Part 3A: The Uncanny: Metamorphosis and Brutal Aesthetics in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian

“Such Uncanny Serenity”

It is dark under the lamp. (Korean quote)

The natural world can offer us more than the means to survive, on the one hand, or mortal risks to be avoided, on the other: it can offer us joy. (Michael McCarthy)[i]

Despair lames most people, but it wakes others fully up. (William James)

When asked about the impression Han Kang’s The Vegetarian made upon the reader’s mind, it is frequent that the adjective “dark” is mentioned, as a descriptor, somewhat akin to “very serious.” It trespasses into the unknown, unfathomable, and arcane.  Truly, in The Vegetarian, Han has painted a family portrait in grim, dark shades.  The Kim family are one instance of terrible things going wrong systemically in the extended family, and perhaps more commonly in society than most of us would think.  Authoritarian behaviors and cruel corporal punishment are really a manner of discipline from the past.  It really did not work to make children into “good people” which is often the excuse for being brutal.    

Art is often shown most emphatically in the ways it probes into the darkest, perhaps impenetrable, inexplicable, or uncanny aspects of the human psyche.  Art can be most brutal in depicting the difficulties and failures of marriage, especially when kindness and loving seductions are absent from relationships.  In the scenes of The Vegetarian, never was there an intimate, loving emotion–of any depth–expressed overtly and directly among the characters, whether to one another nor toward long-suffering Yeong-hye.  Food offerings and relationships around food appeared to be the means by which one showed fondness or familiarity.  The elder sister, In-hye, did, however, take over care-giving after her sister’s separation and divorce from Mr. Cheong, both when Yeong-hye was first released from hospitalization and when, later, she was permanently institutionalized as a schizophrenic and anorexic patient in a countryside sanatarium.  These kindnesses were offered only after In-hye had first pleaded (“begged” is the term) unsuccessfully with Mr. Cheong not to give up his difficult marriage to Yeong-hye.  In his misery, dull, benighted Mr. Cheong felt himself more the victim than the poorly treated wife: “Now don’t go making me out as some sort of villain.  Anyone can see I am the real victim here.”(p.78)  In-hye’s husband, on the other hand, felt the callous man had discarded Yeong-hye “as though she were a broken watch or household appliance.”(p.78)

Part 2: “Mongolian Mark” contains a more complicated plot than that narrated in first-person point of view by Mr. Cheong, an outsider’s view of Yeong-hye and her family. Each of the three parts offers a different character’s perspective on the nature and condition of Yeong-hye.  Though the story is not a mystery as in S. I. Hayakawa’s 1950 film Rashamon, the POV does have a “Rashamon” motif of differing perspectives. In “Mongolian Mark,”narrated through the third-person limited perspective by In-hye’s husband (Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law), the artist, [hereafter “the artist”] readers are informed by a plausible voice, which reveals much about the Kim family from the view of another outsider.  The artist, himself a rather benighted soul, with the focus on his internal disposition, his career, and his new project, becomes the protagonist in further complicating Yeong-hye’s existence—taking her under his wing, so to speak. 

The reader is not informed immediately in Part 2 who the character is in the audience of the theater, nor the circumstances of his being in attendance, where a dance performance has just concluded.  For three and a half pages we are left in suspense to wonder who the disconcerted, cross-legged, arms-folded person might be, who had not been moved to applaud, but who had felt his own artistic concept had somehow been preempted and exploited by another, a lesser artist of choreography.  Gradually the reader comes to understand the troubled theater-goer is none other than In-hye’s husband, the first responder with first aid on the event of Yeong-hye’s attempted suicide.  Slowly the reader grasps the circumstances of his being upset, the coincidence of his interest in sketching painted figures and of the floral design from the blue Mongolian mark on Yeong-hye’s abdomen.  It was from a chance remark by In-hye while bathing their child Ji-Woo. Like Yeong-hye, the artist lives in his own world, seemingly estranged from his wife and child.   

