Rejecting rotting humanness: The ecofeminist abject in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian

Essay by Emily Mao

Art by Natalia Mohar

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian uncovers the grotesque and poignant truths of gendered violence and resistance. The story follows Yeong-hye, a Korean housewife who embarks on a journey departing from a patriarchal, hierarchical, and humancentric rendering of humanness that seeks to erase female subjectivity. As she resorts to vegetarianism and starvation, and through her eventual transformation into a tree, Yeong-hye’s untethered existence resists an embodiment of humanness constituted by patriarchal codes. Specifically, female resistance in The Vegetarian coincides with Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject, as the mechanisms they operate through both engage with concepts of food and blood as something that “disturbs identity, system, order” (Kristeva 4). Moreover, ecofeminism identifies a collective Other that shares “qualities of being feminized, animalized,…naturalized,” and victimized by patriarchal hegemony (Gaard 24). Boundary-blurring, in this sense, signifies a gathering of the ecofeminist Other in its resistance to the multifaceted patriarchal modes of representation and subjugation. In this paper, I posit female resistance in The Vegetarian to be embodied through the flight from a humanness constructed in patriarchal and hierarchical terms, a humanness that renders what lies outside of social norms as inferior, threatening, consumable, and thus inhuman. While the patriarchal society utilizes the concept of inhuman to subdue the feminized Other, Yeong-hye’s radical arboreal transformation constructs her departure from humanness as a subversive power saturated with a longing to re-establish an alternative subjectivity that dissolves borders; that desires unity rather than disintegration, liberation rather than confinement. 

In “Powers of Horror”, Kristeva introduces the concept of the abject as what evokes fear, disgust, and destabilization of subjectivity. Abject beings, be it corpses, blood, bodily excretion, or certain food, transgress the borders of our subjectivities but “[do] not radically cut off the subject from what threatens it” (Kristeva 9). That is, the abject haunts its subject in the same manner as how the inhuman is inseparable from the human. The abject, like the inhuman, disturbs “borders, positions, rules” (Kristeva 4) of a patriarchal consciousness built upon rigorous rational categorization and hierarchical oppression. Moreover, Gaard’s account of ecofeminism delineates the “linkages within the devalued category of the Other”—the patriarchal inhuman—and “the association of qualities from one oppressed group with another serve to reinforce their subordination” (24). The ecofeminist theorization of patriarchal oppression foregrounds the intersectionality among subjugated groups: by portraying women as having close proximity to nature, animals, and inorganic substances, the patriarchal representational structure establishes women’s dehumanized and inferior status in society. Thus, Yeong-hye’s abject and hybridized existence that rejects categorization embodies an ecofeminist ambiguity, which situates itself as a collective haunting to the patriarchal consciousness. 

In The Vegetarian, heightened connectedness between female and animal consciousness is explored in Yeong-hye’s abject experience of meat-eating. Meat consumption, according to Carol Adams, presumes an annihilated subjectivity of the animal; for meat to exist, the once-aliveness of the animal must be negated (21). In Yeong-hye’s recount of her eating dog meat, the dog is first tortured to death by being dragged along the ground, tied to a speeding motorcycle. During Yeong-hye’s meal, she sees the dog’s vomit, made of “blood mixed with froth”, appearing on the surface of the soup, and it is then distorted into the dog’s staring eyes (Han 48). The animal’s displaced subjectivity is resurrected through Yeong-hye’s vivid memory of its death and her verbal insistence on referring to the meat before her as “he” (Han 48). With the dog’s subjectivity resurfacing, the mechanical dismemberment of a body through the motion of chewing becomes viscerally demanding to endure. Yeong-hye feels the disintegration of her own personality when the murdered animal “squishes against [her] gums…with crimson blood” (Han 18). That is, the revived animal subjectivity permeates through Yeong-hye’s selfhood and lingers as an abject that acknowledges the subject “to be in perpetual danger” (Kristeva 9). As the “butchered bodies…still stick stubbornly to her insides” (Han 54), Yeong-hye then commits to sever herself from this nauseating smell of human violence through vegetarianism. 

