Part 4: The Uncanny: Metamorphosis and Brutal Aesthetics in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian

In-hye’s Slender Thread

“Sister . . . all the trees of the world are like brothers and sisters.”[i]

“A chorus of living wood, sings to the woman: If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning.[ii]

“The world’s otherness is antidote to confusion.”[iii]

Prelude to the Final Engagement with The Vegetarian:

Having spent almost two years studying Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, I feel as though I have a much better understanding of the Man-Booker judges’ choice to award her novel the handsome International Prize.  Also, I have thought deeply of the novel’s importance—it is important—and its artistry, which I believe to be of a high order.  Some who have read previous parts of my critique may have disagreed with some of my comments and criticisms. Already, I believe my mind can change to consider some elements in the previous essays quite differently. Its raw and uncompromising artistry narrates a story encompassing much more than the travails of a mentally ill woman. Family and society all around Yeong-hye are under inquiry.  Some readers may not have been able to accept its brutal features—what I term “Brutal Aesthetics,” which is understandable.  This is a difficult work to read in depth.  I congratulate the Man-Booker group for their courage to pick such a difficult, controversial work.

Other choices of transgressive literature in previous decades have been awarded the Man-Booker prize (earlier the Booker Prize before the Man-group joined the organization[iv]) and some have been severely castigated or misunderstood by some of the judges and the reading public.  One such controversial work I recall was How Late It Was, How Late, by the Scottish writer James Kelman, (1994).[v]   Readers rebelled at his scatological language and the brutality of the actions described.  The ugliness of the protagonist, Sammy the “idjit” drunk, did not endear the reader at first reading, and the horror of his torture at the boots of the police, plain clothes “sodjers,” was almost sickening to read. They kicked his eyes out. To Sammy’s mind his blindness was deserved for his “stupit” behavior. Though told in a more intelligible Scottish argot than the arch-slang dialect of Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting”-style, the novel’s stream-of-consciousness pace may have placed the work another light-year’s distance from an easily-engaged readership.  Indeed, Kelman’s writing was brutal in its aesthetics, an indictment of society and its guardians and the absurd inadequacy of Britain’s bureaucratic services, and yet a celebration of a base, downtrodden blind man finding the means to trudge on alone with life.  Sammy’s cry of success: “So okay, ye’ve had this bad time.  Ye’ve lost yer sight for a few days and it’s been bad.  Ye’ve coped but ye’ve fuckin’ coped.”  The Mann-Booker judges (some do, anyway) like to see ways human beings cope in the toughest of conditions, against all hope.  Recall Balram in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008).


Just imagine: If you think you’re a tree, with this transfiguration as your metamorphosis into an autonomous self, you nevertheless have to have a strategy to cope in this on-going old world of common human beings.  The coping mechanism of Yeong-hye’s psyche is perhaps not too hard to fathom, especially after she suffered so much punishment at her husband’s and family’s hands for choosing not to cooperate with their values.  Then she’s institutionalized, by her family’s say-so, and sedated with medications by doctors and nurses who do not know how to help her.  We are not told of ugly incidents, which may have been the case initially, of placing her on a bed and applying restraints.  In the second incident, a straitjacket is applied when the medics came to the artist’s studio, called in by her own sister, In-hye.  When deemed psychotic on two occasions (Chapter 1, after her suicide attempt, and in 2, after the video project and liaison with In-hye’s husband), Yeong-hye was taken and incarcerated.  In Chapter 3, though not in restraints, she has been institutionalized for chronic psychotic behavior. Han’s work is an indictment of an uncaring family, and uncaring doctoring, and yet, it is also a celebration of a young woman’s determination in the midst of madness to find her autonomy, her self-hood, in a world outside the ordinary human choices.  It is not easy, perhaps, for humanists to understand there are other dimensions of mind that need unorthodox means of salvation, other realms for refuge and security.  To be human is not always the best state of survival.  For a person with traumatic mental illness[vi], abused by both family members and social authorities, crossing over into another dimension, another kingdom, may be the rescue strategy for coping, for feeling more at home in oneself.[vii] 

However, some will object, Yeong-hye was not totally forsaken by her family; her sister, In-hye, did care for her, even leaving her child alone for a long period in a neighbor’s care, when she traveled by bus to visit Yeong-hye in the Ch’ukseong Psychiatric Hospital where her sister was a difficult patient.  True, In-hye had visited once a month and brought some foods for her sister.  Also, In-hye came upon a sympathetic caregiving patient, Hee-joo, a recovering alcoholic, who showed sincere concern for the noticeably starving roommate.  To the hospital staff and to the doctors, Yeong-hye had proved to be a handful.  She had run off, gone missing for quite some time, eventually to be found in a rainy woods, on the Ch’ukseong mountain slope, some distance from the main buildings.[viii]

“Apparently this nurse had stumbled upon Yeong-hye in an isolated spot deep in the woods covering the mountain slope, standing there stock-still and soaked with rain as if she herself were one of the glistening trees.” (p. 131)

