Is it sexist against women if the author is female? I found myself pondering this a few pages into The Vegetarian by Han Kang. There is something overwhelming about the Male Gaze (how can it not be overwhelming when it feels like every commercial and movie poster objectifies women). But The Vegetarian seemingly creates a new version: the Male Gaze as seen through the eyes of a woman.
Similar to Olive Kitteridge (or perhaps closer to Anna Karenina) the subject of this novel, Yeong-hye, rarely has her own voice, rather she infects and connects the other characters. In fact, it was only when I flipped back to the beginning that I realized it takes 36 pages before our ‘Vegetarian’ is named. In those previous pages, Yeong-hye is referred to as “she,” “wife,” and during one instance that struck me so distinctly I scribbled it down: “she could not be called a person.” We see versions of her from her husband’s eye, her brother-in-law, and finally her sister, but we never get a sense of who she is. At first presented as a weak, unremarkable wife, she transitions into sexual desire and ultimately someone to protect and save – but what if she doesn’t want to be saved?
From the small sampling of Asian Literature I’ve read, I get a sense that the stories passed down generation to generation have certain themes; one of which is the mental power of the female sex to control her own eating habits. It is seen as both a source of power and pride. The Vegetarian spins this idea on its head; at first the decision to decline meat appears to be a strong, controlled choice, but as we delve deeper, you begin to question the sanity of those involved. Perhaps she is, instead, losing control.
Hidden within the beautiful prose (the short length of barely 200 pages perfectly balances the writing) is a commentary on mental illness. And something deeper. By making the choice to have the majority of the narration be masculine (and not just male but extreme, sexual male gazers), Han Kang underlines the faults and unrealistic expectations that accompany the Male Gaze. As Yeong-hye falls, we fall; unable to understand why, in her darkest hour of need, she becomes more desirable and, simultaneously, a lost cause. Perhaps the Male Gaze destroyed her after all.
Bechdel Test: Passed with flying colors
To Read or Not to Read: Read!! I loved this book.