the vegetarian book cover

The Vegetarian – Book Review

The Vegetarian by author Han Kang

The Vegetarian is a novel unlike any other I’ve read. It’s an original work of Korean fiction that is quite polarizing. Judging by other reviews I’ve read readers either love or really really hate it. I’m in the loved it camp.

The novel opens in the perspective of a man who is content with his painfully average life. He has a stable job and a “boring” wife. He’s happy enough with the life he’s built and enjoys the fact that his wife is unassuming and submissive. She cooks him dinner, doesn’t ask questions, appears as the silent accessory for business dinners, and occasionally provides him with adequate lovemaking.

That is, until she has the dream. The husband wakes to find his formerly weak willed wife tearing apart the kitchen, throwing away every animal product she can find. She declares she no longer can eat meat. The only reason she gives is that she had a dream. Perplexed, the husband goes back to sleep thinking maybe this is only a dream as well.

Her newfound vegetarianism is forced on him when she refuses to cook him meat either. He’s outraged by this but she doesn’t budge on her stance. Quickly, her health begins to deteriorate. She is not taking in proper nutrients and barely eats anything at all anymore. Her family hosts an intervention to stop this madness but she refuses.

“I believe that humans should be plants. I would like to live like a plant, slowly and calmly, taking my time, not thinking too much.”

Yeong-hye: The Vegetarian

Yeong-he the vegetarian never changes her mind. No matter what measures her family takes to get her to eat meat she never sways. The lengths to which her family goes become extreme, this adds to the horror vibe of the book.

The book is written in three parts. First the husband’s perspective, then the vegetarian’s brother in law, and then her sister. The reader gets to see her story told by how it affects those around her. We never get her own thought process or what drives her to behave the way she does. She becomes a prop to aid in telling three other characters’ stories.

It’s best to leave most of the details out of this review and let you read them for yourself. But I can tell you that The Vegetarian is a book about the power of independent thinking. The title character demonstrates her own but it is also up to the reader to choose how they interpret these pages.

I choose to see The Vegetarian as a strong feminist narrative about breaking the confines of patriarchal society and the struggle of abiding by the rules of society in order to get to your final goals. At what points do you “play the game” and at what point do you decide to just forget society altogether. There are seas of metaphors on these pages and you get to make your own decisions on how to sail them.

The Vegetarian is a rather tragic novel. A sort of modern gothic body horror that is a truly original work of art. I strongly recommend it and I hope you read it with an open mind.

5/5 vegetables 🥕🥬🥦🌽🫑

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Discussion Questions for The Vegetarian

  1. Yeong-hye’s rash decision to become a vegetarian sets off a series of events that ultimately lead to her psychological breakdown. How does this novel explore the themes of agency and control, especially in a society that does not encourage women to have thoughts outside of their husbands?
  2. How does the use of three different narrators – Yeong-hye’s husband Mr. Cheong, her brother-in-law Yeong-ho, and her sister In-hye – in “The Vegetarian” affect our understanding of Yeong-hye’s character? Did your opinions of her change as the narrative shifted?
  3. As a follow up, how would her story have been different if she had been allowed a chapter of her own? Would speaking for herself completely change the events we read?
  4. Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism is seen as a threat to the patriarchal society she lives in. What does the novel have to say about gender roles and power dynamics in contemporary South Korea?
  5. “The Vegetarian” has been described as a “horror story without monsters.” What elements of horror are present in the novel, and what do they reveal about the nature of human beings and the societies they create?

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