As the doctor—and this after months of treatment—informed In-hye: “. . .We are still not sure exactly why it is that Kim Yeong-hye is refusing to eat and none of the medicines we given her seem to have had any effect.”(p. 147)   In fact, there is evidence that she has not been swallowing the medication[ix].  But most indicative of the lack of caring is In-hye’s understanding from what she had seen that the doctor’s pique stems from “concealing the anger he feels toward those patients who fail to live up to his expectations.” (p. 146)     

Yeong-hye is an anomaly to the institution because they cannot clearly diagnose her condition—anorexia nervosa or schizophrenia—and besides that, she practices day and night becoming a tree, growing upwards, trying to sprout by standing in a headstand to take root that way.  In-hye, half-dreaming at home with her son Ji-woo, imagines in hallucination her sister in this way, Yeong-hye’s voice coming through a dream—the uncanny entering once again:

“Look, sister.  I’m doing a handstand, leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands . . . they delve down into the earth.  Endlessly, endlessly . . . yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch, I spread them wide . . .” (p. 133, italics entirely in the text)

During the hospital visit, In-hye had a stark realization that she had envisioned in her dream-state that very method of transformation, for Yeong-hye, having just descended from her headstand, explained the technique for becoming a tree:

                “‘What on earth were you doing just now?’ In-hye asked.

                Yeong-hye met her question with another. ‘Sister, did you know?’

                ‘Know what?’

                ‘I didn’t you see.  I thought trees grew up straight . . . I only found out just now.  They actually stand with both arms in the earth, all of them.  Look, look over there, aren’t you surprised?’ Yeong-hye sprang up and pointed to the window. ‘All of them, they’re standing on their heads.’  Yeong-hye laughed frantically.  In-hye remembered moments from their childhood when Yeong-hye’s face had worn the same impression as it did now.  . . . ‘Do you want to know how I found out?  Well, I was in a dream, and I was standing on my head . . . leaves were growing from my body, and roots were sprouting from my hands . . . so I dug down into the earth.  On and on . . . I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch, so I spread my legs, I spread them wide . . .

                Bewildered In-hye looked across at Yeong-hye’s feverish eyes.

[In-hye, still misunderstanding, had brought her some vegetarian foods thinking of her sister’s essential nourishment.]

                ‘I need to water my body.  I don’t need this kind of food, sister. I need water.’” (p. 153-154)

This is, without doubt, one of the most surreal or uncanny moments of the narrative, for Yeong-hye is explaining what In-hye had fantasized earlier in her dream state.  As a synchronous moment between the two, Han is representing the kind of communication that may be necessary for In-hye to come to an empathic understanding of her sister’s needs as she lives with her psychosis.  In other words, to know the mental life of a psychotic who wishes to be a tree or plant, one will gain a plausible connection of feelings if one inclines one’s own psyche and imagination toward tree-or plant-hood. That realm, absurd as it may seem, is the hallucination or delusion in the mind and body of the enthralled person. Therefore, in “Flaming Trees,” In-hye has begun her own transformation through “border crossings,” and the emphasis shifts to the older sister’s recognition of her life, the authentic life she has overlooked by living submissively in accordance with the values of her parents and traditional society.

In-hye feels bound to reflect on the essential acts and thoughts she might have learned from observing her sister’s behaviors during their formative years.  Essentially, In-hye is becoming a student of psychotherapy and the deep meaning of psychic and even psychotic awareness.  She goes back into memory and reconsiders past behaviors and crises overlooked.  To this point in her life, her survival mechanism had been one of overlooking crises, finding comfort through the manners of appeasement.

“Magnificent irresponsibility”: breaking boundaries

In-hye’s despair, she realizes, is from not having lived an authentic life, from being submissive to the mythical authorities, to malignant powers that control normative behavior as others view normalcy.[x] She now understands a better perspective after reflecting on Yeong-hye’s refusal to accept the force-feeding of meat at the dinner crisis.  She is gravely troubled:

“She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of.  She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never forgive herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social restraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.” (p. 148)

So In-hye begins her own transformation to become a more activist agent in protecting Yeong-hye from the cruel doctor thrusting a feeding tube down the throat of her ailing sister, injuring her and possibly causing a near-fatal hemorrhage.  Giving up hastening home to her son Ji-woo, being taken care of by a neighbor, In-hye takes on the role of attentive care-giver, seeing to her sister’s injury as the ambulance speeds to the city hospital where the doctors have sent them.  For In-hye this overlooking of her own child for the sake of her sister’s need was evidence of a mother’s irresponsibility:

“She can’t explain, not even to herself, how easy it had been to make the decision to abandon her child.  It was a crime, cruel and irresponsible, she would never have been able to convince herself otherwise, and so it was also something she would never be able to confess, never be forgiven for.  The truth of the matter was something she simply felt, horribly clearly.  If her husband and Yeong-hye hadn’t smashed through all the boundaries, if everything hadn’t splintered apart, then perhaps she was the one who would have broken down, and if she’d let it happen, if she’d let go of the thread, she might never have found it again. In that case, would the blood that Yeong-hye had vomited today have burst from her, In-hye’s, chest instead? (p.186)

