Part 3B: The Uncanny: Metamorphosis and Brutal Aesthetics in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, “Crossing Boundaries”

A Gravely Troubled Man

The perspective of the artist is highly self-reflexive. For one, he did not condemn Yeong-hye for her strangeness, though he was unable to truly understand her psychic disposition.  Han’s study of the artist is excessively detailed, both in the life of the artist in his career and in the characterization of his psychological state.  Both he and In-hye are troubled characters. The thoughts and perspectives of the artist as he reveals himself in the “Mongolian Mark “also reveal aspects of Yeong-hye’s distemper.  

A quite different view of Yeong-hye is presented by the artist, who, though he realized she lived in a strange, fragile state, was willing to confront her out of a growing erotic inclination towards her and a disaffection from his own wife, In-hye.  The likeness between the two, Yeong-hye and the artist, is their ostracism from the family they belong to. However, he was likewise not a well-balanced character, suffering periodically from suicidal thoughts.  An unhappy man, he felt dejected and worthless, sensing that his art for the past decade had been of no great accomplishment.  He had focused on studies of negative social behaviors.  On his taxi ride after having taken Yeong-hye to the hospital:

“During the journey [home] his most recent video work had come to mind, and he’d been surprised to find himself recalling it as something that had caused him unbearable pain. The work had been based around images related to things he loathed, and thought of as lies … .” (p. 75)

The incident with Yeong-hye’s attempted suicide—the smell of the dried blood and the reality of what he had experienced—had somehow brought on these reflections, self-doubts and loathing:

“He had felt suddenly sick. . . . At that moment his thoughts crossed a boundary, and he wanted to fling open the door of the speeding taxi and tumble out onto the tarmac.  He could no longer bear the thought of those images [of his former works], of the reality they portrayed.  … He was worn out, and life revolted him.  He couldn’t cope with these things it contaminated.” (p. 75-76)

His connection with the estranged Yeong-hye had stimulated him. He had suffered a long dry spell from productive art projects and felt distraught from idleness and advancing middle-age.  On the train from the city:

“He had to force himself to accept that the middle-aged man, who had a baseball cap concealing his receding hairline and a baggy sweater at least attempting to do the same for his paunch, was himself.” (p. 65)

An artist in mid-life crisis, he had bouts of desperation:

“He was becoming divided against himself.  Was he a normal human being? More than that, a moral human being? A strong human being, able to control his own impulses? In the end, he found himself unable to claim with any certainty that he knew the answers to these questions, though he’d been so sure before.” (p. 69)

Fleeing from the studio, unsure of his stability, he had mad thoughts:

“In his reflection in the lift’s door, which gleamed like a mirror, it looked as though tears were streaming from his bloodshot eyes. However much he combed his memory, he couldn’t remember anything like this having happened to him before.  Right at that moment he wanted to spit at those red-lined eyes.  He wanted to pummel his cheeks until the blood showed through beneath his black beard, and smash his ugly lips, swollen with desire, with the sole of his shoe.” (p.71)

The artist himself did not especially wish to be the nude partner with his sister-in-law, for he first asked his friend “J” to play a painted companion role with his model. He definitely understood the moral dilemma he had placed himself in, but the drive to produce his exciting project and the spell of fascination Yeong-hye and her Mongolian birthmark had cast upon him made it impossible for him to arrest himself and see reason. He was thoroughly aware of the immoral ulterior motive:

“It was clear only after hearing about her Mongolian mark from his wife that he had started to see his sister-in-law in a new light.  Before that he’d never had an ulterior motive when it came to his dealings with her. When he recalled how she’d looked and acted during the time she’d spent living with them, the sexual desire that flooded through him was a product of his mental reenactment of these past experiences, not something he’d actually felt at the time.” (p. 79) 

 In love-making with his wife, a rough penetration with no romantic seduction, he could not erase the image of Yeong-hye:

“He pushed himself toward the image of her [Yeong-hye], finding it there in his wife’s nose and lips, the child-like curve of her neck, all outlined vaguely in the darkness. With her nipple standing straight and hard in his mouth, he reached down and pulled off her knickers.  Every time he wanted to get the small blue petal to open and close, he shut his eyes and tried to block out his wife’s face.” (p. 89, italics in text)

In this daring project, the artist was quite monomaniacal, willing to risk his marginal status with Yeong-hye’s family, his wife, and even his friends, such that he may ostracize himself both as a voyeur and a pornographic artist from society. Then again, no matter his erotic inclination, foreshadowed by sexual excitation in Yeong-hye’s presence and by masturbation at home in the shower, by these behaviors he need not be considered abnormal.[i]  Consider this singularly humorous scene, in a novel short of lightness of any kind, when he first meets Yeong-hye in her apartment:

“She’s saying that she always walks around with her clothes off in the house. He’d been just fine a moment ago when confronted with her naked body, but as soon as he grasped what she was saying, he became flustered and felt his penis becoming engorged.  He took off his baseball cap and squatted down awkwardly, trying to conceal his erection.” (p. 82)

A brutal aesthetic motif, such exposed erotic action may be thought a vulgar, crude, or even disreputable, image to prudish minds, though as realism it is a normal behavioral situation.  Nevertheless, he was risking by his artistic project with his sister-in-law charges of immorality and perversion to be cast upon him by his outraged family and civic authorities, Others in society might well perceive the nude art and sexual congress as prurient pornography should it be exposed as evidence to condemn the film maker.   In stepping beyond the bounds of behaviors of ordinary society, with philandery perhaps to be added to the charge, both he and Yeong-hye risked severe condemnation and perhaps incarceration, for others will be quick to define them as dangers to themselves and possibly society.  As it turned out, a wife and sister’s scorn can likewise be magnified by concerted outrage, with or without other family members’ organized critical denunciations.      

 Despair Lames Some People[ii]

 Two years since the dinner crisis and Yeong-hye’s suicide attempt, Mr. Cheong had divorced his wife, a woman, as mentioned beforehand, he considered of no particular account.  Crazy as Yeong-hye seemed to him, an unsophisticated, unfeeling, and disinterested man, there was not a shred of care-giving or loving marital concern in him that would merit his staying with her for her physical health or mental improvement.  After hospitalization for “post-suicide-attempt dementia,” after a stay with her elder sister, Yeong-hye was allowed to live alone as her own being.   Though, her change of diet was yet enough to make her “abnormal” in the minds of the unimaginative. As the artist narrated:

“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)

Strange it is that a wife who had explained to her husband that brassiere straps chafed and cut into her thin shoulders and tender collar bones would not be “forgiven” for wanting to go bra-less in the privacy of her own home.  In her own home, she obviously had no control of her own body. 

Like Peas in a Pod

Contrary to Mr. Cheong, the artist does show interest and consideration for his sister-in-law. Much is exposed of his character in this regard. We learn that he, too, suffered despair and estrangement, and frequently considered suicidal thoughts.  While driving home from the studio after the failed shoot between “J” and Yeong-hye, he thought, “I wish I were dead”:

“Unable to understand why the tears were streaming down his face, he clutched the steering wheel and set the wipers to frequent only to realize that it wasn’t the windshield that was blurred but his own vision.  He couldn’t understand why the words ‘I wish I were dead’ were ceaselessly being hammered out inside his head like an incantation.  He could not understand why the words ‘so die’ would inevitably follow, as though the response were coming from someone inside him, and yet not him.” (p. 114)  

The Outsiders

The brother-in-law was an outsider to the family: Mr. Cheong thought of him as a loser:  “an art college graduate who liked to pose as an artist”; “free to spend his life messing around with ‘art,’ without a single worry to trouble his comfortable existence.” (p. 41 and 42) Likewise, In-hye also thought her husband “a lost cause,” and had given up on him emotionally. (p. 71) He did not contribute materially to his family’s income. However, when an emergency responder was necessary, it was not Yeong-hye’s husband who acted at the scene of her attempted suicide, nor even the alarmed In-hye; rather, the loser brother-in-law was, in fact, first to rush to her aid at the family dinner, to wrap her cut wrist, to pick her up and carry her on his back,

The artist outsider wondered what survival could mean in regards to Yeong-hye’s future, at least as a member of the disaffected family group. He even thought “that it would be good if she didn’t wake up, that if she did the situation would actually be ambiguous, ghastly, that perhaps he ought to throw her out of the window while her eyes were still closed.” (p.75)  It is one thing to think of throwing oneself off a balcony, but to imagine a good deed in throwing another from a veranda is tantamount to madness.  This bizarre thought is indicative of a warped mentality, for he too thinks he knows what is best for Yeong-hye. His exploitation of her body with her willingness—her desire one might say—to undergo the painted floral transformation and, in the throes of the excitation, to have her engage in sexual congress with a male model, likewise painted, none of this seems at all contrary to Yeong-hye’s inclinations.  She did not wish sexual congress with her brother-in-law in his ordinary human form, as he found out by assaulting her.  On this move towards her, she sharply rejected him. Then why was she willing to allow penetration by the model “Without complaint”? 

