The Vegetarian, by Han Kang: a Philosophical Perspective

October 15, 2016

Written by Mike Heald

‘I believe that humans should be plants’ – Yi Sang


By coincidence, I was deeply immersed in the philosopher Michael Marder’s project of ‘dismantling our deeply rooted [pun noted] metaphysical legacy’ with regard to plant life, as David Wood (puns coming thick and fast) puts it in his back cover endorsement of Marder’s Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life [1], when I heard about this novel The Vegetarian, winner of the Man Booker International Prize for 2016. Marder’s overall contention is that our metaphysics has left us with ways of regarding plants which are radically reductive, invalidly and potentially disastrously excluding them from such vital categories as ‘life’ and ‘intelligence’. A novel, therefore, in which a woman experiences the need to become a tree was always going to get my attention.

In the novel, the main character, Yeong-hye, experiences the sudden onset of a revulsion towards eating meat, brought on by dreams, and then tries to live out a compulsion to become a tree, or as Marder might put it, to attain an ontophytological state. The beginning of Yeong-hye’s first dream is as follows:

Cold. Across the frozen ravine, a red barn-like building. Straw matting flapping limp across the door. Roll it up and I’m inside, it’s inside. A long bamboo stick strung with great blood-red gashes of meat, blood still dripping down. Try to push past but the meat, there’s no end to the meat, and no exit. Blood in my mouth, blood-soaked clothes sucked onto my skin. (12)

It is appropriate to draw attention to a biographical consideration. Han Kang is from the city of Gwangju, which experienced the violent suppression of a political demonstration in May of nineteen-eighty, with estimates of up to six hundred fatalities. Since that time, the city’s inhabitants have required far higher than usual amounts of psychological counseling, experiencing various symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including loss of sleep and disturbing dreams. Furthermore, Kang’s own brother, aged fifteen at the time (five years older than Kang herself), witnessed the killing, at that demonstration, of a close friend, and was himself arrested and tortured, although he was apparently only a bystander, and accused on the grounds of his family’s well-known leftist sympathies rather than any actual participation.

This context, then, can extend the resonances of the novel’s symbolism, and such resonances are sustained when, for example, Yeong-hye’s dreams begin to explicitly involve acts of human violence, and the reaction to them:

Dreams of murder. Murderer or murdered …. hazy distinctions, boundaries wearing thin. Familiarity bleeds into strangeness, certainty becomes impossible. Only the violence is vivid enough to stick. A sound, the elasticity of the instant when the metal struck the victim’s head … the shadow that crumpled and fell gleams cold in the darkness.

They come to me now more times than I can count. Dreams overlaid with dreams, a palimpsest of horror. Violent acts perpetrated by night. A hazy feeling I can’t pin down … but remembered as blood-chillingly definite.

Intolerable loathing, so long suppressed. Loathing I’ve always tried to mask with affection. But now the mask is coming off. (28)

It is certainly possible, then, to read the revulsion for sliced flesh and violence in this novel as an expression of collective trauma from an act of repression by an authoritarian state, and the attraction to plant life as the urge towards a state of being which in its nature can be seen as non-complicit, as abnegating such brutal hierarchical dynamics. Michael Marder’s analysis of the political dimensions of plant-life, again, provide an opportunity for lucid and substantial reflection on this, in particular with regard to the hierarchical aspect:

‘…enacting a veritable anarchy, the plant’s “body without organs” does not evince hierarchical organization. It maintains conceptual horizontality even in the tree’s spatial verticality. Furthermore, the suggestion that the plant is “a collective being” implies that its body is a non-totalizing assemblage of multiplicities, an inherently political space of conviviality. For the concept of the body politic to be germane to vegetal democracy, this body needs to be sharply distinguished from the organism whose parts—the organs—are subservient to the demands of the whole. Post-metaphysical vegetal thought ought to resist a double projection: on the one hand, of the animal and human constitutions onto plants said to possess parts that are homologous to the organs of other living creatures; and, on the other, of a contrived organicity of nature, conceived as a living whole, onto the socium . Where philosophers do not respect the first principle of resistance, they ascribe redundancies and superfluities to plants that are not differentiated into organs; where they slight the second principle, a totalitarian socio-political system emerges on the basis of the idealized organic sphere.’ [2]