Simply put, new laws have to be brought into existence by radical challenges to authority.  No doubt Yeong-hye showed that her transition from being an obstinate daughter and, later, as wife of Mr. Cheong, to that of an intolerable rebel or objector was a successful obstinacy.  The physical assaults and threats against her were proof of her success.  Her strife was enforced by and for the sake of her own inner daemon, her expression of free-will to have control of her body, her being.  Nietzsche would have understood her struggle. As In-hye thought it out:  “it is your body, you can treat it however you please.  The only area where you are free to do as you like.” (p. 182) 

Talk to the Trees

Zelkova Tree

In-hye has a gradual awakening to the communication with the plant world and to her own lack of autonomy.   To be sure, she never had a close intimacy of emotion even with her husband who was a taciturn man, who, though not psychotic, seemed to share the rebellious outsider-hood with Yeong-hye more than he did the responsible dutifulness of In-hye.  She thought back:

“What seemed to be happening was that Yeong-hye was retreating from herself, becoming as distant to herself as she was to her sister.  A forlorn face, behind a mask of composure. This was clearly nothing like the melancholy that sometimes afflicted her husband, and yet in certain respects they were both baffling to her in exactly the same way.  They were both descending further into silence.”(p. 136)

Early in Ji-woo’s infancy, her husband artist imagined a fanciful video of flowers emanating from the boy’s footsteps, or even better, butterflies. The artist’s frequent images of butterflies, birds, moths, or airplanes were indicative of his desire for flight, defying gravity.  Unfortunately, In-hye herself was lacking in artistic imagination.  “Had she ever really understood her husband’s true nature, bound up as it was with that seeming impenetrable silence?”(p. 137)  Gradually, uncannily it would seem, In-hye was inclining towards the plant world.  The rainy weather brought In-hye and her sister together—“an indiscriminate connection, their existences briefly aligned.”(p. 133)  While comforting her snuffling child, “slipping into asleep that was more like fainting, [she] saw a tree flickering in the rain like the spirit of some dead person.  Black rain, black woods, the pale patient’s uniform soaked through.  Wet hair, black mountain slope.  Yeong-hye, an inchoate mass formed of darkness, standing tall like a ghost.”  This scene she had hallucinated, “she saw then in her mind’s eye but had never seen in reality.”(p. 133)  Such premonitions are indicative of In-hye’s growing insights, a revitalizing of intuition that she had put aside to be the respectable, good mother and wife.

As she arrived in the hospital, soggy from the walk in the rain, she takes a seat on a bench looking out onto the garden.  As before with her premonition of Yeong-hye aspiring to metamorphose into a tree, she now sees a ghostly image of her sister’s face superimposed on an aged zelkova tree:  

“While she waits for the doctor to come down from the consultation room, she turns to look at the zelkova tree that stands in the hospital’s front garden. The tree is clearly very old, easily four hundred years.  On bright days it would spread its countless branches and let the sunlight scintillate its leaves, seemingly communicating something to her.  Today, a day sodden and stupefied with rain, it is reticent, and keeps its thoughts unspoken. The old bark on its lowest part is dark as a drenched evening, and the leaves tremble silently on the twigs as the raindrops batter down on them. And she sees her sister’s face, flickering like a ghostly afterimage overlaid on the silent scene.

                She closes her bloodshot eyes for a long time before opening them again.  The tree fills her field of vision, still silent, keeping its own counsel.” (p. 140-141)

In-hye has begun in her desire for tree consultation to think back to the event when things started to fall apart.  She has realized it was three years ago with Yeong-hye’s change to vegetarianism.  She reflects on the terrible luncheon crisis, the family squabble, the hospitalization, and then the scandal of her husband’s infidelity with her emotionally ill sister.  This incident threw both the husband and Yeong-hye into an institution where Yeong-hye grew more seriously psychotic.  In-hye’s husband was deemed sane and, finally, after much difficulty, released.  He left home. Now In-hye finds herself “divorced” from her family, no longer in touch with her husband, and dealing with life as best she can. 