“Then why did you fancy him [“J”]?                                                                                                             “It wasn’t him, it was the flowers”                                                                                                                            . . .

“I really wanted to do it,” she said carefully. “I’ve never wanted it so much before.  It was the flowers on his body . . . I couldn’t help myself.  That’s all.” (p. 113-114)

He then asked if she would be complicit with him if he painted himself in flowers.  At this she showed by her look that he had understood and there would be no objection.

This certainly implies the thinker who narrates the story is himself quite on the edge of foolhardiness, if not insanity, as society would imagine it. The artist, like Yeong-hye in her wildly creative desire for planthood, disillusioned by the life he lived as one struggling to “create himself,” already harbored thoughts of suicide.  Not unusual in artists’ lives, one might think from historical accounts. The artist is often allowed a degree of madness,[iii] but one who suffers from feeling a fraud may indeed be pathologically suicidal.[iv]  

Crossing Boundaries

This metaphor “crossing boundaries” is central to the problem of preserving social authority. “To turn vegetarian,” as a turn from the normal morality of other people, can be taken as a metaphor for pulling away from society’s norms.  Obviously the cruel responses Yeong-hye faced showed that her behavior was not considered a mild protest against social norms which others considered decent:  namely, to preserve the established family laws, to observe proprieties of the long-standing patriarchal hierarchy, to stay in one’s place, to not in any way buck the social order.  The brother-in-law artist and Yeong-hye have much in common as outsiders, both having crossed to another state of being, careless of normal social proprieties. This transformation to “creaturely-ness”  In-hye noticed in the video her husband had filmed when the wild pair were painted in flowers and conjoined in intercourse:

“Covered with flowers and leaves and twisted green stems, those bodies were so altered it was as though they no longer belonged to human beings.  The writhing movements of those bodies made it seem as though they were trying to shuck off the human.”(p. 184, my underlining)

Desire for intimate belonging with Yeong-hye held more appeal for the artist than did his affection for his own wife, even though In-hye had been a woman of no obvious failings as a wife and mother. For him, In-hye’s very virtues, as society would judge them, had become questionable flaws in their relationship as he valued character traits.  

In-hye: “a Picture of Responsible Compassion”

In-hye was often a scold to her husband and it was not often possible for her to know whether he was pleased to see her. He felt that his wife worked too much and came to accept that she worked herself to exhaustion. His interest had turned towards Yeong-hye since the time of the crisis and throughout her stay with them to rehabilitate. Sunday was the time In-hye insisted her husband spend time at home.

“He knew that this was the only time of the week she [in-hye] would allow herself a bit of a break. She was even grateful that he let her take on so much responsibility, running a business as well as a household, without so much as a word of complaint.  But these days, every time he looked at her he saw her sister’s face overlaid on hers, and their domestic life couldn’t have been further from his thoughts.” (p. 70)

In-hye had the unfortunate trait of insisting on her husband eating properly.  This preoccupation with eating “properly” obviously was something ingrained in her by her parents’ demands in growing up.  She more than questioned his eating habits:

“Have you had dinner? … You have to eat properly, why do you always grab something on the go?” (P. 70-71)

“’Shall I make you something to eat or not?’ His wife’s question was almost a demand.” (p. 72)

In her anxiety over taking care of her husband and of her son, suffering with a cold, and her concern for Yeong-hye living alone, she expresses her feelings in a frustrated manner:

“He studies his wife, a picture of responsible compassion as she carefully approached their son with the medicine. She’s a good woman he thought.  The kind of woman whose goodness is oppressive.”(p. 72, my emphasis)

When he excused himself from returning home to take care of Ji-woo, In-hye did not erupt in anger that he was staying out to do work:

“He would have preferred if she had screamed and raged like other wives, nagged and heaped abuse on him.  She became resigned so easily, and her habit of gloomily suppressing the dregs of this resignation suffocated him.  He didn’t know if her desperate efforts to be understanding and considerate were a good or bad thing.  Perhaps it was all down to him being self-centered and irresponsible.  But right now he found his wife’s patience and desire to do the right thing stifling, which made him still more inclined to see it as a flaw in her character.”(p. 105) 

The disaffection he felt for his wife—for her submissiveness, her workaholism, her badgering about food, her meticulous responsible nature, and her utterly detestable niceness—was matched by his curious affection for the strangely attractive Yeong-hye.