Kang herself has suggested in an interview that her writing is an exploration of ‘human violence, and the human potential for perfection’, and that the main character’s behaviour in The Vegetarian is doomed, because ‘we can’t all just become plants.’ [3]

It could be surmised that The Vegetarian is an exercise in demonstrating the folly of wishful thinking, of a utopian attempt to avoid, or obsession with avoiding, the intrinsic brutality of human interactions. At one point, the sister-in-law of Yeong-hye, In-hye, becomes frustrated and upbraids her as if it is a moral failing to yearn for a plant-like existence, an ignominious or cowardly retreat from being human. It is clear, however, that the novel does not endorse such a reductive judgment. One way, for example, in which In-hye’s view is undermined is by the fact that she herself subsequently begins to experience precisely the same longing for planthood.

But no part of this story reads like that of a whimsically conceived metamorphosis, a limp sprouting of wishful thinking. And furthermore, when viewed with the benefit of Marder’s philosophical insights, Yeong-hye’s desire and change may not appear as a degeneration at all, since that word only perpetuates a hierarchical notion of life forms which is the creation of a metaphysics neither inevitable nor even rational. Kang’s writing is seriously soulful, and what Marder has to say about western metaphysics’ denial of soul to plant life resonates with what we witness in The Vegetarian. Without going into detail with regard to Marder’s specific arguments, he describes in general terms what the lie of the philosophical land could look like once both the reductionism of positivist science and it’s consequent disenchantment are out of the way:

‘…the plant confirms the “truth” of the soul as something, in large part, non-ideal, embodied, mortal, and this-worldly, while the soul, shared with other living entities and construed as the very figure for sharing, corroborates the vivacity of the plant in excess of a reductively conceptual grasp.’ [4]

And he goes on to say that ‘only upon completing the proposed hermeneutical exercise will we be able to gauge the ethical and political implications of our treatment and mistreatment of plants, as much as the reverberations of vegetal life in beings called “human.” [5] The strange journey into different, plant-like, states of being which we follow in this novel, then, is not merely a general image of madness, but an exploration of human ways of being which are in some ways worthy of serious consideration, and may indeed prefigure a greater sanity.

Marder’s work often demands re-reading – ordinary language philosophy it ain’t – but the effort seems eminently worthwhile. It strikes me as a powerful mindfulness of ideas which lie at the very roots (again!) of our thinking. I suppose the proof of this worthwhileness is that although one is dealing with a rarefied level of abstract conceptual differentiation, the net result may be that you can look up from the page and out of the window at a tree and get a rude, and altogether salutary shock, finding that Marder has indeed facilitated a rather different encounter with these strange and graceful beings.

I found the experience of reading The Vegetarian also worthwhile, though of course in a different way. The narrative seems to proceed at a pace and with a texture that reminded me of the adage that if writing is good, it’s like you’re not reading at all. Also, I had the sense that the events, both psychological and physical, although strange, had a compelling plausibility. The form, that is, seemed both inspired and disciplined by an authentic experience, albeit mysterious. And this experience seemed to be finding its objective correlative, to use Eliot’s term. There is a rather mesmerizing sense of fellow-travelling with the writer on a genuinely heuristic journey into these hinterlands of consciousness. There is also a sense that this is not an indulgent excursion into the marginal and bizarre, but rather the following of a trail back to the lair of a form of consciousness which concerns us all.

The aesthetic and moral disorientations which Kang leads us into with her narrative and imagery are rewarding far beyond the value of mere novelty. They are not exotic detours. They are showing us territory which is an integral, if neglected, part of our sentience, and asking us deep questions about how we normally orient ourselves within it. One major disorientation is in the area of sexuality. The main male character in the story, Yeong-ho, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, who is a video artist, has become obsessed by an image of human bodies with flowers painted onto them. As if to imbue this image with a kind of ubiquity, Kang relates his surprise discovery of the same image as a theatrical poster:

‘On the poster, men and women sat displaying their naked backs, which were covered from the napes of their necks right down to their bottoms with flowers, coiling stems and thickly overlapping petals, painted on in red and blue. Looking at them he felt afraid, excited, and somehow oppressed. He couldn’t believe that the image that had obsessed him for almost a year now had also been dreamed up by someone else…’ (55-6)