“As a daughter, as an older sister, as a wife and as a mother, as the owner of a shop, even as an underground passenger on the briefest of journeys, she had always done her best.  Through the sheer inertia of a life lived this way, she would have been able to conquer everything, even time.  If only Yeong-hye hadn’t suddenly disappeared last March.  If only she hadn’t been discovered in the forest that rainy night.  If only all of her symptoms hadn’t gotten worse.” (p. 145)

The reader can glean much from this about In-hye’s wish to have been free to go on with life by “sheer inertia.” But she had been discomfited when she brought Yeong-hye to Chu’kseong Hospital, “struck by a guilty conscience, which she so far had managed to avoid. Suddenly it was there like a lump in her chest, weighing her down.” (p. 149-50)  She wished she did not have to bear the burden of her sister’s care-giving.  Yeong-hye, nevertheless, still reminded her of her family bond: “Sister . . . all the trees of the world are like brothers and sisters.” (p.150)

The terror of knowing her sister will not recover from her illness made In-hye painfully frustrated.  In conversation with Yeong-hye, she persisted in asking why she was unable to snap out of her bizarre state of mind.  She could not understand that Yeong-hye’s psychosis was real, the tree life was part of her mind and body.  In-hye herself was still incapable of understanding this need for escape; food still meant meaningful life:

“‘You have to eat.  I understand you not eating meat if you don’t like it, but why don’t you eat other things either?’

                Yeong-hye’s lips twitched almost imperceptibly.  ‘I’m thirsty,’ she whispered. ‘Give me some water.’” (p. 159)

Yeong-hye then informs her sister she knows the state of her body:

“‘They say my insides have all atrophied, you know?’ In-hye was lost for words.  Yeong-hye moved her emaciated face closer to her sister. ‘I’m not an animal anymore sister,’ she said.  . . . ‘I don’t need to eat, not now.  I can live without it.  All I need is sunlight.’

                ‘What are you talking about? Do you really think you have turned into a tree? How could a plant talk? How can you think these things?’

                Yeong-hye’s eyes shone. A mysterious smile played on her face.

‘You’re right.  Soon now, all words and thoughts will disappear.  Soon.’  Yeong-hye burst into laughter, then sighed. “Very soon. Just a bit longer to wait, sister.’”(p.159)

In spite of her trying to influence Yeong-hye to think of eating, through her sister’s adamant attitude, In-hye is closing in what is missing in her own nature and the secret of her own survival mechanism throughout her upbringing.

Through the Haze: Childhood Memories.

Flax-leaf Fleabane

Once in childhood, In-hye remembers, she and Yeong-hye, aged nine, got lost in the mountains.  The younger said to the older, “Let’s not go back.”  Though she did not understand then, it now came back to her why Yeong-hye wished to escape.  Home was where she suffered the punishments of the father, all her life until she was eighteen:

“Yeong-hye had been the only victim of her father’s beatings. Such violence wouldn’t have bothered their brother, Yeong-ho, so much, a boy who went around doling out his own rough justice to the village children.  As the eldest daughter, In-hye had been the one who took over from their exhausted mother and made a broth for her father to wash the liquor down, and so he’d always taken a certain care in his dealings with her. Only Yeong-hye, docile and naïve, had been unable to deflect their father’s temper or put up any form of resistance.  Instead, she had merely absorbed all her sufferings inside her, deep into the marrow of her bone. Now with the benefit of hindsight, In-hye could see that the role she had adopted back then of the hardworking, self-sacrificing eldest daughter had been a sign not of maturity but of cowardice.  It had been her survival tactic.”(p. 162-63)

It was on their return, catching a ride on a tiller to their home, In-hye remembered how there was no sense of relief she herself felt that had shown on Yeong-hye’s face.  Returning home was a dread for the tormented girl.  “Yeong-hye had said nothing, only stood and watched the flaming poplars kindled by the evening light.”(p.163)   This flaming image is the signifier of the fascination of trees for the young girl, who perceived the beauty in them, their innocence and tranquility, their long endurance, like the four-hundred-year old zelkova tree In-hye had noticed in Chu’kseong’s garden area.

Death meant nothing for Yeong-hye: “Why, is it such a bad thing to die?” (p. 162)

Now the crisis of the trauma her father forced upon Yeong-hye had come full-bloom.  In-hye had not budged to ward off the father’s anger at the luncheon; she stood back.  Nor had she acted to prevent the marriage to the cold, surly Mr. Cheong, whom she had not taken to.  Then In-hye realized her folly in having married her distant, self-absorbed husband.  She now perceived quite clearly how she had escaped through submissive, passive denial. 

Even when she had suffered an internal ailment that required surgery, she put up with the pain until it was excruciating.  Waiting for the train to arrive after the hospital treatment, on the platform where straggling grasses poked up between the sleepers of an abandoned line, she came to a full recognition:

“The feeling that she had never lived in this world had caught her by surprise.  It was a fact.  She had never lived.  Even as a child, as far back as she could remember, she had done nothing but endure.” (p. 167)

The barren, effete image, the abandoned rails and dying, straggling grasses allowed her to face up to the fact that she had never lived.  In a wonderful moment that foreshadows this revelation, when In-hye is slogging through the heavy rain to visit Yeong-hye, she bends down to roll up her slacks to keep them out of the puddles.  In so doing, “she notices the flax-leaf fleabane that has broken through the asphalt here and there.”(p.134)  Enduring plant, this fleabane, not dead grasses: make of it what you will.  Art is never neatly arranged.   Han Kang demands that one go back and forth to discover the depth of her artistry.

