The Vegetarian is the powerful, Man Booker International Prize-winning release from South Korea’s Han Kang. Emotional, thought-provoking and a statement piece, the title The Vegetarian refers to Yeong-hye, at first a devoted housewife, she becomes haunted by dreams of animals being slaughtered and is repulsed by meat as a consequence. Her new diet, one consisting of no meat (meat-free), is not met with approval by those in her social circle. She finds her choice shunned by family, peers and even her husband, the only reason being that it doesn’t fit their society. Yeong-hye becomes withdrawn, sinking into mental instability and physically deteriorates.
The Vegetarian is split into three parts, each focusing on a different member of Yeong-hye’s family and their interactions with her. It is from these interactions that we as the reader grasp a glimpse into Yeong-hye’s state of mind and the actions she takes over the course of the novel. ‘Part 1: The Vegetarian’ functions as an introduction, introducing us to Yeong-hye through the eyes of her husband Mr Cheong, ‘Part 2: Mongolian Mark’ focuses on Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law and his experience with her during the middle of her ‘change’. ‘Part 3: Flaming Trees’ follows In-hye, Yeong-hye’s sister, as she visits Yeong-hye when she is fully immersed in her mental state.
The Vegetarian is a novel that is likely to divide opinion between its readership; there is no questioning that the writing is accomplished and effective, but the premise is bleak and complex with sexual and brutal scenes, making it ‘not everyone’s cup of tea’. In short, a novel that should be commended but that isn’t for everyone, some will connect with the book, others will be left confused, and most will probably be in the boundary between.
How are women portrayed in the novel compared to the men? Does the quote ‘There’s nothing wrong with keeping quiet, after all, hadn’t women traditionally been expected to be demure and restrained?’ fit in with the general attitudes of the novel?
Why do you think Han Kang chose to tell Yeong-hye’s story in three parts and from three points of view? What effect does this have when reading?
What does the novel suggest about South Korean attitudes towards diet, sexuality, hierarchy, parenthood and mental illness? How do these relate to your own experiences?
How would you describe The Vegetarian? Do you think it easily fits into a genre? Are their similar reads that you know of or do you think this breaks the mould?
Why do you think so little is mentioned of the supporting characters out of their own parts?
What comments are made about women in the role as a wife, a sister and a mother?
How do each of the section titles: The Vegetarian, Mongolian Mark, Flaming Trees, represent the story they contain? The-Vegetarian-Discussion-Questions.pdf
The final part of The Vegetarian ‘Flaming Trees’, sees In-hye; Yeong-hye’s sister, struggle in her new position as a single mother – since the events of ‘Mongolian Mark’ she has left her husband. She is now the only member of her family to still support her sister, Yeong-hye, who is deteriorating in a psychiatric hospital. In-hye regularly visits her sister, who despite treatment is erratic in her behaviour, trying to become more plant-like by not consuming food and positioning her body as if she is a tree. In-hye appears to be going through a form of depression herself, seemingly overwhelmed by the events that have previously transpired. Towards the end of the novel there is a horrific physical excursion as Yeong-hye has denounced all food and is being forced-fed, the ill-treatment and pain is enough to cause In-hye to bite a carer when she is prevented from intervening on her sister’s care. The incident sees both sisters transferred to another hospital by ambulance passing trees along the way, which are described as ‘like the rippling flanks of a massive animal, wild and savage’. The novel ends as In-hye stares out at the trees hoping for some sort of answer.