stop eating meat?
- How would you characterize Kang's writing style?


Hugh (bodachliath) | 2799 comments Mod
I'm halfway through the second part, and although it is interesting, for me it is not an easy book to write about - the cultural setting seems very alien.


Marc (monkeelino) | 2822 comments Mod
I finished a couple days ago and my thoughts are still very unsettled. It's not an easy book to write about. What aspects of the cultural setting seemed most alien to you, Hugh?


Hugh (bodachliath) | 2799 comments Mod
I suppose Korean society and its mores just don't get very much exposure in the Western media, at least compared with Japan or China - so the context in which the relationships are drawn is not always clear, but in any case that disorientation feels deliberate, since Yeong-hye is largely seen through the eyes of other characters, which makes it difficult to get inside her head. From a Western perspective, the marriage seems very unsatisfactory.


Whitney | 2202 comments Mod
I agree there's an aura of alieness to the story, but it's hard to say how much the setting contributed as opposed to just the tone of the story. It had a similar feeling to me of a lot of body horror stories, which usually start from a place of alienation.

From her jerk of a husband, I got the idea it was largely a marriage of convenience. He's a company man, and she fit the requirements for a respectable wife. It's difficult to say what Yeong-hye's motivations were, but I got the idea she probably simply went along with it. Except for her decision to stop eating meat, she had little interest in exerting her own agency. I read two reviews that made a comparison to Bartleby the Scrivener, and she shares Bartleby's main trait of passive but implacable resistance.


Dianne | 224 comments - What is your impression of the marriage?

I agree with Hugh's comment that from a western perspective the marriage is unsatisfactory, but I am not sure if that is necessarily true for all parts of the world. However, I would hope it would be as they really don't seem to have a relationship, she just closets herself in her room and reads and seems devoid of affect or personality or interaction with her husband. On the other hand, he clearly knew what he signed up for when he married her and got exactly what he expected, someone that he didn't have to impress or be concerned about.

- Why do you think Yeong-hye chooses to stop eating meat?

This is such a crucial question, and the obvious answer, that she had a dream, doesn't quite seem to answer it. She seems mentally ill to me, and was driven to do this, and her other bizarre actions, perhaps as a result of her weak mental state.

- How would you characterize Kang's writing style?

I love Kang's writing style. It is so unusual and somehow clipped and spare like Yeong-hye. It is almost as if it is Yeong-hye, personified. I would describe it as transcendent, other-worldly and eerie.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2395 comments As to the marriage - it seemed as if Yeong-hye was chosen to because the husband thought she'd help him progress in the company. He cared little for what she thought and expected her to do whatever necessary to make him look "good."


Caroline (cedickie) | 384 comments Mod
I finished this section earlier today and by the end I was feeling quite sad. It feels strange to hear Yeong-hye's story told from her husband's perspective because we don't ever hear her voice aside from those brief italicized sections.

In some ways, this section reminds me of many of Haruki Murakami's stories, where something mysterious happens to a man's wife, female friend, or love interest, and he spends much of the story trying to figure out how to bring her back to him. The dream Yeong-hye keeps referring to brings Murakami to mind as well. Except here, the man is not likeable (at least not to me) and seems to be burdened by this change in his wife, rather than upset by it. Instead of wondering whether she may need medical attention because of all the weight she's lost, he's upset that her behavior might make him lose favor with his co-workers and boss. He constantly persuades himself that he's doing what he has the right to - he has the right to demand she cook meat, that she give in to his physical needs, and he has the right to turn to her family when he loses control of her. He doesn't seek their help for her sake but for his.

I feel sad for Yeong-hye and am almost angry at her. Why won't she defend herself? Why won't she speak up? But that's not fair for me to ask of her because I don't know what's caused her to give up meat and to pretty much stop talking altogether. Perhaps her husband has done something else he hasn't told us about. Perhaps she witnessed something traumatic when she was younger. When she started talking about the meat causing a lump inside her, I started to wonder whether she might be very sick and is trying to cure herself without seeking help from others.

I am curious to read the next section but feel like I need a bit of time to process Part I before I can start Part II.


message 9: by Ben (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ben Rowe (benwickens) | 89 comments I have only read the first part and I am finding it to be effectively written and unsettling.

There is much in this that feels alien - in some ways the culture is very different but also the heroine herself feels alienated from everyone else with her taking the culturally unacceptable step of giving up on all meat.

I do feel compelled to read more and I am looking forward to seeing where the story goes. Not sure what we are and are not expected to feel (if anything) in connection with the characters for instance how do we and how are we supposed to feel about the husband raping his wife? But I am still only 1/3 through the story.