Despair and Suicide

Just as it had occurred in the husband’s feeling of being a fraud, In-hye had become more morose and despair took possession of her periodically, especially during the time of her illness, during the time of her husband’s liaison with and filming of Yeong-hye.  On one occasion her husband sneaked home “like a thief after several days away.”(p.169) He forced himself sexually upon In-hye who did not wish him to engage.  She denied the shame and pain of the sex, but next morning she thought of injuring herself:

“She would find herself wanting to stab herself in the eyes with her chopsticks or pour the boiling water from the kettle over her head.” (p. 169)

She suffered depressing feelings more frequently:

“A strange pain gripped her chest.  It was an oppressive constricted feeling, as if the walls of the house were slowly closing in.”(p.169)

The full force of her despair emerged in time with suicidal thoughts:

            “All of this is meaningless.                                                                                                                                         I can’t take it anymore.                                                                                                                                   I can’t go on any longer.                                                                                                                                   I don’t want to.

            She took one more look around at the various objects inside the house.  They did not belong to her.  Just like her life had never belonged to her.

            Her life was no more than a ghostly pageant of exhausted endurance, no more real than a television drama. Death, who now stood by her side, was as familiar to her as a family member, missing for a long time but now returned.” (p. 170)

In the dark, early one morning, she took a cord from a hanging toy and put it in her pocket.  She walked out into the darkness, taking the narrow path behind their apartments toward the mountain. The scene of her walking into the mountain area, though a year or so before the sister’s escape from the Chu’kseong woods, seems premonitory:

“She walked on, head bowed.  There was something on her face, sweat or tears, she wasn’t sure, and she wiped it away with the back of her hand.  The pain feels like a hole swallowing her up, a source of intense fear and, yet, at the same time, a strange, quiet peace.”(p. 171)

Without doubt, In-hye is beginning to understand the path Yeong-hye might have taken.  More so, she is becoming aware of the insanity that can grow out a life lived in torment, oppression and despair. Looking upon the helpless, institutionalized Yeong-hye, she awakens to the reality, seeing herself reflected in the dark eyes of her sister:

“The strength of her own disappointment takes her by surprise, plunging her into despair. ‘You’re actually insane.’ It’s as though she hasn’t been able to countenance these past few days, but now for the first time she asks Yeong-hye, ‘Have you really lost your mind?’”(p.172)

She thinks that Yeong-hye has progressed further into her insanity because of her suffering an earlier, more painful, series of traumatic experiences.

Perhaps at some point Yeong-hye had simply let fall the slender thread that kept her connected with everyday life.  During the past insomniac months, In-hye felt as though she were living in a state of total chaos.  If it hadn’t been for Ji-woo—if it hadn’t been for the sense of responsibility she felt toward him—perhaps she too might have relinquished her grip on that thread.”(p. 172-73) 


In the thematic motifs of The Vegetarian, Han Kang gives special attention to the offering of foods, or more like the forcing of foods upon a person who has made it plain that food is not a necessary nourishment.  Although the parents of Yeong-hye are guilty of enforcing their dietary wishes upon Yeong-hye, In-hye is also in the habit of thinking that food is the answer to her sister’s problems.  Though Yeong-hye went through one earlier period of losing her body mass, she managed to recover somewhat until this final stage of institutionalization in Ch’ukseong, where the treatment seems to be inadequate to deal with her anorexia.  Whether for anorexia or schizophrenia, the only treatment was some calming, sedative pill, with no mention of the actual medication.  Psychoanalysis appeared to be out of the question, although, if some psychiatrist were wise enough to listen to Yeong-hye’s story, when she was conscious to relate her desires, he or she might have been able to devise a plan of fair treatment.  A kind listener might well have been a start.  In-hye herself had not been seriously attentive to her sister’s total denial of nourishment.  She placed a plum, one of her sister’s favorite fruits as a child, into her hands, when Yeong-hye was asleep.  Not until the final insult of brutal force-feeding by inserting a tube, did she hear the plain undeniable message. Yeong-hye’s voice was that of a raging animal:  “I . . . don’t … like it!  I . . . don’t . . . like . . . eating!”(p. 179) 

Brutal aesthetics are not expressed as frequently in “Flaming Trees” as they were in both language and actions in the previous chapters.  But there is one major dramatic scene. This incident, the attempted tubal force-feeding of Yeong-hye by her doctor and nurse in the presence of In-hye, brings forth the hard-edged, violent style of previous dramatic passages.  This crisis is the very parallel of the father’s attempt to force-feed Yeong-hye with a lump of meat held in chop-sticks.  The doctor and nurse would rather not have In-hye observe the treatment, but she stays on hand:

                “Yeong-hye’s doctor pulls on a pair of surgical gloves and spreads an even layer of jelly over the long, slender tube that the head nurse hands him.  In the meantime, one of the carers is having to use all his strength to try to hold Yeong-hye’s head still.  As soon as they approach her with the tube Yeong-hye’s face flushes crimson and she manages to shake herself free of the carer’s grip.   . . . In-hye takes a step forward, faintly dazed, but the nurse grabs her arm and holds her back.  Eventually, the carer wrestles Yeong-hye’s sunken cheeks back into his strong hands and the doctor inserts the tube into her nose.