When he witnesses the actual performance which the poster advertised it is unsatisfying, but the image persists, and its hold on his imagination is intensified by a feature of the skin of his sister-in-law which comes to his attention, namely her retention of a birth mark:

‘In his mind, the fact that his sister-in-law still had a Mongolian mark on her buttocks became inexplicably bound up with the image of men and women having sex, their naked bodies completely covered with painted flowers.’ (59)

Yeong-ho then, against his better judgment, arranges for Yeong-hye and a colleague to perform the sexual act for him to film, their bodies painted with flowers. Yeong-hye, well on the way towards ontophytology, finds the scenario irresistible, and Yeong-ho himself is drawn into the role of participant, rather than observer.

The way in which the relationship of human sexuality to that of plants is scrutinized by Marder again provides revealing and profound perspectives on these aspects of Kang’s novel which could otherwise appear as somewhat bizarrely salacious. Marder observes that the sexuality of plants has largely eluded classification, and been over-simplified, with pernicious consequences for how we define our own sexuality, in particular our dualizing tendency. Taking Goethe to task, along with the metaphysical ‘knife’ in general, Marder declares that the ‘front line for the liberation of sexuality from metaphysical and onto-theological constraints cuts through the being of plants.’ [6] A little of his preliminary argument proceeds as follows:

‘Apropos of the multifaceted sexual differences, presented in the guise of neutrality in Dasein, Derrida writes in the Geschlecht series: “If Dasein as such belongs to neither of the two sexes, this doesn’t mean that its being is deprived of sex. On the contrary, here one must think of a pre-differentiated, rather a pre-dual, sexuality—which doesn’t necessarily mean unitary, homogeneous, or undifferentiated [. . . but] more originary than a dyad.” The embodied, factical state of Dasein leads Derrida to this daring conclusion, mapping Freudian “pre-dual” sexuality onto Dasein’s purported neutrality. “More originary than a dyad,” the sexuality of Dasein comprises sexual differences that are too subtle and too minute to be spotted through the lens of metaphysics. The same holds, mutatis mutandis, for the sexual being of plants. Multiple vegetal sexualities will correspond to the dispersed multiplicity at the heart of the ontology of plants that do not adopt an oppositional stance toward their surroundings. The pre-dual sexual-ontological constitutions of animals and humans are in fact indebted to this vegetal dissemination of the sexual principle. While the “neutrality” of Dasein saturates it with sexuality to the brink (and, in any case, well beyond the confines of the dyadic relation), the indifference of vegetal sex life surpasses the logic of oppositionality and produces differences without regard to the exigencies of sameness.’ [7]

Perhaps if the current crop (just can’t help it…) of Australian politicians spent a little more time with ideas like this, challenging though they may be, we wouldn’t be in danger of having a plebiscite forced upon us to decide whether or not we’d like to continue indulging abjectly confused and discriminatory notions of human sexuality…

One final image from the novel which I’d like to note and celebrate, which again enacts a potent disorientation, and which has a sexual dimension, is Yeong-hye’s conviction that our normal perception of trees is upside down, as she begins trying to maintain herself in the hand-stand position:

‘I thought trees stood 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 all standing on their heads.’ Yeong-hye laughed frantically. In-hye remembered moments from their childhood when Yeong-hye’s face had worn the same expression as it did now. Those moments when her sister’s single-lidded eyes would narrow and turn completely dark, when that innocent laughter would come rushing out of her mouth. ‘Do you 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. ‘I need to water my body. I don’t need this kind of food, sister. I need water.’(148)

Perhaps The Vegetarian, then, is doing what art should: bringing us water from the well, however unrecognizable and even unpalatable that water may at first seem.

[1] Marder, Michael,  Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, 2013, New York, Columbia University Press.

[2] Marder 2013, 85-6

[3] “Violence and Being Human”, World Literature Today, May 2016,

[4] Marder 2013, 19

[5] ditto

[6] Marder 2013, 86.

[7] Marder 2013, 88


Mike Heald is a Literature lecturer. His fourth book of poetry, ‘The Moving World’, appeared in 2011 with Fremantle Press.


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