Thereafter, the artist succeeded in engaging with his sister-in-law, drawing her into his new art project, which entailed painting nude bodies in bright floral  hues, then filming the female and male interacting extemporaneously and even encouraging sexual intercourse.  With the introduction of art and floral patterns, one might suspect the artist would brighten the imagery and thereby add a promise of brighter horizons for Yeong-hye.  However, this was not to be the case; the theme of a family’s falling apart continues, driven by the artist’s desire to seduce Yeong-hye into his studio and exploit her unusual nature, her slender form and her uncanny mind, into his performance project that he would record by cam-corder.

In using the word seduce, I do not intend to imply there was a truly desirable, erotic seduction, the kind of loving seduction a young woman might find irresistible and engaging, for Yeong-hye has not exhibited any amatory nature towards the artist.  In fact, she is without desire for an erotic engagement.  The seduction for Yeong-hye to engage sexually, as I will describe below, is quite apart from normal erotic attraction or behavior.  It is entirely within Yeong-hye’s psyche under special conditions of ritual preparation that she is willing to allow sexual penetration.  When the conscious male partner desires to penetrate Yeong-hye and succeeds in doing so, it is by virtue of her uncanny unconscious psychic state, her transfiguration into another nature, that she allows the engagement.  To a conscious witness, a voyeur, the act would not be considered a seduction but a rape.  The ground needs to be prepared to explain this more fully.         

Not the Slightest Feeling of Desire

In Part 2: “Mongolian Mark,” having suffered psychiatric medications and institutionalization, once released from incarceration for what is termed her “mental illness,” Yeong-hye continued to become more detached, without emotional response, her face often placid and blank-eyed.  When she chose to accept the artist’s invitation to be a model, she became unashamedly naked, painted with colorful flower designs intended to arouse her erotically, but the artist observed, rather than arousal, she expressed not “the slightest feeling of desire.”(p. 97)

In the case history of Yeong-hye, her immediate family is, from the ways they treated the young woman, comprised of truly unsophisticated people.  Except, perhaps, for the brother-in-law artist, a person of individualist mind, as many artists can be assumed to be, who has lived outside the habits of mainstream society. He showed himself, at times, to possess degrees of sophistication. Certainly he acted quicker in natural responses than the blood kin of Yeong-hye at the scene of her attempted suicide, a luncheon event at the home of In-hye and the artist.  The crisis of the luncheon scene with the Kim family is the pivotal act which determines the fates of the main characters.  Of course, Yeong-hye’s choice to become vegetarian is the initial choice that throws the family into chaos, her attempted suicide the scene of the family’s split-up. The emergency assistance the artist gave Yeong-hye on the occasion of her suicide attempt, wrapping her arm and carrying her to the car for hospitalization, may have helped to draw her into a more favorable, trusting relationship with him.  He had carried her on his back “so light she could almost have been a ghost.” (p. 74).  Yeong-hye’s suicide attempt had an indelible effect on him, for in him something had snapped during the traumatic experience of witnessing the scene:

“As he watched her unconscious form receive emergency medical treatment, he heard a sound like something snapping inside his own body. The feeling he had at that moment was one that, even now [as he later reflected], he found himself unable to explain with any degree of accuracy.  A person had attacked her own body right in front of his eyes, tried to hack at it like it was a piece of meat, her body had soaked his white shirt, mingling with his sweat and gradually drying to a dark brown stain.” (p. 74)

Likewise, the convalescent care also helped ingratiate Yeong-hye with the artist, the home care offered her by In-hye and him after she had been released from institutionalization, staying with them for a month’s rehabilitation.  In time, Yeong-hye was able to leave the family and take up independent living, divorced now almost two years from her husband Mr. Cheong:[ii]

[Mr. Cheong to the artist] “Would you be able to put up with a wife who was always like that, zoned out on psychiatric medication every day, completely dependent on you for her livelihood? (p. 83, italics in text)

The change of Yeong-hye’s diet was not as disconcerting to the artist as it had been for all the other family members; for the unimaginative, it was an abnormal, unacceptable change of diet and behavior.  As the artist narrates:

“The only thing that was especially unusual about her was that she didn’t eat meat.  This had been a source of friction with her family from the start, and since her behavior after this initial change had grown increasingly strange—culminating in her wandering around topless—her husband had decided that her vegetarianism was proof that she would never be ‘normal’ again.” (p.77)

During the convalescent stay of Yeong-hye with In-hye’s family, the artist had not yet been captured by an infatuation with his strange sister-in-law; she had been an odd person of no great attraction at that time:

“The month she’d [Yeong-hye] spent with them, before moving out into a rented studio apartment, had caused none of them even the slightest strain.  Partly this was because he had yet to hear about the Mongolian mark, and thus regarded her as nothing more than an object of pity, albeit a faintly inscrutable one.” (p. 76-77)

It was not until that casual mention one night by In-hye of Yeong-hye’s birthmark, as mentioned above, the symbolic “Mongolian mark” of the title, the focal blemish on her body, a small blue petal design in the middle of her buttocks, that the spell of fascination was first cast upon the artist’s mind. From the time of this coincidental mention, the Mongolian mark began to work its magic.

 Infatuation and Fascination

The depth of his infatuation with Yeong-hye the artist first realized when reviewing sketches in his art workbook. In the sketches he had drawn of faceless, floral-painted figures, he noticed that the female figure was without doubt Yeong-hye’s.  He realized that the blue floral mark on his sister-in-law’s derrière became the causality of his new project, an intuitive move, as “somehow beyond comprehension” and “etched in his mind.”(p.67) Thus we see the time relationship between the drawings and his attendance at the theater:

“Though her face was missing, the woman in his sketch was undoubtedly his sister-in-law.  No, it had to be her.  He’d imagined what her body must have looked like and began to draw, finishing it off with a dot like a small blue petal in the middle of her buttocks, and he’d got an erection.  It was almost the first time since his marriage, and definitely the first time since he’s said goodbye to his mid-thirties, that he’d felt such intense sexual desire, a desire which, moreover, was focused on a clear object.  And so who was the faceless man with his arms around her neck, looking as though he were threatening to throttle her, who was thrusting himself into her?  He knew that it was himself; that in fact it could be none other.  Arriving at this conclusion, he grimaced.” (p. 67-68)

The artist’s grimace implied a degree of repugnance at the unethical sexual engagement of himself with his sister-in-law, a certain revulsion in recognizing his sexual excitation and the imagined brutal embrace—a throttling–of Yeong-hye.  Just as with Mr. Cheong and his sexual relations with his wife, likewise with the artist, the attraction to Yeong-hye is one primarily connected with a forceful erotic drive.

After he had become fixated on Yeong-hye’s beauty mark and the unusual nature of her being had begun to attract him, the artist found the woman an exciting, earthy, lively spirit, whose naked image began to stir him to sexual fantasies.  It should be mentioned, too, that Yeong–hye had put on some flesh after her institutionalization and rehabilitation at her sister’s; she had grown fitter, which may have also attracted her brother-in-law.  Just as the Mongolian mark became “etched” in his brain, now he felt a growing obsession, her naked image “stamped on his brain”:

“He reproached himself for having used her as a kind of mental pornography [in masturbation], when she simply had an innocent wish to be naked.  All the same, he was unable to deny that the image of her naked was now stamped indelibly on his brain, burned into him like a brand.” (p. 84)

Strange as it is, the mark that had infected his imagination and the naked body that had stirred him to a new erotic excitement were not reflected in the emotions of Yeong-hye.  She remained oblivious of the artist’s infatuation. Nevertheless, there was her uncanniness that made her exciting:

“Her voice had no weight to it, like feathers. It was neither gloomy nor absentminded as might be expected of someone who was ill. But it wasn’t bright or lighthearted either. It was the quiet tone of a person who did not belong anywhere, someone who had passed into a border area between states of being.” (p. 78, my underlining)

Her uncanniness appealed to the artist, even frightened him, causing him to wonder at what lurked in her psyche:

“Slowly [Yeong-hye] turned to face him, and he saw that her expression was as serene as that of a Buddhist monk.  Such uncanny serenity actually frightened him, making him think that this was perhaps a surface impression left behind after any amount of viciousness had been digested, or else had settled down inside her as a kind of sediment.”(p. 84)