                ‘Damn it, it’s blocked!’ the doctor exclaims.  Yeong-hye has opened her mouth as wide as it will go, thereby managing to close up her gullet around the uvula so that the tube is pushed out. The internist, who has been waiting to send the gruel flowing into the tube through the syringe, furrows his brow.  Yeong-hye’s doctor removes the tube from her nose.” (179-80)

After the first failure, a second excruciating struggle occurs to perform the same operation, and the damage goes from bad to worse, blood spattering the nurse as it gushes from the tube that has perforated Yeong-hye’s throat.  Finally, In-hye holds back no longer and acts:

“‘Take it out.  Take the tube out, quickly!’ In-hye is unaware of the shrill scream coming from her own mouth as she feels the carer try to grapple her away.  Meanwhile, Yeong-hye’s doctor is finding it difficult to extract the long tube as his patients throws her head about.” (p. 180)

When the doctor calls on the nurse to hand him a syringe of tranquilizer, In-hye bites the arm of the carer restraining her.  She forcefully takes Yeong-hye in her arms, her blouse becoming soaked in blood emanating from Yeong-hye’s throat.  She finally succeeds in pleading for the nurse to hold back with the syringe.  At last, In-hye has chosen action over submission, behaving more like her husband had done when he aided Yeong-hye at the family luncheon, wrapping his shirt around the bleeding cut of her arm, and carrying her down to his car.

Now In-hye must conduct her sister, badly injured, bleeding internally, to a Seoul hospital to save her life.  Much has been learned and a deeper symbiosis has begun between the sisters, the elder having realized their similarities, the need to communicate, not as humans do, but more like entwining trees:

“The trees by the side of the road are blazing, green fire undulating like the rippling flanks of a massive animal, wild and savage.  In-hye stares fiercely at the trees.  As if waiting for an answer. As if protesting against something.  The look in her eyes is dark and insistent.” (p. 188)       

Lacking the imagination of her husband and her inability to understand Yeong-hye’s wish for transport to the fertile realm of trees and plants, In-hye had not been able to grasp earlier the language of trees, though she had a hint of such fascination.  One significant premonition she felt while relaxing in her bathtub is that of tree imagery calling her out just as it did her sister.  She imagines her sister:

“The dark lines of rain drill into Yeong-hye’s body like spears, her skinny bare feet are covered in mud.  When In-hye shakes her head to dispel the image, summer trees in broad daylight flicker in front of her eyes like huge green fireworks.  Is this because of the hallucination Yeong-hye told her about? The innumerable trees she has seen over the course of all her life, the undulating forests that blanket the continents like a heartless sea, envelop her exhausted body and lift her up.” (p. 174)

In-hye had not yet been open enough to grasp the significance of her own walk into the mountains, that she too was seeking outside in nature a rescue strategy:

                “There’s no way for In-hye to know what on earth those waves are saying. Or what those trees at the end of the narrow mountain path, clustered together like green flames in the early morning light, had been saying. 

                Whatever it was, there had been no warmth in it.  Whatever the words were, they hadn’t been words of comfort, words that would help her pick herself up.  Instead they were merciless, and the trees that had spoken them were a frightening chill form of life.  Even when she turned about on the spot and searched in all directions.  In-hye hadn’t been able to find a tree that would take her life from her.  Some of the trees had refused to accept her.  They just stood there, stubborn and solemn yet alive as animals, bearing up the weight of their own massive bodies.” (p. 174)

Perhaps one might say that In-hye was still entrenched in the carnal world, for she had her son to take care of as a responsible mother.  Although, this attachment had weakened somewhat as she was drawn to Yeong-hye’s care. In-hye was beginning to see trees as magical communicators, aware of something outside the regular scope of experience, but she perceived only some fragments of the “overstory[xi].”  Yeong-hye had already gone fully beyond to the “understory,” practicing turning her fingers into roots and rhizomes to weave herself into the earth. Yeong-hye’s experience as the sacred flower maiden with In-hye’s husband might be considered her experience of the liminal world[xii], beyond the margins of carnality.  The liminal realm was the “space-between” that In-hye sensed in viewing her husband’s film where she explained the gyrations, the ritual movements of the painted figures, as “bodies so altered as though they no longer belonged to human beings.  The writhing movements of the bodies made it seem as though they were trying to shuck off the human.” (p. 184) 


