Meat Symbolism in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian

That red juice oozing out of your steak isn't blood

If you’re looking for a terrific and horrific read this Halloween season, look no further than Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. (Please Note: The Vegetarian is a psychological horror/thriller novel and may not be suited for all readers. The book depicts violence/sexual violence, mental illness, and abuse, so please be advised before reading). 

The Vegetarian is written in three parts with three narrators. Part one follows protagonist Yeong-he and is narrated by her husband, Mr. Cheong. As a psychological thriller, this novel focuses on the psychological trauma Yeong-he experiences, and the mental anguish of those around her.

Mr. Cheong isn’t the best husband: he opens the novel by saying his wife is average. His narrative tone is that of a superior partner in a relationship, and the way in which he speaks to his wife indicates mistreatment. 

We learn Yeong-he is undergoing a significant change. After waking up from a nightmare, she vows to never eat meat again. Meanwhile, Yeong-he’s personality is becoming muted. She turns socially withdrawn and quiet, as if she is experiencing depressive symptoms. 

Yeong-he’s repulsion toward meat could speak to a greater symbolic meaning: the repulsion toward her own husband. Psychoanalytic theorist and philosopher Julia Kristeva writes about this very topic of abjection, or the feeling of horror that causes the subconscious and unconscious mind to confuse the self with the other. Regarding food as an example, Kristeva writes: 

“‘I’ want none of that element, sign of their desire; ‘I’ do not want to listen, ‘I’ do not assimilate it, ‘I’ expel it. But since the food is not an ‘other’ for ‘me,’ who am only in their desire, I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which ‘I’ claim to establish myself.” 

When considering the text from a feminist lens, the symbolic implications of meat are hard to ignore.  From a physical standpoint, meat is flesh and body, and often contains blood. It’s a common trope in art for meat to represent masculinity.

Yeong-he’s disgust towards meat could be because she unconsciously likened it to something primal. Meat could be the threat she is misinterpreting to harm her own reality. Not eating meat goes against her husband’s wishes, and is an exercise in control. 

This reading would suggest Mr. Cheong and masculinity itself is Yeong-he’s real problem, not her unwillingness to eat meat. Ironically, Mr. Cheong becomes more domineering to try to combat this eating issue, and Yeong-he’s mental state only worsens. 

If you’re curious like to learn what happens to Yeong-he and want to curl up with a page-turning thriller,  I recommend The Vegetarian.

-Charleigh 

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