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COM 351 / TRA 351 / ENG 343 Final PaperBes ArnaoutSisters in an Innocuous Life:Gendered Symbolism and Trauma in Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian” Gian Lorenzo Bernini: Apollo and Daphne. Galleria Borghese RomaAbstract: In this paper, I attempt to explore how the three different narrators reveal 1. Yeong-hye as the main proposed answer to the central question (how to live a completely innocent life), but a one that inevitably fails, and 2. In-hye as the other main possibility, equally unsuccessful at the end. I observe these two responses to the violence of the world caused by a shared trauma, as I explore body parts symbolism in regards to agency. Instead of comparing this novel to another one, I opted for an intra-novel comparative study of the characters and their connections, mainly because I believe that Han’s characters are written in such a manner that allows an in-depth commentary independent from external sources.Originally published as three separate novellas that now constitute its chapters, Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian” is – in oversimplified terms – a haunting story about the pursuit of a life absolutely void of violence. Set in South Korea, the novel follows Yeong-hye, a woman who decides to stop eating meat and animal produce in an attempt to transcend the limitations of the human experience and its inherent cruelty. The audience, however, scarcely hears from the protagonist herself; the three segments of the novel are narrated by those whose lives were influenced by her choice. The eponymous first part of the novel comes from the perspective of Yeong-Hye’s husband, Mr. Cheong; the second is narrated by her unnamed brother-in-law, and the last by her sister In-hye, the one who is most affected by Yeong-hye’s journey from veganism to starvation, and finally, to death. Though puzzling to a first-time reader, the fragmented narrative elucidates the central conundrum of the novel: “the (im)possibility of innocence in this world, which is mingled with such violence and beauty” (K. Han qtd. in Patrick). All three observer-narrators provide different angles to Yeong-hye’s pursuit, as if attempting to explore, from all the different perspectives, whether Yeong-hye has discovered the recipe for being perfectly non-violent. She is a potential answer to Han’s overhanging question, perceived as an unattainable truth beyond the narrator. The last moments of the novel reveal, however, that Yeong-hye’s attempt is ultimately flawed – by seeking her own goals, she knowingly causes pain to her sister. Nonetheless, Han does not leave us in the dark. As the novel develops, the reader might remark a progression of the narrator’s insight into Yeong-hye’s motivations. Exploring this progression, and its peak character In-hye, might assist to expound the novel’s treatment of the central question, and discover all of Han’s covert answers. Furthermore, a dissection of those answers can help unfold universal truths related to morality of the human existence.The culprit of Yeong-hye’s concern is the human body. From the very first dream she has, the woman envisions various evidence of human brutality, but never detached from her own body. “Blood in my mouth, blood-soaked clothes sucked onto my skin,” she recalls, retelling the dream that prompted her to stop eating animal products:My bloody hands. My bloody mouth. In that barn, what had I done? Pushed that red raw mass into my mouth, felt it squish against my gums, the roof of my mouth, slick with crimson blood. Chewing on something that felt so real, but couldn’t have been, it couldn’t.Yeong-hye projects the violence of the human experience into the confines of her own skin, and for that reason, her attempt to transcend the violence becomes a matter of personal morale, rather than a social pursuit; she never tries to convince others to follow her particular path. She attributes the acts from the dream to her agency in reality, erasing the border between the two by letting her guilt transcend it. At the same time, while Yeong-hye recognizes her body as violent weaponry, she also touches upon the problems attached specifically to the female body:Can only trust my breasts now. I like my breasts, nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe. But not my breasts. With my round breasts, I’m okay. Still okay. Narrating the first segment of the novel, Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr. Cheong, recalls that the only “unusual” feature of his “completely unremarkable” wife was her dislike of, and consequent refusal to wear a bra. Although, upon first realizing this while they were still dating he found it arousing, once married, he expected his wife to “go around wearing one that was thickly padded”. In other words, Mr. Cheong expected his wife to abandon bodily self-sovereignty and give into the social norms that he solicited. Her breasts, which she later recognizes as the only non-violent part of her body, from the very start serve as her link to corporeal autonomy and agency. In addition, they also act as a starting point to a series of connected bodily motifs which demonstrate the gendered nature of Yeong-hye’s pursuit. Women are expected to wear “constricting” underclothes for the mere purpose of altering their sexual image governed by men: provoking, when men want so, or desexualized otherwise. So when Yeong-hye fails to wear a bra to her husband’s business dinner, revealing “the outline of her nipples clearly visible through the fabric,” she opens a pandora’s box of the reclamation of her own autonomy. Immediately afterwards, she refuses to consume the meat that’s served for dinner, igniting a long discourse on disapproval of vegetarianism among the other diners. Becoming