Though he would have wished Yeong-hye to have been the aroused erotic being of his imagination, he noticed she was not a responsive sexual person:

“This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated.  But this was nothing so crass as carnal desire, not for her—rather, or so it seemed, what she had denounced was the very life that her body represented.” (p. 92)

Even the Mongolian mark was something that signified ideas beyond the sensual:

 “It called to mind something ancient, something pre-evolutionary, or else perhaps a mark of photosynthesis, and he realized to his surprise that there was nothing at all sexual about it; it was more vegetal than sexual.” (p. 90)

The Artist’s About-Turn.

Certainly, the combination of Yeong-hye’s enchanting floral mark and the affective uncanniness of her being could still hold the artist in thrall for her in order to bring his artistic idea to fruition.  Never had he ventured into this realm of art before, and therefore, he was perhaps wading into waters of depth and darkness she should not encounter.   The body painting and kinetic performance art were completely foreign to the style and content of his previous artistic forms during his career. When his friend “P,” a flame from the past, came to his studio to paint the artist’s naked body, she remarked about the change of style:

“‘I’m surprised.  I didn’t know you knew how to use color like this.’ . . .‘This is quite an about-turn.’ . . .  ‘I can see you’re aiming to transform your image, but . . . isn’t this a little extreme?’” (p. 116)

To this point, Yeong-hye had been experiencing a transformation, and now the artist has been transformed in his art.  How extreme this transformation was to become, not even the artist could have imagined. I might have said the symbol of the mark had a Jamesian force to it, or the magic of a Hawthornian sign.  And yet, something of the tragic peripeteia is hinted at in that term about-turn.  His choice of taking up the new project of painted naked figures, with his estranged sister-in-law as main subject, has characteristics of a tragic mistake, fatal both for Yeong-hye and the artist.  Though both will perhaps survive the crisis of their actions, nevertheless, neither will live happily.    

Though Yeong-hye had escaped from the loveless marriage with Mr. Cheong, by association with her brother-in-law artist, she began anew to deepen the complication her life.  Cognizance of the risks and fear of an entangled relationship with the artist probably never entered her detached mind. Just as there had existed an exploitative element in Yeong-hye’s marriage and its obligations, connected mostly with matters of food and sex, so now another degree of exploitation was being planned in the schemes of the artist to use Yeong-hye, complicit though she proved to be, as a nude model, elaborately painted with garlands of multi-colored flowers. The artistic element takes the exploitation out of the profane and banal aspects of slavish duties to Mr. Cheong and puts it in the realm of aesthetics, not to mention ethics and morality. The artist had begun to see Yeong-hye as an attractive sexual object, but also as a figure of erotic dance, heightened by transfiguration and ecstatic movement, as if enacting a fertility ritual:

“. . . she radiated energy, like a tree that grows in the wilderness, denuded and solitary.” (p. 71)

“Her calm acceptance of all these things [being painted with flowers] made her seem to him something sacred.” (p. 95)

Much later, when Yeong-hye had been permanently institutionalized, In-hye thought back on the horror she felt, seeing the film of her husband and her sister writhing on the studio floor:

“She recalls the sight of those two naked bodies, twined together like jungle creepers.  . . . the more time went by the less she thought of it as something sexual.  Covered with flowers and leaves and twisting green stems, these bodies were so altered it was as though they no longer belonged to human beings.” (p. 184)

Ritual Performance

Quite brilliant was the use of art and dance as a plot device. Accidental as it was, the idea of seducing Yeong-hye through aesthetics of painting and in terms related to plant fertility was a tragic mistake.  The artist did not really understand how he had managed to influence Yeong-hye to be so compliant.  He learned this by mistaken confidence in due course.

