Male Violence and Female Body in Kang Han’s “Vegetarian”
- Author: Choi Yoo Jin
- Publish: Feminist Studies in English Literature Volume 21, Issue3, p205~235, Dec 2013
This article examines the connotation of meat in Kang Han’s “Vegetarian” and addresses its connection with male violence and female resistance. First, it explores the family relationships, specifically, of father-daughter and husband-wife within the Korean sociocultural context. Second, the meaning of meat is explicated within the parameters of patriarchal culture, which is employed as a useful framework that documents the origins of gender dichotomies in Korea. Third and most importantly, this paper elucidates the cultural messages written on Young-hye’s body through the process of detecting male violence in the text and by focusing on the heroine’s performance. The last scene of “Vegetarian” presents the most explicit and powerful protest through the protagonist’s body and its language. By crossing and re-crossing the boundary of meateater and vegetarian, Young-hye’s body paralyzes the system of patriarchy and demolishes the hierarchical gender dichotomy;furthermore, it envisions the possibility of a new paradigm, the horizontal partnership between male and female.
Kang Han , “Vegetarian” , patriarchy , meat , dream , male violence , female body
The objective of this study is to examine the connotation of meat in “Vegetarian” (2004),1 written by Kang Han (1970- ), and to address its connection with male violence and female resistance within the history of patriarchy in Korea. Although industrialization expedited modernization and quickened economic growth in Korea, gender hierarchy has not significantly changed from the traditional male-dominated and father-oriented structure, which has continued to exist by metamorphosing into modernized replicas.
In the 1960s, as the capitalistic economy gathered momentum, the sexual division of labor understood as “male breadwinners and female housewives” and defined as the “feminization of family and absence of father” (Y. Lee 82) became established, which is shown in the relationship between Young-hye Kim’s parents. The period could also be epitomized as patriarchal dominance and women’s submission by emphasizing the husband’s economic power and the wife’s role as an assistant; this cultural feature is demonstrated by the binary positioning of Young-hye and her husband within the family as well as in society.
In the 1970s, a revised version of “wise mother, good wife” ideology, based on Korean Confucianism,2 which accentuated women’s duty of “not only rearing and educating children but also in sexual partnership as well” (Y. Lee 83) emerged. At the end of the 1980s, the number of married women workers increased sharply due to the rise of housing expenses and that of school education costs. As a result, “women had to take responsibilities of motherhood and, at the same time, share the responsibility of supplementing the family income” (Y. Lee 82)— evidence of the salient culture is provided by the characteristic aspects of Young-hye, who supplements the family income as an assistant instructor in a graphic-arts academy.
In the 1990s, “professional-mother syndrome” appeared. It was a response to the commercialization and specialization of mothers’ roles as child raisers, which stimulated mothers’ interest in becoming experts on children’s schooling, healthcare, extracurricular activities, and so on. This syndrome can be characterized as “a desire to be a ‘wise mother’ combined with the logic of the market” (Y. Lee 83), which reflects “women’s desire to fit into the modern variation of the ideals of sacrificial motherhood” (Elfving-Hwang 99). Considering that “Vegetarian” was written in 2004, the modified version of patriarchy in the 1990s could have been included in the text. Nevertheless, it is not detected in the text. To be more exact, Han’s strategy is deemed to be that of broadening the horizons of understanding culture-specific gender ideologies widely spread in Korea and that of highlighting the restricted role of women within the boundaries of patriarchy.
The main focus of this paper will be on “Vegetarian,” not all of the three novellas in
Vegetarian(2007),3 since the construct of Korean patriarchy and male violence can be most effectively elucidated and explicitly expounded through an analysis of the specific novella.4 Moreover, Rosemary Jackson’s observation on fantastic narrative toward interpreting Young-hye’s dream and Susan Bordo’s discourse on the language of the body will be employed to decode the protagonist’s dream and to explicate her bodily performance. Jackson, in Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion, argues that the fantastic narrative portrays the covered and the absent elements of culture and it inverts and recombines to produce something new. Analogous to a dream, a fantastic narrative offers that “which cannot be, but is” (Jackson 23), and it reveals the truth contradictory to what the society presents or limits. The fantastic narrative is not in itself a socially subversive activity, Jackson remarks, but it disturbs the “‘rules’ of artistic representation and literature’s reproduction of the ‘real’” (13-14). The fantastic discloses the un-seen, vocalizes the un-said, and violates what dominant ideology authorizes as the norm—it uncovers the truth that has been silenced.
Correspondingly, Bordo, in “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity,” observes the female body as a site that unveils the conflicts and the contentions between competing ideologies. She claims that the body is a text to be read where social control and rules are inscribed: exemplified in female disorders such as hysteria, agoraphobia, and anorexia, which are written in the language of suffering, woman’s body is a “surface on which conventional constructions of femininity are exposed” (Bordo 97). However, the body, from a different angle, can become an embodied protest, at the same time, which demonstrates “what social conditions make it impossible to state linguistically” (Bordo 97-98).
