The Vegetarian by Han Kang c. 2007 (trans. Deborah Smith 2015) (188 pages—Hogarth)

A haunting story of passion, abuse, and illness set in South Korea and told in three parts, from the perspectives of three people, all of whom have strong reactions to Yeong-hye, “the vegetarian.” The first part is told from the perspective of the vegetarian’s soon-to-be ex-husband; the second part from the perspective Yeong-hye sister’s husband, and the final part is from Yeong-hey’s sister (In-hye).

Sentences Worth Studying

  • [NOTE: italics in original to mark Yeong-hye’s dream] “But the fear. My clothes still wet with blood. Hide, hide behind the trees. Crouch down, don’t let anybody see. My bloody hands. My bloody mouth. In that barn, what had I done? Pushed that red raw mass into my mouth, felt it squish against my gums, the roof of my mouth, slick with crimson blood” (20).
  • “Blood ribboned out of her wrist. The shock of red splashed over white china. As her knees buckled and she crumpled to the floor, the knife was wrested from her by In-hye’s husband, who until then had sat through the whole thing as an idle spectator” (48).
  • “After a while, the train went past the apartment complex where he lived. He’d never had any intention of getting off there. He stuffed the program into his backpack, rammed both fists into the pockets of his sweater, and studied the interior of the carriage as it was reflected in the window. He had to force himself to accept that the middle-aged man, who had a baseball cap concealing his receding hairline and a baggy sweater at least attempting to do the same for his paunch, was himself” (65).
  • “But how could he have known this energy would coalesce into such a preposterous image? For one thing, up until then his work had always tended toward realism. And so, for someone who had previously worked on 3D graphics of people worn down by the vicissitudes of the late capitalist society, to be screened as factual documentaries, the carnality, the pure sensuality of this image, was nothing short of monstrous” (67).
  • “Only then did he realize what it was that had shocked him when he’d first seen her lying prone on the sheet. This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated. But this was nothing so crass as carnal desire, not for her—rather, or so it seemed, what she had renounced was the very life that her body represented. The sunlight that came splintering through the wide window, dissolving into grains of sand, and the beauty of that body that, though this was not visible to the eye, was also ceaselessly splintering . . . the overwhelming inexpressibility of the scene beat against him like a wave breaking on the rocks, alleviating those terrifyingly unknowable compulsions that had caused him such pain over the past year” (92-93).
  • “She thrust her glittering golden breasts over the veranda railing. Her legs were covered with scattered orange petals, and she spread them wide as though she wanted to make love to the sunlight, to the wind. He heard the sounds of the approaching ambulance siren, of screams, sighs, the yells of children, all the commotion of the alleyway down below. The sound of feet hurrying up the stairs, coming closer” (125).
  • “There was no way for her to judge the accuracy of the scene she saw then in her mind’s eye but had never seen in reality. She’d held a wet flannel to her snuffling son’s forehead all night, slipping occasionally into a sleep that was more like a fainting, and saw a tree flickering in the rain like the spirit of some dead person. Black rain, black woods, the pale patient’s uniform soaked through. Wet hair. Black mountain slope. Yeong-hye, an inchoate mass formed of darkness and water, standing tall like a ghost. Eventually the day dawned, and when she placed the palm of her hand on her son’s forehead she was relieved by the coolness she felt there. She got up, went out of the bedroom and stared blankly at the bluish half-light leaching in from the living room veranda” (133).
  • “His silence had the heavy mass of rock and the tenacious resistance of rubber, particularly when his art wasn’t going well” (137).
  • “Time was a wave, almost cruel in its relentlessness as it whisked her life downstream, a life she had to constantly strain to keep from breaking apart” (145).
  • “Her life was no more than a ghostly pageant of exhausted endurance, no more real than a television drama. Death who now stood by her side, was as familiar to her as a family member, missing for a long time but now returned” (170).
  • “What other dimension might Yeong-hye’s soul have passed into, having shrugged off flesh like a snake shedding its skin? In-hye recalled how Yeong-hye had looked when she’d been standing on her hands. Had Yeong-hye mistaken the hospital’s concrete floor for the soft earth of the woods? Had her body metamorphosed into a sturdy trunk, with white roots sprouting from her hands and clutching the black soil? Had her legs stretched high up into the air while her arms extended all the way down to the earth’s very core, her back stretched taut to support this two-pronged spurt of growth? As the sun’s rays soaked down through Yeong-hye’s body, had the water that was saturating the soil been drawn up through her cells, eventually to bloom from her crotch as flowers? When Yeong-hye had balanced upside down and stretched out every fiber in her body, had these things been awakened in her soul?” (175).

About Kelsey Maki

writer and English professor
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