Meat-eating is also presented as a metaphor for sexual violence, with the state of meat symbolizing dispossessed female subjectivity. As Adams argues, “sexual violence and meat eating…find a point of intersection in the absent referent” (23), in The Vegetarian, scenes of sexual violence are narrated in the language of eating and swallowing. The brother-in-law fetishizes Yeong-hye’s dried blood as “matte burgundy of red bean soup” (Han 77) and desires to “swallow” her, to absorb her as part of him and have her “flow through [his] veins” (Han 119). Moreover, the female body is first butchered and dismembered like an animal before consumption, into “faceless, impersonal body parts: breasts, legs, vaginas, buttocks” (Adams 39). Always wandering indoors naked, Yeong-hye becomes a fragmented erotic object of her brother-in-law’s gaze. As his eyes fixate on her “white ankle” (Han 77), “breasts…rounded out into softness”, her narrow waist, her sparse body hair (Han 79), and the “Mongolian mark…on [her] buttocks” (Han 77), he slices the female body into bite-sized pieces palatable for the masculine subject’s insatiable appetite. This representational strategy protrudes from the portrayal of both force-feeding and rape. Yeong-hye’s father “parts her lips with his strong fingers” (Han 36) and “forces a lump of meat into her mouth” (Han 71); the force-feeding here mirrors Yeong-hye’s rape, as her brother-in-law “[pushes] her legs wide apart and [enters] her” (Han 117). The juxtaposition of meat consumption and gendered violence again justifies Yeong-hye’s refusal to eat meat and her relentless defiance against being transformed into meat. But unlike how Yeong-hye’s abject meat-eating experience situates animal subjectivity as indigestible, it seems to be tragically effortless to dissolve female subjectivity into the veins of masculine desire for dominance. 

Swallowing female subjectivity whole just fine, the patriarchal system finds vegetarianism and femininity abject; it weaponizes the notion of the “inhuman” to inform women’s social status as contemptible and expandable. Yeong-hye’s husband repeatedly voices his “intense feeling of disgust” (Han 49) towards his wife’s vegetarianism and withering femininity: he compares her cry to a howling animal and her body to a “skeletal frame of an invalid” (Han 23). Vegetarianism, as a practice that deviates from Korean social norms, is rationalized as social ineptitude “against human nature” (Han 29). By not eating meat, Yeong-hye is perceived as less human in an evolutionary sense, for the renunciation of her superior status as a meat eater signifies a voluntary degredation, in anticipation of “the world [to] devour [her] whole” (Han 54). In the same vein, force-categorizing vegetarianism as meat phobia, a psychopathology that needs to be treated, again dismisses Yeong-hye autonomous dietary choice and its anti-violence implications as developmental failures. Thus, the vegetarian body is misconceptualized and distorted as deviant, regressive, and disgusting, by a male-dominant society “seeking to control interpretation” of the abnormal (Adams 149). Animal and female subjectivity, already subjugated as “inhuman”, are “absorbed into a human-centred,” and in this case male-centred, hierarchy of representation (Adams 22). The readers are presented, through the perspectives of two male characters, with femininity and vegetarianism as confusing, revolting, and threatening to the patriarchal structures as meat is to Yeong-hye. Yet, while Yeong-hye embraces non-human lives, as abjection fractures the line separating the human from the non-human, the patriarchal system fortifies the distinction in order to weaponize the “inhuman” as a tactic to legitimize tyranny towards the feminized Other. 

Other than acknowledging that “women and animals are similarly positioned in a patriarchal world” as victims (Adams 157), the masculine violence against women in The Vegetarian also bleeds into its sexualization of nature. In the section “The Mongolian Mark”, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law describes her birthmark, “a small blue petal in the middle of her buttocks”, as extremely sexually arousing (Han 65). The birthmark, both embodying nature and crafted by nature, becomes the object of the brother-in-law’s “intense sexual desire” (Han 66). More explicitly, Yeong-hye’s attractiveness also emanates from her resemblance to “a tree that grows in the wilderness, denuded and solitary” (Han 69). Compared to his wife’s conventional and artificial beauty, Yeong-hye’s proximity to nature and her defenselessness even deem her unattractiveness as sexually desirable. The masculine fetishization of nature, when it is projected onto the feminine body, again exemplifies the ways through which patriarchal oppression operates: it dictates the moral attributes of the marginalized Other, the nature and the feminine, in order to ensure that “the conceptual linkages” between these minority categories “all serve to emphasize the inferiority of these categories…and reinforce their subordination” (Gaard 24). 