The constituent that accentuates this study as unique and distinct is that it places patriarchal family relationships and male violence at its analytic center and illuminates the site where they intersect and commingle, through which procedure it allows room for a critical view on the absurdity and destructiveness of the maledominant system that has marginalized and victimized women in Korea as the periphery. First of all, this paper will explore the family relationships, specifically, of father-daughter and husband-wife within the Korean socio-cultural context; through this procedure, it attempts to provide a place that epitomizes the frame of the familial and social construction and, also, that displays the contentions between male order and female resistance. Second, the connotation of meat—as a catalyst that elicits female rebellion against power hierarchy and as a medium that provides a crucial linkage with male violence—will be explicated within the parameters of patriarchal cultures. Third and most importantly, this article purports to elucidate the cultural messages written on the protagonist's body through the process of detecting male violence in the text and by focusing on the heroine’s performance.
By observing the protagonist’s transformation from a meateater to a vegetarian, which is followed by a series of subsequent changes, this study will ferret out the male-imaged ideas of gender that have been internalized and deep-seated in the patriarchal tradition; also, it endeavors to elicit the elements of subversive aspects hidden behind male supremacy and to assess their potential to deconstruct and reconstitute the oppressive system.
1Henceforth, all citations of this novella will be parenthetically referenced with page numbers only. All translations of this text are mine. 2Confucianism was first adopted in the fifth century AD by the elites of the Three Kingdoms (1 BC-AD 700), and served to govern the elites’ moral thoughts and ethics of the period. During the Koryo Dynasty (918–1392), however, it was challenged, and Buddhism was adopted as the predominant social system of values and norms. But again, at the beginning of the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910), Confucianism was revived as the chief system of social principles. It served as the major source of gender definition and symbolization, shown in the concept of namnyŏ-yubyŏl, sex difference, and namjon-yŏbi, honored men, abased women. During the Japanese colonial period (1910-45), the patriarchal family unit was strengthened for the effective ruling of the country. And under the reign of President Chung-hee Park, Confucianism and Confucian patriarchy were employed, which continued in the 1980s and 1990s. Korean Confucianism stands for the form of Confucianism that appeared and was cultivated and practiced in Korea. For more information on Korean Confucianism, see Cho 77-104; S. Kim 143, 153-54, 159; and K. Lee 250. 3The critical literature on Han’s Vegetarian can be classified into four specific themes—trauma, desire, food, and ecology—and examples of the articles concerning these issues are as follows. First of all, approaching from the perspective of trauma, Gwi-eun Han examines the (post)counter-transference represented through internal monologue, stream of consciousness, and internal focalization in the novel in “A (Post)Counter-Transference Narrative of Trauma: Vegetarian Written by Kang Han.” Secondly, Mi-Sook Jeong’s “Desire, the Fragile Absolute: An Analysis on Desires Found in a Part of Kang Han’s Novel Series, Vegetarian,” on the other hand, centers on the analysis of the “desires” of Young-hye and those of her husband, and observes how they collide. Thirdly, considering the story from the perspective of food, Jae-kyeong Kim applies the visual art theory of Jacques Lacan in observing the relationship between meat-eating and authority in “Cultural Symbolism between Food and Authority Shown in Fiction: With a Focus on Food Habit by Yi-tae Kim and Vegetarian by Kang Han.” Last but not least are the next three articles approaching Vegetarian from an ecological point of view. Chan-Kyu Lee and Eun-Ji Lee’s “A Research on Ecofeminism Shown in Kang Han’s Work: Vegetarian as the Center” examines Han’s Vegetarian within the framework of ecofeminism. Also, Soo-Jeong Shin’s “The Meaning of ‘Being a Vegetarian’ in the Novels of Kang Han: Focusing on Vegetarian” explores the connotation of being a vegetarian through the perspectives of ecological ethics and a feminist approach. In addition, Chan-je Wu, in “The Political Economy and Ecological Ethics of Eating,” examines Vegetarian in terms of ecological ethics, gender politics, and communication. 4Vegetarian comprises “three [interconnected] novellas” (245) in the following order: “Vegetarian,” “Mongolian Spot” (2004), and “Blaze of Wood” (2005). “Vegetarian” is told in the form of a first-person narration presented through the eyes of Young-hye’s husband, Mr. Chung. Whereas “Mongolian Spot” places female sexuality as its central issue—by centering on the sexual lust of In-hye Kim’s husband upon Young-hye and their sexual intercourse/In-hye’s husband’s rape of Young-hye—and “Blaze of Wood” lays heavy emphasis on the image of Young-hye’s self-destructiveness in counterpoint to In-hye’s motherhood, “Vegetarian” focuses on Young-hye’s marriage and her family as an example that embodies male domination of females and as an instrument that exposes male violence.