Whitney | 2202 comments Mod
I think telling the story from the perspective of others was very effective. Especially the first chapter from the point of view of the husband. Yeong-hye is largely a cypher, and that we don’t get into her head reflects that she is in a society that doesn’t bother with getting into her head, or frankly even care what’s there. (That’s not a commentary about Korea, of which I know little. There are still plenty of examples in this country of women not being valued beyond their place as wives and bearers of children.)

That she has a bullying husband who wants her to shut up and perform the duties of a wife without disturbing him is unsurprising. Women with bullying and abusive fathers frequently end up with this kind of husband. And passive resistance is frequently the only kind of resistance allowed to people in this kind of situation. I don’t think the book’s concern is having us understand why Yeong-hye became a vegetarian per se, but to the reaction of those around her to a women exerting control over her own body.


message 11: by Robyn (last edited Jul 02, 2016 11:33AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Robyn | 17 comments Oof. That was horrifying. I hope I don't dream about this.

In some ways, this section reminds me of many of Haruki Murakami's stories, where something mysterious happens to a man's wife, female friend, or love interest, and he spends much of the story trying to figure out how to bring her back to him.

This really resonated for me when it comes to his experiences. Her experiences seems Kafka-esque, what we can get of it - waking up, suddenly transformed, in the midst of a descent into madness. (I ordinarily would not think of vegetarianism as madness, of course, but this is certainly a special case.)

for instance how do we and how are we supposed to feel about the husband raping his wife?

I think for a Korean audience the way that Kang characterises the rape - "as though she were a 'comfort woman' dragged in against her will, and I was the Japanese soldier demanding her services" - would signal that we are to be horrified by it/disgusted with him, as it is a deliberate reference to wartime sexual atrocities that have definitely not been forgotten. I think this is interesting given the highly patriarchal society we're being shown in the book (I've no idea how this maps on to Korean culture in general), especially given that marital rape has only relatively recently been recognised as a violation of human rights.

I don’t think the book’s concern is having us understand why Yeong-hye became a vegetarian per se, but to the reaction of those around her to a women exerting control over her own body.

I like the way you've put this and I think it will frame the rest of my reading.

How would you characterize Kang's writing style?
I'm not sure if it is the translation, or what, but it feels very British during most of Mr. Cheong's narration. Yeong-hye's nightmares are lush and disturbing, straight out of Titus Andronicus. (I kept having flashbacks to Julie Taymor's film adaptation when she describes the dreams & during the family meal scene.)

I had to skim very quickly the scene with the dog (I don't do well with violence at animals in books), but it made me wonder what the city vs country divide in Korea is like. For instance, Yeong-hye's father has apparently never used a telephone before (or did I misread that? Perhaps it was just 'as though he had never'), but everyone else is firmly living in the modern era.

Anyway. Lots of disjointed thoughts. I'm going to save the next section for tomorrow, I think.


message 12: by Robyn (last edited Jul 02, 2016 11:38AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Robyn | 17 comments Oh - I'm curious how many of the readers are vegetarian or not, and if it impacts the way you feel about the book! I first saw this book in two places - a Korean bookstagrammer (there's a better word for that, I'm sure) and a vegetarian friend were reading it simultaneously in my social media feeds. I sort of pigeon-holed it because of that, but am really glad I'm reading it now.

I'm not currently a vegetarian, but I have eaten vegetarian (why is there not an adverb for this?) in the past for several long stretches. My choices were always made because of a deep discomfort with killing animals, which is probably a huge part of why I'm finding her dream sequences and physical disgust/revulsion so vivid.


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Viv JM | 62 comments I am finding this a deeply unsettling read, but beautifully crafted. I've just finished part 1 and these are my thoughts:

- What is your impression of the marriage?
The marriage seems to be more like a business contract than one based on love. I appreciate that this may be me seeing through Western eyes. Yeong-hye's husband seems to have chosen her based solely on the fact that she is not too much of anything (not too tall or short, too pretty or ugly etc). He seems very keen not to draw any negative attention to himself, and that is superseding any rights or feelings of his wife. Even before the rape, one feels that this is an emotionally abusive relationship.

- Why do you think Yeong-hye chooses to stop eating meat?

As others have said, I am not sure that this is the point of the book. She seems to be suffering from a psychotic episode triggered by the dream perhaps.

- How would you characterize Kang's writing style?
I really love the sparse writing style.

As I was reading the scene of the force feeding of the meat, so soon after the rape, I was reminded that there have been feminist critiques of meat eating, though I have not investigated them. I wonder if anyone here has, for example, read The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. Could Han Kang be making a link between meat eating and the degradation of women? Yeong-Hye has certainly been the victim of violence at the hands of both her father and her husband.

Like you, Robyn, I am no longer a vegetarian but have been for long stretches of my adult life and I can understand the horror surrounding meat eating for some people. I found the dream sequences and especially the flashback to the dog's death especially disturbing.