Since metamorphosis has been discussed earlier in these essays, I will conclude by emphasizing this aspect of escape.  The story of the mountain nymph Daphne (from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Bk X1, v.325ff.) who was running away to escape the lust of Apollo is a clear example of a metamorphosis into tree form, as she requested of her father, the River Peneius.  Besides escape, the idea of reward or salvation is found connected to tree metamorphosis:  again in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (BK VIII, 370ff.), Philemon and Baucis, favored by the gods for being hospitable, were saved from a flood by being turned into entwined oak and linden trees.  Just so, In-hye imagined her husband and Yeong-hye in the studio film entwined together as “jungle creepers”: “Covered with flowers and leaves and twisting green stems, those bodies were so altered it was as though they no longer belonged to human beings.”(p.184) In-hye’s husband had been fond of depicting creatures in flight—butterflies and birds.  In many folk stories and most notably these days in animated films, the way of escape is by a transformation through metamorphosis. I recall Carlos Castaneda’s fright at the brujo Don Juan’s sudden changes.

Even Ji-woo has his uncanny moments of dream.  On the same morning In-hye had walked out on the mountain path, Ji-woo told of a metamorphosis  

 “‘There was this photo of you, Mum, flying about in the wind.  I was looking at the sky, okay, and there was a bird, and I heard it say, “I’m your mum.” And these two hands came out of the bird’s body’”

Though In-hye tries to console her son by saying the bird was obviously “a mummy bird,” Ji-woo shook his head.  He was not convinced it was just a dream, and during the ambulance ride to Seoul with Yeong-hye, the uncanniness of the coincidence returns to her. 

The mystery is aroused in her so that drawing close to the fainting Yeong-hye in the ambulance cot, In-hye admits she has dreams, too:

“She bows her head. But then, as though suddenly struck by something, she brings her mouth right up to Yeong-hye’s ear and carries on speaking, forming the words carefully, one by one. ‘I have dreams too, you know.  Dreams . . . and I could let myself dissolve into them, let them take me over . . . but surely the dream isn’t all there is?  We have to wake up at some point, don’t we?  Because . . . because then . . .” (p. 187)

As the ambulance rounds the bend, racing away from Mount Chu’kseong, “She sees a blackbird flying up toward the dark clouds. The summer sunlight dazzling her eyes, makes them sting, and her gaze cannot follow the bird’s flight anymore.” (p. 187)


In thinking of the influences of Han Kang’s storytelling, I would certainly make reference to Franz Kafka’s “Hunger Artist” and “The Metamorphosis,” as other critics have done. Although Kafka’s characters are drenched in despair and failure, at least the Hunger Artist was allowed by the circus master to fast and to go without food.  Fasting, strange as it may seem, was his art that a public appreciated at one particular age.  In the “Metamorphosis,” Gregor Samsa, who had changed into a “beetle” or “cockroach,” was allowed a full metamorphosis and his family accepted fully his transformation.  They, too, rejected him and threw food—chunks of apple–at him at one point.  There’s much perhaps that can be said in comparison with Kafka’s surrealism, but I will not go deeper at present. 

Han Kang’s mystery of Yeong-hye’s metamorphosis may be derived more from research and understanding of the secret life of trees.  Surrealism before that, for Han is reported to have been influence by a line in the poetry of Lee Sang (b. 1910): “I believe that humans should be plants.”[xiii] Since her meditations on such an idea, other works have appeared that perhaps helped Han to see the sense in that poetic thought: e.g. Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, and scientists, such as Suzanne Simard of “Exploring How and Why Trees ‘Talk’ to Each Other.”[xiv] Also Simard co-wrote with Monica Gagliano Thus Spoke the Plant: A Remarkable Journey of Groundbreaking Scientific discoveries and Personal Encounters with Plants, (Berkeley California: North Atlantic Books, 2018). Another is The Secret Life of Trees:  How They Live and Why They Matter by Colin Tudge (2006).

Han wrote The Vegetarian too early to know of Richard Powers’ recent novel The Overstory, in which human beings have come to understand the greater importance of trees and plants over the human species for the life of the waning planet Earth.[xv]  To corroborate her meditation on Yee Sang’s surreal poetry, I would imagine Ursula Le Guinn’s 1972 novel The Word for World Is Forest might have been perused at some time in the writer’s study of ecological literature.[xvi]  Tree “intelligence” and “communication” has been studied for many decades in the journals of forestry and ecology and though human-like sentience is not totally granted the botanical world, we do know from scientists much about the importance of tree chemistry for the survival of the planet.  Yeong-hye has come upon vegetarianism and tree-hood by intuition from childhood.  Trees and outdoor nature are much friendlier and kinder than human beings to one another.  As a schizophrenic, she saw it, I imagine, as her rescue strategy, another safe place to be.