In “Vegetarian,” even though his narration is interrupted and halted by her voice from time to time, by and large, Young-hye is observed and criticized through Mr. Chung’s masculine point of view rooted in Korean patriarchy. Similarly, the narrative of Younghye’s husband vocalizes the culture-specific gender ideologies deeply seated in Korean culture. For instance, he remarks that he married the protagonist because “[s]he met my expectations by performing her role as a wife. Every morning, she woke up at six and set the table with a bowl of rice, soup, and a slice of fish” (10). Such words as these encapsulate the instrumentalization of women in Korean society. The heroine is never referred to by her name but as a “wife,” which insinuates that the protagonist is not taken as Mr. Chung’s equal but as a subordinate who exists to serve his needs; the term “wife” in “Vegetarian” is employed as an implication that not only is she confined within a domestic sphere but also consciously pressed into a limited and self-effacing role. From Mr. Chung’s point of view, the protagonist is equated to a “stranger—more like a nurse who prepares a meal and cleans the house—or a housekeeper” (39).
Moreover, the phallocentric view that women are hierarchically positioned below men is mirrored in the exemplifications of the characters’ vocations in the novella. Not only do the occupations of Mr. Chung, a manager in a small company, and of Young-hye, who supplements the family income as an assistant instructor in a graphicarts academy (in addition to some subcontracted work she brings home), mirror the hierarchical gender structure in Korean society, but they also address the limitations of patriarchal representations of gender roles as well. The case of the protagonist’s parents bears resemblance to that of the young couple—Young-hye’s father owns a carpentry store, whereas her mother runs a small grocery; the former is linked to building a structure or setting up a construction, while the latter is closely connected to managing domestic duties or kitchen work. These portrayals, undoubtedly calculated and elaborately articulated by Han, stand as a gender metonymy that conceptualizes the widespread gendered binaries practiced in Korean society, where men are placed in the center of the culture and women at the margins.
The hierarchical positioning of women below men functions as a key element that expounds the protagonist’s family relationships, specifically those of father-daughter and of husband-wife. The heroine of “Vegetarian,” Young-hye, is the second daughter in the family; she is four years younger than In-hye, Ji-ho’s mother and the first child of her parents, and a few years older than Young-ho Kim, the only son in her family. Young-hye’s father is described as a typical Korean patriarch, who takes great pride in the fact that he fought in the Vietnam War and received the Order of Military Merit from the Korean government; and the point that Young-hye never stood up against her father nor resisted his abuse/violence on her body is immersed in Mr. Chung’s speculation—“My wife had been whipped on the calf by her father until she reached eighteen” (38), which articulates woman’s long-lasting suffering under male domination.
As a killer of his own dog, which he had raised for years, and as a war veteran, who repeatedly recites his anecdotes about killing seven Vietnamese communists in the Vietnam War, it has been hinted that Young-hye’s father, together with Mr. Chung, incarnates male violence. The father brutally slaughtered the dog after it had bitten the leg of the heroine (who was nine then). First, he tied it to his motorcycle, then sat on the machine and took off, which dragged the dog while it frothed at the mouth, spat blood, and, finally, became lifeless. The dog, the seven Vietnamese soldiers, and the protagonist signify the periphery, whereas the heroine’s father domineers as the center. The father bears the imprint of a patriarchy bequeathed from the past to the present, while the former three bear the brunt of patriarchy as the victimized.
Following the footsteps of her foremothers, Young-hye had been a submissive daughter who observed her father’s law. However, after the heroine had a dream imbued with disturbing metaphors and symbols, she transforms from a passive body to an active performer. Written in italics, in the form of fantastic narrative, the heroine’s dream presents other aspects of reality, which is different from that in the realistic narrative told by Mr. Chung; it “traces the unsaid and the unseen of culture: that which has been silenced, made invisible, covered over and made ‘absent’” (Jackson 4). Young-hye’s dream subverts the dominant speculations by making visible the unseen and articulating the unsaid about the story of women under Korean patriarchy.
Considering the sociocultural context “Vegetarian” portrays, the meat in the protagonist’s dream exemplifies women’s suffering in male-dominant systems. The hut represents a patriarchal household/society; and the hut in her dream filled with bloody pieces of meat metaphorically stands for the patriarchal society/family that causes women’s suffering and victimization. In the same vein, the dark woods signify the oppressive patriarchal structure women are under and the “[p]ointed leaves on the trees” denote the ferocity of male violence. Jeong argues that Young-hye’s dream symbolizes the “uncomfortable truth that has been suppressed under the order signified as the ‘father,’ the patriarch, and it bears the connotation of the ‘return of the repressed’” (14). Regarding these interpretations, the “uncomfortable truth” implies what “skeleton in the closet/an ancestral guilt waiting to be disclosed” insinuates—the vices of patriarchy. Also, the chunks of meat in the hut incorporate the “skeleton in the closet,” an “ancestral guilt waiting to be disclosed” (Williams 11), or the
han—grudge, rancor, regret, and/or resentment—of Korean women.