Robyn | 17 comments I haven't read that book, Viv, but I couldn't help but think of an article I've read that must have been making a similar argument, full of illustrations (including, of course, the most infamous Hustler cover of a woman in a meat grinder - 'we will no longer hang women up like pieces of meat,' Larry Flynt says).


message 15: by Whitney (last edited Jul 02, 2016 12:35PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Whitney | 2202 comments Mod
Viv wrote: "Could Han Kang be making a link between meat eating and the degradation of women? ..."

I think you're right, Viv. A connection between degradation of women as well as violence in general. What little we are given of Yeong-hye's inner life is her memories and dreams of violence. The slaughter and consumption of meat is not a pretty thing, especially brought home by the dog scene. Her vegetarianism in that light is a rejection of that degradation and violence, and a reason for the strong reaction against it from those around her. Rejecting meat is a rejection of society's values, and therefor an implicit rejection of the existing hierarchy / patriarchy.


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Marc (monkeelino) | 2822 comments Mod
Thinking about many of the comments above, the reader is kind of put in the same clueless position as the husband. We have a little more insight into Yeong-hye (like glimpses of her dreams), but not much. We basically see her external actions and how they change. She's such an enigma. In a sense, she's sort of treated like livestock (physically owned, expected to be confined to certain behaviors, etc.).

This part of the book, especially when they went out for the husband's business dinner, reminded me of how strongly people react when you reject their values or habits. Like, when one person says, "Oh, I don't really watch TV." when everyone else in the room is discussing TV, or everyone is drinking alcohol and one person says "I don't drink." A lot depends on the delivery of these statements, but it almost always creates a kind of tension, makes people defensive... At bare minimum, it sets up a kind of division. Amplify that by the fact that it's coming from a female character in a culture where women are expected to quietly follow and obey.


Julie (readerjules) | 197 comments I am 95% vegetarian and have reached that point very slowly. Repulsion is something that I am just starting to experience myself. At first when Yeong-hye stops eating meat, I had to fight the urge to be mad at her husband and others calling her crazy for not wanting to eat meat. (I then realized that she actually wasn't quite right in the head though). The business dinner party was an interesting scene to me. One of the main reasons that I am not 100% vegetarian is the social aspect of it. Although I have accepted that others eat meat, some think we are weird and that can get in the way of creating bonds between people. I also have the same issues with TV and alcohol as you mentioned Marc...I rarely watch tv or drink. :-)


message 18: by Marc (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marc (monkeelino) | 2822 comments Mod
Julie, I think there's a huge social aspect to almost everything we do and this section of the book really hammers that home. What happens when you go against the flow? The impact can be as harmless as a few awkward social situations to being ostracized or physically assaulted. People feel threatened or even attacked when their own values are challenged. I don't think this changes too much from culture to culture, but the values themselves vary.

I'll have to reread this section, but did you get the impression there was any difference by gender in reaction to Yeong-hye's decision to stop eating meat? No one seemed in favor of it, but I seem to recall at least some of the women in her family voicing concern over her health/well-being.


Julie (readerjules) | 197 comments I read the book months ago but my (sometimes not so good) memory tells me that the women seemed to handle her vegetarianism better than the men. They were just worried about her health. The men seems to think she was nuts and wanted to force her to do something she didn't want to do.


Whitney | 2202 comments Mod
I thought the sister was the only one who seemed to actually care about Yeong-hye's health. I definitely got a "concern bully" vibe from the bosses wife. The flamboyantly stated "But you've hardy eaten a thing!" following her discourse about how annoying it would be to eat with a 'proper' vegetarian.


Julie (readerjules) | 197 comments Whitney wrote: "The flamboyantly stated "But you've hardy eaten a thing!"..."

In the US, it would be highly unusual to hear that comment from a female (except maybe from your mother when she's cooking? lol). Sometimes I feel like I am the only person who is not "watching their weight", even among people that don't need to....


Molly (mollyrotondo) | 30 comments What is your impression of the marriage?
The marriage seems to be one of convenience. Yeong-hye's husband thought she'd make a good wife for him because she didn't have much of a personality or too attractive. He saw her as a plain woman. The way he talks about her proves what little respect he has for her. It is not what we would consider in the western world a "healthy marriage."

Why do you think Yeong-hye chooses to stop eating meat?
Although the dream has triggered her decision to stop eating meat, the reasoning is much deeper than that. The point of this decision seems to me to be that when people, especially women in this story, choose to live their lives the way they want to, the rest of conformist society treats them as if there must be something wrong with them. Since Koreans have a strong love for eating meat, her rebellious decision to not eat it proves her family's and friends' disgust for a woman making her own decision. But it shouldn't stop at just simply not eating meat like everyone else. She is essentially taking a stand on being her own person which women are always looked down for doing.