Ulterior Motive

Therefore, as he went forward with his film with Yeong-hye, his excitement and inspiration gave him a renewed energy that made him feel as though he were “living with a new intensity.” (p.107):

“The monochrome world, entirely devoid of the colors he was now experiencing, had had a calmness that was beautiful in its way, but it wasn’t somewhere he could go back to.  It seemed the happiness that had enabled him to feel that quiet peace was now lost to him forever.  And yet he found himself unable to think of this as a loss.  All of his energy was taken up in trying to cope with the excitement, the heightened awareness of living in the present moment.” (p.107)

Nevertheless, his anxiety was high for the folly he had undertaken and an awareness of his desire for Yeong-hye did involve seductive strategies with an ulterior motive to exploit her:

“It was clearly only after hearing about the Mongolian mark from his wife that he’d started to see his sister-in-law in a new light.  Before that he’d never had any kind of ulterior motive when it came to his dealings with her. When he recalled how she’d looked and acted during the time she’s spent living with them, the sexual desire that flooded through him was a product of his mental re-enactment of these past experiences, not something he’d actually felt at the time.” (p.79, my emphasis)

The Tree Maiden, a Mysterious Being

In contradistinction to In-hye’s stifling responsible nature, the uncanny creaturely nature of Yeong-hye was clearly observed by the intuition of the artist.  His first mention of attraction to her was to point out her unusual speech and looks—blunt and uncouth in the way she spoke without his wife’s nasal inflection; drab in dress, and her “androgynously protruding cheekbones”:

“She might well be called ugly in comparison with his wife, but to him she radiated energy, like a tree that grows in the wilderness, denuded and solitary.” (p. 71)

His reflections on her behavior inadvertently picked out her association with the plant world.  When she sunned herself in the autumn light on the veranda:

“She would occupy herself in picking up the dried leaves that had fallen from the flower pots and crumbling them into a fine powder, or in stretching out the palm of her hand to cast shadows over the floor.” (p. 77)

When the artist first went alone to Yeong-hye’s apartment, to take her some fruit, he felt a great nervousness in approaching his sister-in-law.  She lived, it seemed by her preference, in the nude and his arrival found her retreating from the bathroom or perhaps the bathtub where she had been “watering herself.” She appeared without embarrassment before him and calmly collected her clothes.  In this instance he showed himself flummoxed by her nakedness and looked at her as he stood “as if rooted to the spot.” (p.81)  He had become a man possessed, her unusualness to him a rare kind of beauty, as he had earlier defined it “more vegetal than sexual”:

“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 renounced was the very life that her body represented.  (p. 92)

She accepted much without expression of curiosity or alarm and this composure gave the artist an eerie sense of strange inner workings:

“It seemed enough for her to just deal with whatever it was that came her way, calmly and without fuss.  Or perhaps it was simply that things were happening inside her, terrible things, which no one else could even guess at, and thus it was possible for her to engage with everyday life at the same time.” (p. 93)

The calmness he noticed as she received the paint brush strokes gave her momentary shivers of the skin, such that the “calm acceptance of all these things made her seem to him something sacred.” (p. 95)   Her strangeness struck him as indefinable, beyond person-hood:

Whether human, animal or plant, she could not be called a “person,” but then she wasn’t exactly some feral creature either—more like a mysterious being with qualities of both.” (p.95)

The language moves slowly, questioningly, towards the metamorphosis that is her inner predilection, impossible for others to guess at.

Body Graphics: “It wasn’t him, it was the flowers . . .”

When the transfigurative imagery develops beyond the mere painted flowers on the surface of the skin, it occurs as dream imagery or psychic vision in the artist when he awakened from exhausted dozing in the sauna on the evening after he had left his painted model off at her apartment.  The vision of Yeong-hye appeared as a frightful vegetational being:

“Her skin was a pale green.  Her body lay prone in front of him like a leaf that had fallen from a branch, only barely begun to wither.  The Mongolian mark was gone; instead, her whole body was covered evenly with that pale wash of green.                                                                                                         He turned her over onto her back. A dazzling light came from her naked body, making him squint, and he couldn’t see the area around her breasts—as though the source of light was somewhere around her faceHe spread her legs; her thighs parted with an ease that could only mean she was awake.  A green sap, like that which oozes from bruised leaves, began to flow from her vagina when he first entered her.  The acrid sweetness of the grass was so pungent he found it difficult to breathe.  When he pulled out, on the point of climax, he saw that the whole of his penis was stained green.  A blackish paste was smeared over his skin from the lower stomach to his thighs, a fresh sap which could have come from either him or her.” (p. 103-104)                                                                                                             

Here, with heightened brutal aesthetic effects, the artist entertained mental pornography of Yeong-hye in sexual intercourse with him.  It is as though the sensual flower-painted transfiguration of his sister-in-law had infected the imagination and erotic yearning of the artist himself.  In him the studio experience has motivated an exotic erotic dream or nightmare.  When he queries Yeong-hye the following morning whether she had washed the flower painting off, she said she wanted it to stay: “It’s stopping the dream from coming.  If it comes off later I hope you’ll paint it on again for me.” The “flower maiden” feels at home in her new floral skin and wishes it could be permanent.