On the other hand, meat exemplifies the ideology of Korean patriarchy. Lee and Lee argue that “Young-hye’s household that used to enjoy meat epitomizes the effeminate party that concedes to male authority represented as ‘meat’” (52); viewed from this standpoint, the act of eating meat is analogous to succumbing to male supremacy, which explains the reason why the protagonist hid herself behind a tree in her dream when she realized that she had eaten the meat—out of the shame that she has been following the patriarchal ideology without due criticism.5 Seen from this perspective, there is a reason behind the warning of the protagonist’s mother when the heroine resists eating meat. Her mother says, “If you don’t eat meat, the whole world will eat you” (60). “Meat,” in this vein, signifies the ideology of patriarchy and “the whole world” implies those who have power, that is, the male authority. The mother’s words insinuate that if any woman defies the father’s law in patriarchal society, she will be destroyed, ostracized from society and eliminated from the male narrative.
These two interpretations of meat, seemingly contradictory, are in fact interconnected. In the fantastic narrative (or in Younghye’s dream), meat represents women’s suffering under a patriarchal system; in the realistic narrative (or in Young-hye’s life), it signifies male dominance. The dual meaning of meat is interdependent in that eating meat equals obeying the father’s order founded on women’s sacrifice, which is followed by female suffering under male supremacy. Therefore, meat symbolizes at once male order and at the same time women’s suffering. For this reason, the heroine’s refusal to eat meat can be equated with resistance against male dominance and, at the same time, it can exemplify female desire to break free of masculine expectations and to be emancipated from gender-based oppression.
This is revealed and supported by the following scene: the night before Young-hye had the dream, she was cutting a chunk of frozen meat with a knife and Mr. Chung, in anger, urged her to hurry up, saying, “Shit, what’s taking you so long?” (26). The husband’s attitude and words so completely nonplussed the protagonist that she accidently cut her index finger with the knife. The husband and the wife in this scene are depicted as master and slave, and it exemplifies the male order and female suffering within the patriarchal Korean family. Young-hye professes, “
It was at the dawn of the next day that I had the dream. I saw the face mirrored, in the puddle filled with blood in the hut” (27); as such, the heroine’s dream is intricately yet irrefutably interconnected with male order and female suffering within the patriarchal Korean system.
At the same time, the blood on the protagonist’s white gown in Young-hye’s dream conjures up the scene where the protagonist cuts her wrist and the blood from her wrist spurts up like a fountain and “rains down on the white plate” (51) before her family’s very eyes. A white gown has multifaceted aspects of interpretation; yet, within the Korean sociocultural context, it implicitly evokes two images: for one, a shroud, white clothes that cover the body of a dead person, and for the other, the Korean people, since they have been referred to as
baek-yiu-minjok, the white-clad people in the history of Korea. Assuming that blood is emblematic of suffering and injury, Young-hye’s white gown stained with blood in the heroine’s dream represents the distress of Korean women who, in a metaphorical sense, have been murdered, devoured, and buried in the history of patriarchal Korea.
Moreover, considering that it was the blood from the meat (in the hut) that stained Young-hye’s gown in her dream, it denotes the point that the suffering of women in the past have transferred to the heroine, which is proven by the scene where the blood from her wrist spurts on the white plate. As the protagonist’s dream and her own life interweave, the history of the oppressed (or the Korean women in the past) and the present of the oppressed (or Young-hye) intertwine. These two analogous images are conjoined to imply the continuity of patriarchy, which entails women’s suffering as a consequence.
Arguably, the protagonist’s dream is saturated with deepseated patriarchal metaphors. It embodies the history of the oppressed, the abused, the manipulated, and the exploited. In this vein, Young-hye’s dream is emblematically analogous to what a “ghost” represents in Avery Gordon’s
Ghostly Matters. The ghost in Gordon’s text signifies the memories of the lost and the vanished; similarly, the protagonist’s dream in “Vegetarian” summons the memories of the victimized and the peripherized women in the history of Korea, or “a history of loss and repression” (Radway ix). The significance of the protagonist’s dream parallels with that of the “ghost,” for both the former and the latter provide the knowledge of hidden truth, which enables the writing of the history of the present by “attempting to ‘imagine beyond the limits of what is already understandable’” (Gordon 195). Haunting takes place because the abusive systems and/or social violence that were done in the past are still executed in the present and it urges the haunted to see that there is “something-to-be-done” (Gordon xvi). Given the interpretation, as “reminders of lingering trouble” (Gordon xix) and as a “very particular way of knowing what has happened or is happening” (Gordon 8), the heroine’s dream projects salience on the absurdity of patriarchy and male violence, which demands “movement and change—individual, social, and political” (Gordon xvii).
