Passive Resistance: La Vegetariana by Han Kang

  • onNovember 15, 2014
  • Vol.24 Summer 2014
  • byOliverio Coelho
La Vegetariana
Tr. Yoon Sun-me

When faced with a novel like La Vegetariana (The Vegetarian), Western readers might wonder whether a political reading is appropriate. The plot can obviously be seen as a metaphor for the role of the family in Korean society and what could be seen as oppressive cultural strictures. Readers anywhere might wonder whether these strictures, linked to familial traditions but also the overbearing presence of capitalist society, represent the author’s critical vision or whether they function as a kind of crass realism: a portrait of a society racked by evident class tensions.

Han Kang astutely leaves both avenues of interpretation open: her criticism is not explicit; rather she chooses a cunning narrative strategy that avoids overt cultural or political statements. Steering clear of both pious naturalism and dead-eyed psychology, she separates the novel into three different parts to offer three distinct perspectives.

In part one, Yeonghye’s husband describes his wife’s sudden trans-formation: she refuses to eat meat. This limpid, realistic first person narrative describes increasingly strange scenes from married life that eventually lead to a tragic event. It also testifies to the husband’s failure to understand a woman who has decided to reject the image that society seeks to impose upon her.

The narrator’s precise descriptions of Yeonghye’s dreams can be seen as revelations that offer psychological profundity to a metamorphosis that consists not only of rejecting meat but also resisting the idea of consumption as we understand it in contemporary capitalist society. We are left with no doubt that society has brutally impacted Yeonghye. It is her resistance, exemplified by her vegetarian diet, that upsets her family and leads her father to commit an act of irreparable consequence: he forces her to eat meat, driving her relationship with her family to the brink. The protagonist’s reaction is just as drastic: she slits her wrist in front of the whole family.

The second section focuses on the fascination of Yeonghye’s brother-in-law, an artist, with her birthmark. After spending months in a psychiatric hospital, she moves in with her sister and brother-in-law before renting out her own flat. He, obsessed by the birthmark on her buttock and its effect on his art, decides to convert Yeonghye into a muse. However, when his passions overwhelm him he ends up corrupting his model, causing another tragedy. This nightmare leads into the third act, which sees Yeonghye back in the psychiatric institute. She is no longer resisting actively, instead opting for a blanket refusal: the passive resistance of an “I would prefer not to” stance. Her new tactic is to mimic the behavior of a vegetable, nourished by light alone, which is a theme that runs throughout the novel; light is the sole source of spiritual succour. This transformation, told from the point of view of Yeonghye’s sister, is perhaps the most powerful of the book.

At the end of the day, Western readers can happily ignore the critical dimensions of the novel and the content themselves with a gripping depiction of the fatalism of mental illness. Or, to the contrary, they might read this as the story of a person driven mad by the toxicity of a difficult-to-metabolize bourgeois life. Regardless, La Vegetariana is a novel that maintains an admirable balance, never resorting to moral judgements or ideological shrillness, and offers the readers the chance to revel in the rebelliousness of a dual reading. 


by Oliverio Coelho
Writer and literary critic

Author's Profile

Han Kang has received the Man Booker International Prize 2016, the Yi Sang Literary Award, Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Manhae Literature Prize. English translations of her books include The Vegetarian (Portobello, 2015), Human Acts (Portobello, 2016), and The White Book (Portobello, 2018).