I re-read the Italicized parts that give us an insight to Yeong-hye's mind. Reading them on their own really helped me understand her feelings as she continued with this new lifestyle. The one part I thought was so beautiful discussed how she felt solace in the fact that her breasts made her feel safe. But her breasts seemed to become smaller and she asks "Why are my edges all sharpening..." I took this to mean that she felt like she was no longer being a strong independent woman and she must take back control over her own decision making.


Portia Julie wrote: "Whitney wrote: "The flamboyantly stated "But you've hardy eaten a thing!"..."

In the US, it would be highly unusual to hear that comment from a female (except maybe from your mother when she's coo..."


Nowadays, maybe, but up through my Boomer generation there was always some senior woman who had been cooking for a month before I arrived for the fourth meal of the holiday of choice who would be deeply and permanently hurt if I did not consume what she considered enough. "What? You don't like it?" Vied with "I've been cooking for a month and you aren't eating any?"


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Marc (monkeelino) | 2822 comments Mod
My take from this book was that Korean culture is generally more of the description you give Portia--the elder females preparing meals and expecting everyone to eat heartily.

It's hard to remember that not all cultures and not all times in history bought into the notion of marrying for love. Certainly, the roles expected within the marriage in this book are not being played according to social norms. But I wonder how prevalent Yeong-Hye's husband's behavior is? Would he be closer to the norm or a more callous example of a husband in Korea?


message 25: by Veronique (last edited Jul 20, 2016 10:46PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Veronique I don’t think the book’s concern is having us understand why Yeong-hye became a vegetarian per se, but to the reaction of those around her to a women exerting control over her own body

Totally agree with this. I think it is a question of control, like anorexia or bulimia. All her life, it seems Yeong-hye has been forced into a mold, faced with violence, and it's finally come to breaking point. I do wonder if her previous 'normal' behaviour of non-resistance wasn't actually another form for it. She seemed to be an automaton then too, resisting only through her dislike for bras.

Like many have commented, by having the narration from the husband's point of view, the author keeps Yeong-hye's motivations/reasons secret and thus deepen the effect of alienation. It is not an easy read but morbidly fascinating. The way she shows the husband's reasoning is horrid in its blandness and egocentricity. The writing style is so matter of fact and yet relates such sad and superficial life. The rape is shocking and yet just another violation, while the force feeding was even worse in a way.

The description of the food was either really appealing or totally revolting and disgusting. Such poles apart. Isn't food the symbol for love, and also feminine? By rejecting food, Yeong-hye could be refusing society's role and love too. I keep wondering what happened to her.

Of all the people around her, I also believe only her sister seems to consider her choice seriously, not wanting to force her and only worrying about her getting a balanced/proper vegetarian diet. Maybe this is because her experience closely resembles her sister, at least in childhood? However, the sister has obviously found a life she likes. Her mother on the other hand totally disregards her choice, and when strength doesn't work, tries to force her on the sly. So I would say this is not a gender reaction.


message 26: by Diego (last edited Jul 29, 2016 07:30AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Diego Anthoons Whitney wrote: "I thought the sister was the only one who seemed to actually care about Yeong-hye's health. I definitely got a "concern bully" vibe from the bosses wife. The flamboyantly stated "But you've hardy e..."

I loved that scene in the restaurant, there is so much behind what is actually said. Having a background in communication studies, I read the scene in terms of face saving and high context culture . An interesting article on face saving in Korea (and Korean communication in general) can be found here:

http://www.trinity.edu/org/ics/ICS%20...


message 27: by Marc (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marc (monkeelino) | 2822 comments Mod
Thanks for the article, Diego. That scene was quite memorable!

In a recent interview I read with the author, she said being a vegetarian wasn't that big a deal in Korea because there were so many vegetable-based dishes at every meal, but actually declaring it verbally was a rather aggressive act socially.


message 28: by Luella (last edited May 20, 2017 08:17AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Luella | 40 comments Mod
I agree that not eating meat is probably some kind of rebellion. I am curious though if it was partially brought on because her husband is expecting that they have a child now that they have a place of their own. He mentions they were waiting until then and it only occurred last autumn.

He mentions, when he calls his sister-in-law, the sound of her son's voice assaulting him with "dada."

Maybe Yeong-hye doesn't want to bring a child into this situation, not without some changes to it anyway. So she is staking her independence.

Also I am a pescetarian, I was a vegetarian for a few years. I can relate to the whole smelling like meat thing. Sometimes I can smell it on my husband's breath. It seems like rot. :(

Since I started eating fish again though (and funnily pretty much only in restaurant's) I haven't had to deal with those awkward questions as much.

I can also relate to the baby boomer thing. That has happened to me and I felt terrible about it.


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