Viewed in the context of Korean patriarchy, the dream has transformed Young-hye from an “angel-in-the-house,” an obedient daughter and good wife, to a “monster,” a disobedient daughter and bad wife. The following are a series of marked contrasts between Young-hye before and after the dream. First, the heroine starts to neglect domestic affairs. The protagonist begins to desist from what has prevalently, if not wholly, been taken as the duties of a housewife in Korean society. Not only has she begun to disregard household chores, such as ironing, waking up her husband in the morning (and helping him get ready to go to work), and seeing him off from the porch when he leaves home for work, but, most importantly, she has stopped eating meat. The heroine used to have a good appetite and enjoyed eating minced raw beef, and she could even cook various dishes made of chicken, beef, pork, and fish. In fact, all the members in her family, including the protagonist herself, adored eating meat. Nevertheless, since Young-hye had the dream, she has refrained from eating or cooking meat.
The protagonist’s changed self carries implications of challenging male supremacy as well as deconstructing the system of gender dichotomy succinctly represented in men’s power and women’s subservience. However, what follows after Young-hye’s self-assertion is male violence. In “Vegetarian,” domestic terror upon women is demonstrated in the forms of verbal attacks, sexual maltreatment, and physical abuse. As for verbal attacks, the text describes Mr. Chung’s “yelling” (16), “swearing” (17), and use of abusive language towards Young-hye. For instance, when he finds out that the protagonist has been slighting what are deemed a wife’s duties in patriarchal Korean culture, Young-hye’s husband labels the heroine as “Deranged. Totally spoiled” (17). This not only manifests the verbal abuse itself but also discloses the husband’s gender-biased attitude in comparing his wife to an (edible/consumable) object through the word “spoiled.”
In the same breath, it should be noted that the syntactic form of Mr. Chung’s language when he talks to his wife is mainly composed in commands, that is, in “subjectless” structure. It is explicitly referenced in the scene where the couple ready themselves for the husband’s company get-together exclusively planned for high executives. It begins with Mr. Chung’s criticism upon Young-hye’s make-up, instructing her, “Your make-up, fix it” (27). He then urges his wife to “Hurry up” (28) so that they won’t be late for the special occasion. And he finally commands her to “Behave yourself tonight” (28), for it is the first time, Mr. Chung says, that the president of his company invited anyone (as low as) his position—a chief of a department—to the company dinner. Mr. Chung’s, “subjectless,” imperative sentences signify male repression and woman’s loss of self within a family as well as within Korean society.
Nevertheless, a closer look at the scene reveals a struggle between male order and female resistance. When Mr. Chung drags his wife into the bedroom by the arm and orders her to fix her makeup, Young-hye does not submit to his commands; she instead displays her resistance by “silently shaking off his hand” (27). Neither does the husband allow his will to be subdued. He changes his plan: he himself opens her compact, grabs the powder puff, pounds her face with the powdered puff until she comes to resemble a “dust-covered rag doll” (27-28), and applies lipstick to her lips. After which, Mr. Chung orders his wife to hurry up, but Young-hye puts her feet into her blue sneakers “at a snail’s pace” (28). The strain between the two continues. On their way to the company gettogether, the husband orders his wife to be good; but soon after they arrive at the restaurant, Mr. Chung realizes that Young-hye is not wearing a bra. Sensing people’s attention and quick exchanges of glances upon her protruding nipples under her somewhat tight black blouse, the husband blushes with shame but tries to stay calm.
The tension between Mr. Chung and Young-hye reaches a peak at the moment a waiter is about to put some mung-bean jelly curd with mushrooms and beef on the protagonist’s plate and the protagonist breaks her silence and utters a refusal, “I will not have it” (30), meaning that she will not have the dish served with meat. Although she said it quietly, its message was loud enough to freeze people in the room. Noticing that her words attracted the public ear, Young-hye clarifies her saying, only this time, with a louder voice— “I, do not eat meat” (30). Let alone the fact that through this statement she asserts her self before the group-oriented male community, it is noteworthy to acknowledge that by separating the subject “I” from the rest of the sentence by putting a comma between the two, the protagonist resumes her subjectivity; also, the remaining part, which becomes an imperative sentence, is in itself as significant as the other in that it enhances her position from a subordinate who has to obey an order to a superior who gives an order. It is after this company-gathering—where a nip-and-tuck battle between Mr. Chung and Young-hye took place, which started as one between male master and female subordinate but ended at the critical point where the boundary between those two was on the verge of collapse—that Young-hye’s husband decides to ask for backup from the protagonist’s family, specifically, from her father.
In the case of sexual violence, it is manifested in the scene where Mr. Chung rapes Young-hye. The husband recalls that before his wife turned into a vegetarian, she used to “accede to his demand for sexual intercourse without any objection” (24); but the moment the protagonist stopped eating meat, she also stopped having sexual intercourse with him, saying, “‘your body smells of meat’ [. . .] ‘······ from every pore of your skin’” (24). Time and again, when Younghye’s husband comes home after company get-togethers, he violently rapes his wife, despite her persistent and desperate resistance, on the pretense that he is under the influence of alcohol. He justifies (and generalizes) his abominable deeds by saying that “repressing the bodily desire for a long period of time is unbearable” (39). After the forced sex, the protagonist “lays her body in the dark and looks up at the ceiling with a vacant face as if she were a sex slave drafted to comfort men at war” (40). The laid body embodies the image of a sex slave during Japanese colonial rule and Mr. Chung, that of a colonialist, who fulfills his lust by sexually manipulating a woman’s body; the juxtaposition exposes the instrumentalization of female body and one of the most severe expressions of male violence.