aware of the gendered contrast between being a violator, through meat consumption, and a caretaker, through breastfeeding, Yeong-hye connects the refusal to restrict her breasts with the refusal to participate in the violence-promoting practice of meat-eating. Meat becomes the crucial impetus for her rebellion, and the organ that links to male violence. Mr. Cheong, unsurprisingly, fails to make this connection. “If it had all been just another instance of a woman’s giving up meat in order to lose weight then there would have been no need to worry,” he notes, noting later that “it wasn’t actually all that strange once you took into account that going vegetarian was apparently in vogue.” As a man, he has no access to the empathetic experience of his wife, one in which she becomes aware of the twofold exploitation of bodies – women’s and animals’. On the contrary, Mr. Cheong makes assumptions still deeply rooted in the patrio- and phallocentric beliefs, scarcely affected by the obvious metamorphosis of his wife’s psyche. He can only phatom women altering their looks for the aesthetic appeal, but the “shadowy secrets” his wife was hiding seemed to him “utterly unknowable”. The deep chasm between the male and female experience in “The Vegetarian” is open; it profounds when Mr. Cheong rapes Yeong-hye, like a Japanese soldier would a “comfort woman”. Yet again, a man, this time under the image of a colonizer, negates the agency of the oppressed. The trope continues over dinner with Yeong-hye’s family, organized as an attempt to fix her. After her refusal to consume meat, her agency is violated by her father, a Vietnam veteran with a history of abusive behavior (whipping Yeong-hye until she reached adulthood). The imagery of colonial violence spreads past the ex-soldier’s figure, and into the mere language Mr. Cheong uses to describe the episode. First, his mother-in-law attempts to feed her daughter by “thrusting” sour pork in front of her mouth, followed by the father-in-law mimicking the same action. After Yeong-hye’s persistent refusal to consume meat, “his flat palm cleaved the empty space”, hitting her hard enough for the blood to reach the skin of her cheek. What follows next must be one of the two crucial moments of the novel. Held down by her brother (who barely speaks or shows any action outside of this), Yeong-hye is furiously force-fed by her father. As he, yet again, “thrust the pork” at her lips, “a moaning sound came from her tightly closed mouth”. He then slaps her again, managing to “jam the pork in”. Freeing herself from her brother’s grip, she “growled”, spitting the meat out, releasing “an animal cry of distress”. The imagery that lingers between graphic violence and animalistic obscenity fortifies the gendering of cruelty and its connection to meat-eating. The father – active violator, the brother – his supporter, and the two sisters’ husbands – passive observers, represent a long history of gendered trauma, and complicate the treatment of situations like Yeong-hye’s – which are a consequence of several enduring social issues. This language, in addition, opens an important window into the world of sexualization of women that aggravates the loss of their agency under a false premise of: “this is for your own good.”The interplay between the two worlds of men and women continues in this limbo between Yeong-hye’s pursuit of agency and her oppression and sexualization by others. In the second segment of the book, told by her sister’s unnamed husband, little progress is seen in the narrator’s understanding of Yeong-hye’s motivations. Titled “Mongolian Mark”, this chapter follows the man’s fixation on the “mongolian mark”, a birthmark on Young-hye’s buttock. Wishing to reclaim his own agency, to alleviate the insatisfaction with his own life, the man becomes obsessed with Yeong-hye’s birthmark, imagining filming her flower-covered body in a coital embrace – after a dream he had. The obsession with breasts and nipples from the first segment is now replaced with a fixation on the buttocks. However, a big change occurs in the gaze of the narrator. Mr. Cheong despised his wife and disliked her new vegetarian body, finally leaving her after she is hospitalized for self-harm. Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, on the other hand, completely fetishizes her condition, believing the two of them to be on a similar transcendental journey. Mr. Cheong’s animalism in observation gets replaced by first vegetal symbols: “to him she radiated energy, like a tree that grows in the wilderness, denuded and solitary.” He recognizes in her, or rather – predicts – the metamorphosis she is to undergo: “like some kind of mutant animal that had evolved to be able to photosynthesize.” However, he also saw her as an object of “intense sexual desire”, which lead to their deeply symbolic sexual encounter.”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 repellent 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.”The penetrative red, representing sexual lust and bloody carnivorous violence of the man, invades the pale blue and green of the harmless, herbivorous Yeong-hye. The image – beautiful and revolting simultaneously – exists at the border between desire and violence, between the carnal and the vegetal. Despite the dual imagery that attempts to reimagine sexual narrative, the relationship between Yeong-hye and her brother-in-law continues to propagate the exploitation and dehumanization of women: Yeong-hye engages simply because she sees this as a chance to eliminate the nightmares responsible for her condition, while the man does so to fulfill his own dreams. He doesn’t take away her agency, but exploits it. With “a body from which all desire had been eliminated,” the man lived out his erotic fantasy, essentially taking