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The Vegetarian by Han Kang ~ sexual repression, human violence and nature as the ultimate freedom

This short book (183 pages) written by Han Kang, was the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2016. The book follows the character Yeong-hye, a housewife in South Korea who, haunted by a nightmare depicting the gruesome savagery and violence of eating meat, vows to be vegetarian. Throughout the book we witness her self-destructive psychological breakdown, caused not by the decision itself but the way that others reacted to it, alongside her increasing rejection of societal rules and norms. There is a central theme of eroticism that is dark and charged with rebellious desire that swings between gripping and uncomfortable. I read it as Kang expressing ideas about female sexual repression and not conforming to the expected familial roles. The brother-in-law an emblem of a distasteful patriarchy, raising questions of the objectification of women and their own participation. Yeong-hye begins as a woman that won't wear a bra, and ends with being a woman who wants to be so far from society that she wants to be a part of nature, a tree. Perhaps the emancipation of women is so at odds with the structures that society imposes that to aspire to absolute freedom from rigid society norms is as absurd as wanting to be a tree? Or perhaps Kang is commenting on how distant we have become from nature, both in an environmental sense led by the vegetarianism theme and in the sense of a detachment from our natural instincts and desires? Is it a critique of the violence of human nature? Nature appears as something to get lost in, an escape, and ultimate spiritual freedom and is just one of the themes open to interpretation in this book of endless possible meanings.


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