As for physical abuse, it is revealed in the father-daughter relationship. Before the very eyes of Young-hye’s family, the abuse is inflicted on the protagonist’s body by her father, with the rest of the family members taking the father’s side. After the company gathering, Mr. Chung makes a phone call to Young-hye’s parents and together with the protagonist’s father conspires a concentrated attack on the heroine at their coming family gathering. The family gathering, which was planned for the celebration of Young-hye’s mother’s birthday and In-hye’s moving to a new apartment, has been transformed into a disciplinary committee summoned for punishing and correcting the heroine’s behavior. The gathering has become like the wolf hidden under sheep’s clothing—an event that ostensibly celebrates two female members of the family is in fact one that condemns another female member of the family. In the core of the meeting lies male discipline, and women are, once again and as always in Korean patriarchal familial institutions, peripheralized.
When Young-hye refuses to eat meat, her father slaps her on the cheek so hard that she bleeds. The moment the strong blow from her father’s hand strikes the protagonist across the face, the heroine clutches her face in pain. The father’s lips twitch in anger and the heroine writhes in desperate agony. He presses a piece of deep-fried pork covered with sweet and sour starchy sauce—the most common (or favorite) Chinese dish many Koreans enjoy—against the protagonist’s lips. Young-hye’s father succeeds in prying open the heroine’s two lips but fails to insert the meat into her mouth because she clenches her teeth tight. The father gets into a rage and slaps her on the cheek once more. The patriarchal father would never condone his daughter’s disobedience or her revolt against male authority; he orders his son, Young-ho, and Young-hye's husband to take hold of the protagonist’s each arm and forces her to take the meat squeezed between his chopsticks.
The scenes described above serve to indicate a contestation of who controls and disciplines a passive female body; they demonstrate that in the face of resistance, a woman can never own her body within the parameters of patriarchy. However, the reactions Young-hye takes after male violence are significant in understanding the subversiveness of the (seemingly inactive) female body and its latent power. After the heroine is sexually abused by her husband, she refuses to talk. Muteness is at once the “condition of the silent, uncomplaining woman—an ideal of patriarchal culture”—and a gesture that signifies “[p]rotesting the stifling of the female voice through one’s own voicelessness” (Bordo 99). By “employing the language of femininity” (Bordo 99), the heroine acts out a silent body; on the surface, it can be seen as “uncomplaining” or powerless, but in essence, it is an active body that carries out a “protest.” And the implication is supported by her husband’s response upon her muteness. He professes that the silence and darkness in the bedroom after the rape makes him “shiver” (40); and the heroine’s firmly closed lips and her countenance, which seems like that of “a woman who had been buffeted by the waves of adversity and suffered hardships,” make him “disgusted” and “sick” (40). If Young-hye’s muteness were the “condition of the uncomplaining woman,” her husband might have felt at ease or even triumphant; instead, the heroine’s silence makes him “shiver,” feeling “disgusted” and “sick,” which implies that Young-hye’s muteness is a “protest,” not a sign of submissiveness nor powerlessness.
Also, taken that “danger and repression are interdependent participants in a continuous process” and “perceptions of power cannot be untangled from the impulse to suppress it” (Auerbach 187-88), the repression of the protagonist’s father upon the protagonist can be stemmed from perceiving Young-hye’s empowerment of selfassertion. The proclamation the heroine makes—“Father, I do not eat meat” (49)—when she is forced to eat meat encapsulates her strong will to be independent from the male-dominated system. Additionally, Young-hye’s bound arms evoke Maxine Hong Kingston’s observation that “women were once so dangerous that they had to have their feet bound” (qtd. in Auerbach 185-86); on the surface, the fettered arms may seem vulnerable, but in effect, they are the symbol of women’s power and that of men’s fear.
When the meat is shoved into Young-hye’s mouth by force, she shrieks like a beast, and, with a growl, spits it out; and followed by her short cry, “······[S]tep back!” (51), she grabs a fruit knife on the dining table and cuts her wrist. To put it differently, as Margaret Higonnet argues that “to take one’s life is to force others to read one’s death” (68), when Young-hye’s refusal to eat meat is rejected by her father, she lets everyone see her suffering by cutting her wrist. Through this perspective, the suicidal act of cutting her wrist can be interpreted as an invitation call for all to comprehend the destructive male-dominant system. Moreover, this scene should be deciphered as an emblematic moment by which she has, metaphorically, transformed herself from a passive and selfless woman into an active being who can assert her own identity and self. Taking these into consideration, the bodily language of Young-hye embodies a feminine discourse that reveals the absurdity of the dominant hegemony and, at the same time, that has a power to subvert the reigning masculine order.
