““Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”
In ‘The Killing Joke’, Joker (me!) says ‘All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy’. In Han Kang’s International Booker Winner, The Vegetarian, the protagonist Yeong-hye needed only a single dream. Whether it is prompted as an indirect consequence of beatings she got from her father, the memories of which had long remained latent in her subconscious, or something else; the dream made her resolved to become a Vegetarian. The sight of meat fills her with disgust she has for the violence – which goes with my theory that madness is sometimes seeing things too clearly. She shows similar disgust for sex and again, tries to commit suicide when her father tries to force-feed her.
But violence is essential to human life, as an old Indian saying goes ‘we kill as we breathe’. And thus, an artistic adventure she undertook for sake of her brother-in-law, start her thinking about plants, and her compassion extends to them. So, now in her discomfort in being unable to avoid violence as a human – she wouldn’t have mind dying to escape it, she decides to become a tree – plants are the only living things that need not cause violence to survive.
The story is told in three sections. The first is mostly her husband’s (Mr. Cheong’s) first-person account, except for a few interruptions made to show her own point of view. The husband is one of those calculators of people lacking all kind of passion or emotion; he seems to know next to nothing about his wife and is quick to desert her.
The second section is an omniscient narrator following thoughts of her sister’s husband. A narcissistic character through and through. He likes Mr. Cheong’s wife (who returns the favor) more than his.
It is only in last part we meet a compassionate character in form of In-hye. She is the kind who does more than her due to for people, at first towards her son, her husband, who doesn’t deserve it and later for her sister – and so is also the one who is suffers the most. Looking at her sister, she recognizes the struggle (common in these
sensitive kinds) within herself to hold onto her own sanity and a temptation to lose it. She concludes that she is only able to hold on to it because of her responsibilities – also perhaps, because she felt loved by her son (the boy is only likable male character in whole story). Maybe, Yeong-hye too could be saved if she had a child to care for. Still it is In-hye who is envious of her sister-
“She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner.”
Well, there are always bad days and dreams to look forward to.