The Vegetarian written by Han Kang cracks open the patriarchal structures in contemporary South Korea. The book, written in Korean in 2007 has been recently translated to English, giving the wider world a rare peek into South Koran society. Yeong-hye is the main subject in the novel who never tells her story. Her story is told through the voice of her husband, her brother in law and her sister. A novel divided in three parts and in each part we see a different side of Yeong-hye.
As the novel unravels, we see Yoeng-hye making choices which are as remarkable as they are deviant. And, in making those choices she headlong challenges said and unsaid rules that have held their families together. One of the ways on which patriarchy operates is by conformity to social norms. One of the social norms that is valued in Korea is the meat eating. When Yeong-hye defies this norm and the band-aid of social cohesion is ripped off revealing deeply entrenched patriarchy.
Defying Patriarchy and Existence it Orders: Toxic Patriarchy in South Korea
Early in the novel we are told that Yeong-hye wants to be a tree. In order to become a tree, she is convinced that she needs sun and water more than she needs food. Her defiance to merely exist as a human being speaks a lot about her need to escape her own self and the world she inhabits. The world she inhabits reduces her to an object of everyone’s desire, expects her to play the role as ordered by the patriarchs around and adjust herself to serve at the cost of her desires. In South Korean societies the aspects of conformity and uniformity is highly valued.
Patriarchy in South Korean societies continues to be toxic where women rarely control their lives or are the prime decision makers. The country does not have a strong anti-discrimination law which gives women equal rights. Even in 21st century they are treated as second class citizens subjected to the whims and fancies of domineering male figures in their lives. This treatment is meted out to Yeong-hye who is institutionlised and her defiance reduced to an example of insanity.
Meat Eating and the Violence of Patriarchy
Yeong-hye, in the words of her husband, is an ordinary, unremarkable woman with no special skills or talents. This is the reason, as he proudly proclaims, is the reason he marries Yeong-hye in the first place. He wanted a woman who would cook him meals, indulge him sexually and be at the margins of his life. Till one day Yeong-hye declares she has converted to vegetarianism and discards all expensive meat from the freezer. She suddenly ceases to be an unremarkable woman. She becomes a defiant woman who would not cook for her husband the meals he likes.
Vegetarianism in South Korean societies is an absurd idea. The Korean word for vegetarian translates to eater of plants. Even the most basic vegetarian dishes will have some component of meat to it, if only to flavour it. The complete absence of meat from any meal is highly unimaginable in the predominantly meat eating society. In one of the most violent scenes in the book, Yeong-hye is force fed meat by her father as her vegetarianism is a direct defiance to his authority. To counter this force feeding Yeong-hye slashes her wrist.
Yeong-hye’s choice to not eat meat because she gets violent dreams irks two people who hold power on her life and order her existence- her father and husband. Patriarchy normalises and even makes it desirable for violent forms of eating and every other form of desire is marginalised and violently questioned. As a result of this choice she is abandoned by her husband and left to fend for herself.
Burdens on Women to Maintain Social Cohesion
The book also portrays the relationship of Yeong-hye with her elder sister. Her sister has lived her life by imbibing ideals of perfection that have been expected for her. She got her life together married well and holds down a stable job. While on the surface, her life seems perfect, the novel slowly shows a torn and conflicted woman on whom te burden of taking care of her sister falls because none of the men in the family step up.
Her actions are marked by indecisive helplessness because she cares for her sister but also fails to relate to her. So she does what any helpless person would have done in a situation, puts Yeong-hye in psychiatric care. This is not the first time and neither this will be the last that a woman who is misunderstood has been put under institutional care. Patriarchy does not even spare the woman who abide by every rule that has been laid down by the system. While they share a conflicted and distant relationship they are each other's only family.
Why it Matters?
Patriarchy as a system operates to oppress women globally. Every country is impacted by this system which thrives on inequality. The novel offers a unique lens to the readers to look into the South Korean society and the operation of patriarchy within its social contexts. The book tells us that for women the mere act of claiming space or existing on their terms is a radical act. The consequences for women who head on challenge patriarchy are often meted with violence in physical, emotional and psychological forms. Towards the end of this violent read, the reader might feel something akin to empathy, for Yeong-hye and the uphill battle of existence she waged.