The Vegetarian is an unusual, transgressive work, full of disturbing images and violent scenes. When I first began reading it, I wondered how seriously we were supposed to take it as a work of realism. My answer was, not at all.
The novella is divided into three parts, each written from the point of view of a different character. The first is Mr. Cheong, the self-centered, repellent husband of Yeong-hye. He has already alienated us by describing his wife in insulting terms, even when remembering when he chose to marry her.
He tells us the story of what happens when Yeong-hye decides to stop eating meat. Her only explanation is “I had a dream.” But we get short glimpses into Yeong-hye’s thoughts, and they describe a disturbing vision that keeps recurring. This section climaxes in a shocking scene during a family party.
The next section is from the point of view of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, an artist. He has his own visions and compulsions.
The final section is from the point of view of In-hye, Yeong-hye’s older sister. In-hye tries to understand her sister’s condition in terms of the hardships of her childhood, when she was abused by their father.
As Yeong-hye decides to embrace her inner plant, bending to her obsessions, the novella becomes more divorced from reality. The three main characters all are gripped by their own visions.
The description of this novel on Goodreads calls it “an allegorical novel about modern day South Korea.” I would agree that it is allegorical (not my favorite genre), but that it’s actually about life in modern South Korea, not so much. It is set there, but it don’t think we’re supposed to see its events as representative of life in South Korea. The review in the New York Times points to the danger of “a focus on the ethnographic and sociological” and attributing much to differences in culture. If you believe this, you’ll think Koreans have very odd attitudes toward vegetarianism. I pondered this when reading, but decided that the behavior of the characters in some scenes was too extreme to be taken at face value.
Did I like The Vegetarian? Not so much, but it made me think.