Furthermore, the heroine’s act of discarding black-goat extract pouches presents another performance that overthrows the conventional patriarchal paradigm that entraps women within maternal identities. After the protagonist cuts her wrist and is sent to a hospital, her mother visits her. The mother brings a box full of black-goat extract pouches and urges her daughter to take one of the pouches and sip the juice out of it, deceiving Young-hye by saying that it is an herbal medicine. Black-goat extract is traditionally known as an effective medicine for women, especially for pregnant women or for those who want to get pregnant. When the protagonist finds out what it is, she vomits out the meat extract and throws the rest of he pouches (in the box) in the trashcan. By her deed, not only does the heroine repudiate being taken solely as a maternal body whose role is limited to reproduction, but she also diametrically opposes being controlled by others. In this vein, what the protagonist throws away is not the box full of black-goat extract pouches itself but the banal tradition that perceives women only as receptacles that conceive and nourish heirs.
The last scene of “Vegetarian” presents the most explicit and powerful protest through Young-hye’s body. A few steps outside the hospital, Mr. Chung witnesses his wife’s lips wet with blood and the bloodstained white-eyed bird in her hand. The site focuses on the heroine’s act of eating its flesh, which can be construed in several different perspectives. First, assuming that the “image of a soaring bird in Han’s novels symbolize her female characters’ situations of confinement within the domestic sphere” (Yang 245), the protagonist’s attack on the bird throws harsh condemnation upon male-dominant systems that prohibit women's independence. Second, Young-hye’s performance signifies her escape from the patriarchal representation of femininity. As hinted earlier—from the opening sentence of “Vegetarian,” which reads, “I had never thought her a special person before she became a vegetarian” (9)—Mr. Chung married the protagonist because “she seemed like the most ordinary woman in the world” (10). After the heroine became a vegetarian, her husband takes her as a “strange and dangerous woman” (55) who would threaten the continuity of patriarchy. Being “special” in this sense parallels the meaning of being different, abnormal, and/or deviant in the eyes of patriarchal convention.
Concerning otherness, Jackson argues that “strangeness precedes the naming of it as evil: the other is defined as evil precisely because of his/her difference and a possible power to disturb the familiar and the known” (52-53). From Mr. Chung’s perspective, Young-hye is a “stranger,” an “outsider,” a “social deviant,” someone who speaks an “unfamiliar language” and acts in “unfamiliar ways,” evil or a monster who violates the “normal,” the male-dominance. However, it is the protagonist’s very “otherness” and its “power to disturb the familiar and the known” that make fissuring on the form of patriarchy possible. When the husband sees the heroine with the dead bird in her hand, Mr. Chung rejects her by saying that “I do not know the woman” (64); the rejection signifies that Young-hye is emancipated from the subjugated role of a wife and that her escape from the boundaries of male supremacy has succeeded.
Third, and most importantly, Young-hye’s performance in the final scene subverts the male logic and obscures the boundary of gendered dichotomy. When Mr. Chung opens the tightly clenched right hand of the heroine, the smothered bird—some parts of its body are torn off as if it were attacked by a predator—falls down from her hand. “Vegetarian” is an epithet that Young-hye’s husband has given to his wife;6 by crossing and re-crossing the boundary of meat-eater and vegetarian—indeed by transgressing the boundary entirely through transforming herself into a carnivorous predator—the protagonist numbs and paralyzes the patriarchal system. This is an emblematic moment that overthrows and transcends male rationality which imprisons women within the realm of being docile, submissive, selfless, and angelic. Moreover, it deconstructs the socio-cultural contexts defined by the binary positioning of man and woman, normal and different, self and the other, masculinity and femininity, and/or meat-eater and vegetarian. The scene, which hints of a powerful and coercive image of predatory meat-eating, overlaps and merges with the passive and nonresistant image of the vegetarian and it demolishes the boundaries of gendered binaries and promises a new paradigm of the horizontal relationship between male and female.