The opening of Part 2, in the structure of plot, occurs somewhere in medias res as the artist watched a stage performance.  The wild, frenetic pace of the theatrical dance program, which the artist observed in consternation, had been performed by modern dancers transformed by body painting.  The modern dancers bore characteristics of his designs, some being nude and covered in colorful flowers and petals.  It was an unfathomable coincidence.  But not all was as he had conceived the imagery for his project:

“There had been nothing for him in the booming electronic music, the gaudy costumes, the showy nudity, or the overtly sexual gestures.  The thing he’d been searching for was something quieter, deeper, more private.” (p. 64)

Reminded of another artist’s work he had observed, a video work of the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, he remembered it critically as wildly kinetic with excessive flapping and flailing, with promiscuous sexual gestures, set to the accompaniment of flamboyant psychedelic music.  His idea had none of the frenetic kineticism.  He was after something more ascetic, “a stillness and solidity that counterbalanced the [sexually] arousing nature of the situation.” (p. 66)

This idea of Han’s to bring modern dance and film into the plot motives was to me quite remarkable for its subtlety.   The painted, transfigured dancers, performing a kind of modern-dance Rites of Spring extravaganza, reminded me of the avant-garde Ballets Russes performances under Diaghilev.  Reviewing a 20th-century critique of modern dance by the notable literary critic Frank Kermode,[iii] I was intrigued by his presentation of the significant ritual connection of dance with archaic, aboriginal ritual.  The inclination of the detached Yeong-hye to become a de-humanized creature would work magic through modern dance expressions.  Kermode notes:

“[Dance] . . . has, I think, much to do with the notion that it somehow represents art in an undissociated and unspecialized form…. The notion is essentially primitivist; it depends upon the assumption that mind and body, form and matter, image and discourse have undergone a process of dissociation, which is the business of art momentarily to mend.  Consequently dancing is credited with a sacred prioriy over the other arts . . . and with less rhapsody and more philosophy… .”[iv]

“The dance, though expressive, is impersonal, like a Symbolist poem that comes off.”[v]

“However, there is no disagreement from the fundamental principle that dance is the most primitive, non-discursive art, offering a pre-scientific image of life, an intuitive truth.  … Dance belongs to a period before the self and the world were divided, and so achieves that ‘original unity’ which …modern poetry can produce only by a great and exhausting effort of fusion.”[vi]

The art of dance requires a dissociation and a dehumanizing of the performer, one who is disembodied from the human forms, who portray images and ideas uncommon to the usual forms and shapes the human body is rarely capable of.  Uncannily, the artist of “Mongolian Mark” had, accidently and intuitively, chosen Yeong-hye especially for her creatureliness, her “other-being-ness,” her uncanny nature.  Falling into a tragic net, Yeong-hye had consented to perform her sacred flower transformation without any view to the consequences.  The artist himself fell into the same detachment.  As an unwitting, innocent victim, Yeong-hye has brought on the downfall of another limb of her family tree.  

 A Communicative Relationship

Beyond the family kinship, the artist continued to pursue a closer relationship with Yeong-hye after she had spent time in independent apartment living.  He was not averse to communicating with her in the normal way of conversation, even though he was himself not completely, intimately aware of the uncanniness of her inner psychic nature, her creaturely, marginalized state of being.  At first he was unsure and reluctant to invade her life uninvited, even as his pretext to see her was to offer the presents of foods his wife felt Yeong-hye might accept.  In time, the artist was able to question her desire to change to vegetarianism.  She responded:

 “ ‘It isn’t difficult [to explain]. It’s just I don’t think you’d understand.’ She raised her chopsticks again and slowly chewed some seasoned bean sprouts. ‘It’s because of a dream I had’”

‘I had a dream . . . and that’s why I don’t eat meat’

‘I dreamed of a face.’

Seeing how utterly baffled he was, she laughed quietly.  A melancholy laugh. ‘Didn’t I say you wouldn’t understand?’” (p. 97-98)

Such intelligible discourse reminded the reader that Yeong-hye was not completely deranged, for she did understand her peculiar motive and the impossibility of the artist’s understanding her cast of mind in eschewing desires for carnal foods.  Their revealing conversation at a restaurant table seems to put the responsive dialogue and the relationship of the characters into plausible, normative modes of conduct.  But the formal narrative control is constantly merging into chaos when the reader considers the ulterior motive, the purposive seduction of the artist’s project to film her naked, engaged in sex with another model.        