Nevertheless, the irreconcilable nature of the abject and ecofeminist consciousness is also manifested through Yeong-hye’s impenetrable silence and her metamorphosis towards catatonic arboreality. Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye communicates her female experience in a stifling patriarchal society through “oppressive” goodness (Han 70) and “inhuman patience” (Han 87): she moves through life like a living corpse, with her life never belonging to herself. During her last visits to Yeong-hye, In-hye finally realizes that her sister is “soaring…over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross”, and that she has “[shucked] off social constraints, leaving herself, “still a prisoner” (Han 146). Undeniably, Yeong-hye’s resistance is way more prevalent, as she not only departs from her self, a self fabricated by the dehumanizing standards of patriarchal humanness, but she also re-establishes a hybridized identity that breaches the reifying power of categorization and takes up the abject space of “the in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (Kristeva 4). In dismantling the dichotomy of human and non-human, she constructs a fluid and radically unstable self that becomes everything victimized by “normative dualisms, value-hierarchical thinking, and logic of domination” (Gaard 22). In becoming the abject, Yeong-hye eventually metamorphoses into something impossible for the male structures to metabolize, threatening the patriarchal consciousness with a persistent and hysterical urgency to reform. 

Ultimately, Yeong-hye’s suicide attempts stage the obliteration of her body as a perceivable political gesture to replicate the patriarchal erasure of female subjectivity and to proclaim her quest for liberation. Through witnessing her sister Yeong-hye’s tormented consciousness trapped in human skin, In-hye is unnerved by the realization that it is perhaps not “a bad thing to die” (Han 160) if one “had never really lived in this world” (Han 165). Women’s passive and alienated existences render their human lives as mere courses of survival and endurance, and as lives perpetuated through death. Women’s lives have “never belonged to [them]” (Han 168), and will never be theirs if they adopt a male-constructed humanness that exploits their own subordination. Therefore, perhaps Yeong-hye never intends to take her own life, but just to shed this rotting humanness and to negotiate a possibility of living differently. Slitting her wrist, Yeong-hye destroys the physical boundary that separates her from the rest of the world, staining what constrains her with the blood gushing from a wound that refuses to heal. The abject image of her brother-in-law in a shirt soaked in Yeong-hye’s blood is posited as a reminiscent reiteration of Yeong-hye’s dream, where her clothes, hands, and mouth are wet with animal blood (Han 54). Through her suicide, Yeong-hye compels the patriarchal society to interrogate its own culture entrenched in normalized brutality against women, just like how she reflects on the slaughter of animals. 

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is a subversive portrayal of patriarchal oppression and female resistance in Korean society. It captures how the patriarchal notion of humanness is established through subjugating the lives of women and the collective feminized Other, regarding them all as inhuman and thus regressive. Unlike Yeong-hye who chooses to let the abject reform her identity as she embraces vegetarianism, the patriarchal structure Han portrays reduces women, animals, and nature to meat-like abjection as a method of oppression. It keeps swallowing, degrading, and sexualizing feminized lives, only viewing the abject as revolting and incomprehensible but oblivious to its powerful ambiguity that persists against systemic patriarchal tyranny. By severing herself from patriarchal humanness, empathizing with animals, and merging with nature, Yeong-hye embodies an abject and ecofeminist existence transgressing all borders of division. With her words coated in uncanny vivacity, Han seeks to dismantle the patriarchal humanness by throwing Yeong-hye’s dead body onto the forefront of the patriarchal consciousness, perpetually haunting it with the quest for the liberation of the collectively repressed.

Works Cited

Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat – 25th Anniversary Edition: A Feminist-Vegetarian  Critical Theory. Bloomsbury Academic & Professional, New York, 2015.

Gaard, Greta. “Toward a Queer Ecofeminism.” New Perspectives on Environmental Justice: Gender, Sexuality, and Activism. Edited by Rachel Stein, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, N.J, 2004, pp. 21-44.

Han, Kang. The Vegetarian: A Novel. Translated by Deborah Smith, Hogarth, London, New York, 2015.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez, Columbia University Press, New York, 1982.