Having persuaded her to be filmed sensually with him in body-painted floral designs, he engages in actual sexual intercourse, but this time he felt appalled at his actions:

“It was just like in his sketches. His red flower closed and opened repeatedly above her Mongolian mark, his penis slipping in and out of her like a huge pistil.  He shuddered at the appalling nature of their union, a union of images that were somehow repellant and yet compellingly beautiful.  Every time he closed his eyes he could see the lower half of his body dyed green, soaked from the stomach to the thighs with a sticky, grassy sap.” (p. 120)

Following the evening of their “erotic ritual performance,” In-hye had arrived at the scene and had examined the film of her husband and Yeong-hye.  The artist was shocked to see his wife there and thought of throwing himself over the veranda.  In-hye informed her husband the authorities had been called and would take them to a mental institution.  Yeong-hye arose and looked upon the angry couple, “her face a perfect blank.  Her gaze was utterly devoid of any form of expression,” (p. 125) She was unconcerned for the couple’s emotional trauma, still possessed by her transformed nature:

“She thrust her glittering golden breasts over the veranda railing.  Her legs were covered with scattered orange petals, and she spread them wide as though she wanted to make love to the sunlight, to the wind.” (p. 125)

At this point, his marriage with In-hye had completely unraveled, had completely fallen apart.  However Yeong-hye was going to live henceforth, committed as someone mentally ill.  Therefore, with Yeong-hye institutionalized and controlled by tranquilizing medications, the reader alone feels privy to her internal psychological transformation into another being, a human form qua vegetal in being. 

Following the separation of In-hye and her husband, the reader hears little more about him, except through the reflections of In-hye whose mental anguish is described in Part 3: “Flaming Trees.”  In this Rashamon-like structure of parts, Han Kang moves on to distinguish the internal life of the responsible sister In-hye.

Where are the good people in this world?

Huge dismay seems to be demonstrated by Han toward the character and behaviors of men in Korean society.  The authoritarian father, the sullen, imperious Mr. Cheong, and the willful artist, overcome by his need to succeed in a project are characters who care too little for the daughter, the wife, and the fragile convalescent.  Even the doctor in “Flaming Trees” does not appear to have a kind manner with his patients.  The fragile Yeong-hye can be perceived as a Sadean victim in much that assaults her in the first two parts of the novel, but another perspective, through the eyes of In-hye, guides Part 3: “Flaming Trees.”  The plot structure has the stamp of a case history, Yeong-hye the subject of three different perspectives.  

The problem is how one can discover a “rescuing strategy” to make a lasting improvement in the society, in patterns of life in this world.  Perhaps it helps to realize the extreme act Yeong-hye has undertaken to cross from the human-animal kingdom into the plant kingdom.  In some respects she had by her nature and her mania influenced the artist to cross over from the cruel, enslaving manners of conventional living.  

David Gilmour                                                                                                                     July 2, 2019       

[i]Consider Van Gogh.  Having just seen the 2018 film At Eternity’s Gate, I frequently thought of the problem of who has the right to define anyone as insane.

[ii] In Han Kang’s second novel Human Acts, this idea of being lamed by despair is a potential theme.  Violence and descriptive brutal aesthetics are prominent throughout the narrative, much of it detailing the results of the May Gwangju Massacre.  It is an interesting brief note in The Vegetarian that the artist was living at the time of the Gwangju protests and produced art to commemorate the injustices of that era: His friend “P” observes: “Your nickname used to be ‘the May priest,’  you know.  After Gwangju your art was so engag , almost as though you were atoning for surviving the May massacre.” (p.116    The gloomy, suicidal cast of mind of the artist may have stemmed from dealing with social and political art subjects emerging as despair and trauma of the past experiences, as much as regrets about a mistaken marriage.   

[iii]David A. Kessler in Capture: Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Suffering. (New York: HarperCollins, 2016), p.1-17.  His example is the mind of David Foster Wallace and the “fraudulent paradox” of genius artists. Following the era of his Gwangju art, perhaps the art of “the artist’s” recent past must have seemed far less engaged in meaningful ideas and images. 

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