Brutal Aesthetics Again

So, what about the brutal aesthetic evaluation?  (Permit me to review briefly.) The horrific violence of dream imagery was a prime element of brutal aesthetics in Part 1: “The Vegetarian.” This was followed by the brutal abuse of Yeong-hye by her husband (i.e. the rape scene) and by her parents’ cruel force-feeding her at the lunch engagement.  Yeong-hye’s suicide attempt was a high mark of self-inflicted brutality.  Finally, there was the closing image of Yeong-hye, calmly sitting in the courtyard of the hospital, her torso bare, her mouth bloodied from biting a small bird she held throttled in her fist.

The wild and ferocious tenor of brutal aesthetics, however, is toned down somewhat in Part 2: “Mongolian Mark,” but no less frequent.  As mentioned, the intensity of distasteful brutal elements is found in scenes of erotic incidents, acted out or imagined.  Descriptive scenes of physical, sexual imagery (p. 89, 109-112, 120-121) count as the most alarming “art brut” that may be disturbing or objectionable to some readers not used to dark, transgressive fiction. Several kinetic scenes of explicit sexual activity are mentioned—male erections, male masturbation, and sexual penetration between partners in performance art; also, imagined rapine sexual congress (see below) and surreal, ecstatic sexual intercourse are affective brutal elements. (p. 103-104, 120-121) 

The first is an example of the artist’s imaginative urge to strip Yeong-hye.  This occurred on first meeting with her at her apartment where he found her naked, coming from a shower. She dressed calmly and they decided to try the fruits the artist had brought from home:

“Using her fingers instead of a fork, she picked up a piece of pear and put it in her mouth. He averted his head, frightened by the sudden urge he had to throw his arms around her still form—so still in fact she appeared to be lost in thought—to suck on her index finger, sticky with sweet pear juice, and lick the last of the juice from her lips and tongue, and to pull her baggy tracksuit bottoms down right then and there.” (p. 84) 

In a second example, in a calm confrontation dining together in a restaurant, the artist could not resist his urges:

“Now, as she sat across from him wearing his chunky sweater and with her spoon in her mouth, he felt that the miracle of that afternoon [Yeong-hye’s joy at being painted with flowers and the progress of his camcorder film project] which had finally succeeded in neutralizing the persistent, agonizing desire of the past year, was well and truly over.  The imagined sight of him throwing her down, rough enough to make all the people in the restaurant scream if they could see it, descended in front of her moving lips like a semi-transparent veil, an all-too-familiar hellish projection flickering in front of his eyes.  He looked down at the table and awkwardly swallowed a mouthful of rice.” (p. 97)

Male readers would have no problem in understanding the reality of masturbation scenes or imagined rapacious sex, but tender-minded readers who are not experienced in or knowledgeable about men’s psychic lives would perhaps find such rude scenes (as above) in the artist’s mind to be the sign of a violent, sadistic, oversexed male rather than that of an ordinary man. The artist, though, is not really in his ordinary mind at times, his psyche obviously troubled.  In the artist’s desire for Yeong-hye, except for the ecstasy of artistic play, he did not consider in any depth of feeling the realistic needs of Yeong-hye, or worry about the consequences of their behavior.  In many ways, Han is showing us another flawed male character, flawed as husband and as a human being, concerned for his own gratification and not for the object of his desire.  Nevertheless, as with Mr. Cheong’s behaviors in Part 1, in the developmental behaviors of the artist in Part 2, one does not feel that Han is detailing male characters who have serious degrees of mental illness. 