In regards to studies of schizophrenia and anorexia nervosa, both of which have close connection in certain stages of the mentally-ill person’s experience, Han must have read some papers. The clearest view I have come across is in The Center Cannot Hold, the memoir of Elyn R. Saks’ struggle with mental illness. This was written in the early 21st century and may have been available for Han to use in her research work.[xvii]  In retrospect, I suggest the horrific “dreams” of Chapter 1, the italic passages that are assumed to be Yeong-hye’s hallucinations, are the delusions of her on-set of dark schizophrenic imaginings.  The artist, being an intuitive soul, with a bit of madness woven into his mind, allowed an entrance for, or opened up, Yeong-hye to bask in the floral disguise in her wild botanical imagination.  She gave herself to the experience and thus found there escape from carnality.  In Chu’kseong, the trees enchanted Yeong-hye to join them, just as In-hye had found her fascination with the same “portal” of rescue in order to join in the care of her sister. 



From Richard Powers’ The Overstory:  The trees speak: “Your kind never sees us whole.  You miss the half of it, and more.  There’s always as much belowground as above.

                That’s the trouble with people, their root problem.  Life runs alongside them, unseen.  Right here, right next.  Creating the soil.  Cycling water. Trading in nutrients. Making weather.  Building atmosphere. Feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count.”(p. 3-4)

David Gilmour

October 5, 2019.

[i] Yeong-hye to her sister, Ch. 3. “Flaming Trees,” p. 150.

[ii] Richard Powers, The Overstory, p. 4.

[iii] Mary Oliver in Maria Popova’s Brainpickings.…/mary-oliver-upstream-stayi…/.


[v] The first American edition came out later: New York: W.W. Norton, 1995. 

[vi] See the problem of defining and treating mental illness in “Psychiatry’s Incurable Hubris” by Gary Greenberg (The Atlantic, April, 2019), a review of Anne Harrington’s Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search For the Biology of Mental Illness

[vii] “Psychologist Christopher Bollas defines ‘schizophrenic presence’ as the psychodynamic experience of ‘being with [a schizophrenic] who has seemingly crossed over from the human world to the non-human environment,’ because other human catastrophes can bear the weight of human narrative—war, kidnapping death—but schizophrenia’s built-in chaos resists sense.” In Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2019) p. 3-4. Another work that deals with the strategies for find a safe haven by “crossing over” is Marin Sardy’s The Edge of Everyday Life: Sketches of Schizophrenia (New York: Pantheon Books, 2019).  The detailed description of a schizophrenic life that may have influenced Han Kang’s understanding of Yeong-hye’s mental illnesses is a fine memoir by Elyn R. Saks, The Center Cannot Hold:  My Journey Through Madness (New York: Hyperion Books, c2007).    

[viii] “Apparently this nurse had stumbled upon Yeong-hye in an isolated spotdeep in the woods covering the mountain slope, standing there stock still and soaked with rain as if she herself were one of the glistening trees.” (p. 131)

[ix] “In fact, the doctor doubted whether Yeong-hye had been taking her medication at all. He even blamed himself for not being as vigilant as he should have been, after things had initially been going well.” A nurse, previously, had looked in Yeong-hye’s mouth and found un-swallowed pills. (p. 158)

[x] See Han’s second novel Human Acts (2016) for the brutal violence employed by military rule over the protests of citizens in the Guangjju May massacre of the 1980 regime, a time of dictatorial transition, during which time Chun-Doo-whan had taken up residence in the Blue House, Seoul’s government building.  Many hundreds, students and citizens, were slain by the military.  Han was born in Guangjiu in 1970. That novel requires readers with steel guts to feel deeply the horror of government belligerence to control large numbers of protesting citizens of all ages. The artist brother-in-law was practicing during that time and made significant statements in his art. (see The Vegetarian, p. 116)

[xi] I am referring here to the recent novel of Richard Powers, The Overstory: a Novel (New York: Norton, 2018) and with “understory” to the new poetic treatise of underworld life, Robert Macfarlane’s Underland: A Deep Time Journey (New York, W.W. Norton, 2019).

[xii] This is the language Marin Sardy employs in The Edge of Everyday Life, explaining the alternate term “Beyond the Hedge,” meaning the boundary the psychotic might cross from the safe here-and-now to the magical, mysterious otherworld.  (See footnote vi) p. 193-94.

[xiii] The citation is in an English translation of a journal featuring Han Kang: english.donga,com. Retrieved 13 January 2019.

[xiv] Yale Environment 360, 1st September 2016. Interviewed in: _why_trees_talk_to_each_other.  

[xv] In an interview Powers said:  “I’d like to think she [his character] is a kind of proxy or emblem for a whole lot of people out there, who when you say ‘the real world,’ don’t think immediately of the fake world that we humans have created, but are dedicating their lives to understanding this place that we need to make our home and that we need to understand if we have any more desire to stay here for much longer.” Statement by Richard Powers in an interview on The Overstory in The Washington Post, Ron Charles.

[xvi] Ursula K. Le Guinn, The Word for World Is Forest (New York: Tor Books, c1972).  “The Athsheans word for world is also the word for forest.” p. 86. 

[xvii] Op. cit. I have referred to this work in “footnote vi”.  Also two newer works by functioning schizophrenics are mentioned there. 

This entry was posted in 2018 Selections, The Vegetarian. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s