advantage of her ambiguous mental health.Despite her hopes, Yeong-hye doesn’t manage to prevent her dreams by engaging in post-animalistic, floral coitus. Instead, the opposite happens – she commences a journey from living off plant produce to becoming a tree herself. The third section, narrated by her sister In-hye, and suitably titled “Flaming Trees,” follows Yeong-hye’s path into the woods – figuratively and literally. As she is placed into a psychiatric institution on Ch’ukseong mountain, Yeong-hye wanders outside into the neighboring woodlands, following an imaginary voice that tempted her to “turn upside down”. Yeong-hye now has different dreams, non-violent ones: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… The bodily fixation moved from the buttocks to the crotch, a blooming tree that creates life and needs freedom – a flaming tree. The crotch, however, unlike the breasts and the buttocks, does not serve a sexual or an exploitative role. Instead, in this segment narrated by the second most important character of the novel, the crotch is completely associated with Yeong-hye’s autonomy over her own desires. “She is trying to root herself into this extreme and bizarre sanity by uprooting herself from the surface of this world,” says Han (qtd. in Patrick). Convinced that she needs merely to water her body, she develops anorexia nervosa, only for her soul to leave the body in the form of a “black bird” that flies over a “blazing, green fire” of the neighboring trees: she achieves her goal. Along her side, throughout all of this, remains her sister In-hye. Unlike the other narrator foci, she appears to understand, or at least support Yeong-hye, preparing plant-based foods for her, and visiting her in the hospital. Yet, she also questions her own motives based on those of Yeong-hye. The two couldn’t be further apart in how they chose to live their lives: In-hye embraces gender norms, not just ba wearing a bra and eating meat, but by being a mother, taking care of her sister, or owning a makeup store. With her “nicely filled-out figure, big, double-lidded eyes, and demure manner of speaking,” In-hye was the embodiment of a perfectly feminine, tradition-respecting woman, and a polar opposite to Yeong-hye. But audiences soon realize that the two sisters come from the same place of trauma: their father’s abuse. While Yeong-hye recalls the father torturing their dog in one of her nightmares – motivating her veganism, In-hye remembers that her sister, who had been his sole beating victim, “had provoked in her a sense of responsibility that resembled maternal affection, a need to expend all her energy in looking out for this younger sister.”  Up to a certain point, In-hye feels the same burden of accountability, wondering whether she could have somehow prevented Yeong-hye’s condition. Soon, however, Yeong-hye’s ethical motivations spread onto her sister, and In-hye begins to contemplate things differently. She recognizes in her life patterns of behaviors influenced by patriarchy, from her husband’s and her parents’,  to her own choices. Her frustration with this newly acquired perspective culminates when medical staff attempt to put a feeding tube through Yeong-hye’s throat, and In-hye aggressively stops them:”Idiot.” Her trembling lips repeat the word as she washes her face in front of the mirror. “Idiot.”It’s your body, you can treat it however you please. The only area where you’re free to do just as you like. And even that doesn’t turn out how you wanted.In this moment, In-hye becomes aware that her sisters actions represent the same desperation to reclaim agency that she herself expressed by everything she had done in her own life. Each of the two sisters was, in a certain sense, responding to the trauma caused by their father, but their responses were extreme opposites. In-hye attempted to optimise her goodness in the social setting, progressing according to the human moral codes: “she had believed in her own inherent goodness, her humanity, and lived accordingly, never causing anyone harm.” On the other hand, Yeong-hye attempted to overcome morale completely, having had recognized that the human experience is inherently violent. In doing so, she regressed – in strictly human terms, first by going back to nudity and freeing her breasts, then, perhaps, reverting to childhood with an anorexic body, void of secondary sex characteristics. After having had understood Yeong-hye’s pursuit, In-hye wonders: “we have to wake up at some point, don’t we?” Her last attempts, voiced in a plural that encompasses their collective experience, reflect the urgency and desperation for the answer to Han’s central perplexity: the solution to a pure, innocuous life. Neither of the sisters manages to provide one. Yeong-hye, despite achieving her goal, hurt her family on the way, though mostly her sister. In-hye realizes the flaws of her passive following of what’s right, which made her miss out on having a well-lived life. Is it possible, at all, to live a life of no harm? Do we inevitably hurt ourselves, or our loved ones, by attempting to be good? Perhaps the answer lies in redefining morality, or broadening the definition of perfectly harmless to be self-reflective and include treating oneself with respect and kindness, to take up a space between the two attitudes of the sisters. Perhaps “The Vegetarian” doesn’t contain an answer to the question it asks, but it can assist in the pursuit of the big truth by providing its own little ones: truths about trauma, about society and, above all, about sisterhood. Works ReferencedHan, Kang. The Vegetarian; Trans. by Deborah Smith. New York: Hogarth, 2015. eBook.Patrick, Bethanne. “Han Kang on Violence, Beauty, and the (Im)possibility of Innocence.” Literary Hub, 12 Feb. 2016. Accessed 18 January 2018.