Besides imagined rapine acts, the artist also conjures thoughts of suicide on several occasions but none are acted upon.  The mind and character of the artist, the distraught nature of his personal crisis, stand in the foreground of the narrative, though not through an unreliable first-person perspective (as with Mr. Cheong) but in a thoroughly reliable point of view. The artist’s view on life and his relations with his wife and the fragility of their marriage are major aspects of the crises of “Mongolian Mark.” The plausibility of the artist’s mental contemplations, his likes and dislikes, and the reasons behind his preferences, as well as the divulging of his troubled psyche, whether about his artistic career, his manic fascination with Yeong-hye, and his disaffection for his dutiful wife, In-hye, we can believe these states to be the cast of his mind and feelings.  His distance and disaffection from his own wife, as they were also characterized in Mr. Cheong, are not drawn in such a way that the reader senses a psychotic nature.  Though, these characteristics may be taken as ingredients in the failure of marital harmony. 

Mental Illness

Human relationships—families—falling apart—and nothing much coming together to resolve difficulties—that’s what Han Kang is depicting, among other issues, in her starkly visceral story of failed marriages.  In another sense, socially and culturally, there is a hint of Yeats’ “Things fall apart,” that “the center cannot hold.” The surreal quality of the work appeared to me as a quasi-apocalyptic element in Yeong-hye’s desire to escape from toxic carnal existence and to enter into the non-assaultive plant world.  The human world she has found unacceptable and the inhuman world appears a possible option for a transformational exit from the harmful kingdom. Her crisis—uncanny as it is focused in her dream life and need to escape its psychic infection—also generates the crisis occurring in each of the narrators’ lives.  Of major importance is, of course, her husband’s and the family’s demonization of the wayward Yeong-hye.  Most unusual—uncanny—however, is the transformational career of Yeong-hye, from living a human carnal existence into practicing—in imaginative, psychic desire—a metamorphosis into plant or tree life.  Having become a monomaniacal person, giving full attention to thoughts and behaviors relating to plant life, manners that differ from the normative behaviors of those around her, Yeong-hye acts as one who gone beyond vegetarianism to escape her violent dreams into a desire for freedom from human authoritarian control, from being punished by the established ways of humankind.  This means from dreaming human dreams that arise out of a distasteful, tortured past life, subject to a cruel father’s physical and psychological punishment. Indeed, the artist had glimpses of this troubled nature in the early stages of practicing their ritual program once Yeong-hye had been painted with colors:

“The whole situation was undeniably bizarre, yet she displayed an almost total lack of curiosity, and indeed it seemed that this was what enabled her to maintain her composure no matter what she was faced with. She made no move to investigate the unfamiliar space, and showed none of the emotions that one might expect.  . . . Or perhaps it was simply that things were happening inside her, terrible things, which no one else could guess at, and thus it was possible for her to engage with everyday life at the same time. If so, she would naturally have no energy left, not just for curiosity or interest but indeed for any meaningful response to all the humdrum minutiae that went on the surface.  What suggested to him that this might be the case was that, on occasion, her eyes would seem to reflect a kind of violence that could not simply be dismissed as passivity or idiocy or indifference, and which she would be struggling to suppress.” (p. 93)

 No matter what the instigation of her change of heart and mind—the nightmarish dream is what she claims[vii]—she has chosen to set herself apart from her family in order to regain control of her own being. That she caused a great disruption of her family and marriage was simply a fact of others’ unwillingness to tolerate her chosen behaviors.  Most of her own family considered her clearly insane and had disowned her:  

“Now there was nothing anyone could do to help her. Every single one of them—her parents who had force-fed her meat, her husband and siblings who had stood by and let it happen—were distant strangers, if not actual enemies.”(p. 74)

Even though doctors were likely to consider a patient’s family’s gentle care and love important for improvement, this eventually seemed an impossible way for Yeong-hye to recover.  In the days of her sister’s first hospitalization before she was transferred to the country sanatorium, In-hye recalled the doctor who wished Yeong-hye to be discharged:

“So far, the results we have observed directly have been good.  She probably isn’t in a position yet to return to any kind of social life, but the support of her family will be a great help.” (p. 148)   

Alas, the support of all her family was never to be forthcoming, and after In-hye had her sister discharged, the events occurred as we have detailed in the relationship with the artist.