5There is an analogy between this scene and the one in Genesis in the Bible. The fact that Young-hye hid her body behind a tree because of shame that she ate the meat in the hut calls forth the site that after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, “then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked” (Gen. 3:7) and hid themselves “among the trees of the garden” (Gen. 3:8). After the heroine had the dream, or right after she attempted suicide by cutting one of her wrists in front of her family members, to be more exact, she recalls an incident about her father killing his dog (which bit her) brutally and made it into a dog-meat soup when she was nine—“They said that I had to eat the dog-meat soup to be healed, so I did. Its eyes were floating on the soup. [. . .] I didn’t feel guilty. Truly, I didn’t feel guilty at all” (53). Likewise, before she had the dream, she was blind to the fact that she had been following the cultural hegemony of male-centered discourses and the marginalization of women. Only after Young-hye realized her gown, her hands and mouth covered with blood in her dream, she became aware that she had been assimilated into the community dominated by men, which had committed mental as well as bodily oppression upon women and which would continue to bequeath physical and spiritual wounding to the next generation. 6The meat in “Vegetarian” symbolizes the father’s order as the “fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden” (Gen. 3:3) in the Bible symbolizes the words of the Father. In Genesis, Adam gave his “Woman” (2:23) a new name, “Eve” (3:20), thereby consigning her to a patriarchically constructed role as the “mother of all the living” when she offended the will of God by eating the fruit. Similarly, Mr. Chung has been referring his wife as a “vegetarian” after she stopped eating meat; unlike Eve, however, the protagonist of “Vegetarian” does not remain passive to be named by men—to be called a “vegetarian.” Younghye transcends the boundary of an idealistic female construct created by male by refusing to eat meat, then re-transcends the territory delineated by her husband, that is, within the boundary of a vegetarian, by changing herself into a meat-eater, even if temporarily, by eating the bird before her husband’s very eyes.
The realistic narrative and the fantastic narrative that constitute “Vegetarian” reflect the power struggle between male order and female protest. The former presides as the center in the novella whereas the latter watches vigilantly for a chance to intercept the walkover of the former—a tug-of-war that can never be in favor of the periphery. The contentions between the realistic narrative, which represents the patriarchal perspectives, and the fantastic narrative, which reveals the history that has been repressed under male supremacy, continue throughout “Vegetarian” as the former “attempts to repress and defuse the subversive thrust” (Jackson 124) of the latter.
Young-hye’s dream “exists alongside the ‘real,’ on either side of the dominant cultural axis, as a muted presence, a silenced imaginary other” (Jackson 180) and enables the protagonist to hollow out the hidden truth buried under the male narrative. Also, it serves as a catalyst for her transformation/rebirth, inspiring the heroine to shift from a passive body to an active performer, through which the absurdity of patriarchy and the fact of female resistance to male supremacy are manifested. On the one hand, considering the sociocultural context “Vegetarian” portrays, meat in the heroine’s dream exemplifies women’s suffering in male-dominant systems; on the other hand, it represents the father’s law. These two interconnected meanings of meat converge in the text and allow Young-hye’s transformation from a meat-eater to a meat-resister room for interpretation that links the history of patriarchy in the past with its continuous oppression of women in the present.
After the protagonist becomes a vegetarian, male violence ensues, which is exhibited in verbal, physical, and sexual abuses. The body of the protagonist is employed as a mirror that reflects the cultural continuities in male dominance and female subordination— the verbal and sexual attacks by the heroine’s husband and the physical abuse by her father symbolize the male-centered system that has begotten the victimization of women. Young-hye’s resistance against Mr. Chung and her father is pivotal in that it nullifies the idealistic feminine construct created by male-dominant ideology and the gendered discourses that constrain women to be submissive, passive, self-effacing, and/or voiceless.
Given that “women’s oppression is biological as well as historical” (Wittig 310), “Vegetarian” epitomizes women’s suffering through the protagonist’s dream, which transcribes the history of Korean patriarchy, as well as through Young-hye’s body, where cruelty of male violence is encrypted. As “women who inscribe on their own bodies cultural reflections and projections, affirmation and negation” (Higonnet 68), the vices of patriarchy as well as the language of protest are vividly etched on her body and it becomes “a text to be read” (Conboy et al. 8), which conveys a message more powerful than a voice.
Yet, “Vegetarian” is not sated with merely exposing the vices of patriarchal systems; it truculently proceeds to repudiate, undermine, and deconstruct the male-dominant ideology through the language of the heroine’s body. It should be noted that when Young-hye’s voice is disregarded, her body substitutes the voice; the heroine’s body expresses her thoughts “in languages of horrible suffering” (Bordo 97) that “embody a language of protest” (Bordo 102). The protagonist’s reaction towards male violence manifests her abhorrence towards the coercive and obnoxious system of male dominance. Also, it demonstrates her strong will to be independent from the powerful regimes and, at the same time, from being manipulated by the male-centered culture. The desperate act of proclaiming freedom from the father’s law escalates the possibility of debilitating patriarchy and overthrowing the male supremacy.
As Dianne Hunter argues, the “body signifies what social conditions make it impossible to state linguistically” (272), Younghye exposes the harshness of the patriarchal tradition and the ferocity of male violence through her bodily performance. The protagonist’s body becomes “a site of struggle,” that reveals “in the service of resistance to gender domination, not in the service of docility and gender normalization” (Bordo 105). It signifies her ardent desire to denounce the system of male values and her endeavor to be emancipated from the patriarchal order. At the same time, as “a performance artist” (Conboy et al. 8), the bodily language of Younghye suggests the deconstruction of the binary positioning of men and women in the last scene of “Vegetarian,” which promises a possibility of gender equality.