Mental illness, if that is what readers wish to call Yeong-hye’s condition, is taken into an undefinable and bizarre dimension. The doctors have termed Yeong-hye “schizophrenic,” but of this condition many degrees are possible.  Her hallucinatory dreams may have had the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, and a traumatized upbringing can possible have pushed her into severe states of paranoia.  Her family picked on her, punished her, and no one protected her or complained of the injustices done to her.  Matters of diet and food fetishes, especially those that seem injurious to an individual’s health—e.g. anorexia nervosa is mentioned—are often reasons that family members and the medical profession look upon someone as mentally ill and in need of professional attention. The doctor advised:

“There can be all manner of psychological factors at play, a power struggle with a domineering mother,  . . . but Kim Yeong-hye’s is one of those particular cases where the subject refuses to eat while suffering from schizophrenia. We were confident that her schizophrenia wasn’t serious. There was honestly no way for us to predict things would turn out the way they have.” (p. 146)

Family and doctors may insist on force-feeding the “fixed-minded” anorexic person who has chosen not to eat and they may even act ineptly to injure, to over-medicate, and even to restrain the patient-victim, thus enforcing their authority sometimes through cruel treatments.  Of course, medication and institutionalizing were condoned by her family, in accordance with advice perhaps of the psychiatric doctors, the main solution for Yeong-hye as one condemned as suicidal and mentally ill, even if she behaved calmly and “outwardly submissive.”[viii]  In conclusion, the doctors admitted to In-hye, “But we are not exactly sure why it is that Kim Yeong-hye is refusing to eat, and none of the medicines we’ve given her seem to have had any effect.” (p. 146)  Their investigations and inquiries were lacking in intimate caring to find the reasons behind Yeong-hye’s behaviors.  Nevertheless, Han is not writing her novel to show the development of a schizophrenic person.     

Occasions existed for In-hye and the artist to understand what was driving Yeong-hye’s estrangement, but distracted by their own psychological crises and their particular motives in living their lives, they failed to comprehend the peculiar psychopathy of Yeong-hye.  The artist had invaded her private life and seduced her into extraordinary acts of performance art that exploited her inclinations to grow plant-like.  The artist created a dilemma: on the one hand he acted with lustful ulterior motives, unethically and exploitatively transfiguring and seducing Yeong-yhe, but on the other hand, through his art, he was drawing her closer to her own desire to become transfigured as a plant being.  However, tragic choices are often unforeseen by the impulsive actors, driven by their daemons into the abyss through tragic misjudgment.

The way of marginalized human beings may have a career chosen deliberately for aloneness, to practice one’s art—the shaman, the witch, the hermit saint, the yogi, the sitarist, the classical guitarist, the electric bassist, the pot smoker, the tree hugger.   The artist and the tree maiden have chosen or been forced by searching for meaningful values to go outside conventional society, in a way that allows the interior life of the imagination and fantasy to seek a solution, an exit strategy from the unwanted, ugly, brutal life that some people have decided to live in, accepting the banal horrors of the day. 

[The close analysis of the artist of Part 2. “Mongolian Mark,” will be continued and concluded in another treatment of the artist’s estrangement, his suicidal thoughts.]  

David Gilmour                                                                                                                                           June 23, 2019


[i] The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy (London: John Murray, 2016).

[ii] “It had been the beginning of summer two years ago when his sister-in-law had cut her wrist open in his house.” (p. 73)

[iii] “The Poet and Dancer before Diaghilev,” in Pieces of My Mind: Essays and Criticism, 1958-2002. (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003), p. 3-31.

[iv] Ibid., p. 5-6.

[v] Ibid., p. 7.

[vi] Ibid., p. 7.

[vii] The precise cause of the affliction for eschewing a meat diet is described in the passage late in Part 2.  The face in the dream, often bloody, is the disturbing feature Yeong-hye wishes to escape: “I thought all I had to do was to stop eating meat and then the faces would not come back.  But it didn’t work.” (p. 122) 

[viii] “Her husband had decided that her vegetarianism was proof she would never be ‘normal’ again.” Mr. Cheong speaks: “She was always so submissive—outwardly, at any rate. And for a woman who wasn’t quite all there to start with to be taking medication every day, well, she’s bound to get worse, and that’s all there is to it.”(p. 77)

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