The Vegetarian by Han Kang | A disturbing allegory of women’s place in the Korean society

I didn’t like it… 

Here, I said it. I honestly don’t think there is a single person out there who read this book and said: “I liked it”. Yes, most can appreciate the writing style, the story, the meaning behind it, but OMG, it was weird. 

I also don’t think it’s a good book…

There are certain stories that I read and not necessarily love but, as I said, appreciate the thought and the deeper meaning. However, if the author had to resort to disturbing and pornographic content to explain her point of view and present this allegory, it doesn’t compel me to know more about the real-world problem. In fact, it does the complete opposite, making me want to run away and not face these issues.

goodreads blurb:

Before the nightmare, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life. But when splintering, blood-soaked images start haunting her thoughts, Yeong-hye decides to purge her mind and renounce eating meat. In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision to embrace a more “plant-like” existence is a shocking act of subversion. And as her passive rebellion manifests in ever more extreme and frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement begin to send Yeong-hye spiraling deep into the spaces of her fantasy. In a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, her now dangerous endeavor will take Yeong-hye—impossibly, ecstatically, tragically—far from her once-known self altogether.


Daughter of a famous novelist, Han Kang lived in Seoul, South Korea, since the age of 10. Her career as a writer began after she finished University, with a short story that won the Seoul Shinmun spring literary contest. Han Kang has become widely known in the west with the publication of her novel «The Vegetarian» that first won the Yi Sang Literary Prize and in 2016 Man Booker International Prize. Since 2016, this book has been on everyone’s radar.  

…the prose was mesmerizing and the story very vivid…

To English, this book was brought by Deborah Smith, who shared the Man Booker Prize with the author, Han Kang. There was a big row about the quality of the translation, the misinterpretation of many words and so on. 

You can read more about the (mis)translaion of this book in this The Guardian article.

I can’t comment on the quality of English translation as I read this one in Russian. The Russian translator has done an amazing job, in my opinion. Once again, I don’t have a comparison point as I haven’t read (and not able to) this book in its original, Korean, language. However, the prose was mesmerizing and the story very vivid, to the point where I had to stop reading multiple times, because of how clear the images were in my head. 

«The Vegetarian» is interpreted by most as an allegory for women’s place in the society and courage to challenge the established “rules”. I have also seen some reviewers mention that this could easily be an allegory of the international relationship between the two Koreas, with men representing the North and women the South. 

What I know for sure is that this novel is not a character study, and I wish I’d known that before starting to read it, instead of discovering it by myself almost halfway through the book, when the story became stranger and more repellent with every page. 

…I didn’t have a stomach for the horrible desires described in it

«The Vegetarian» explores the life of a young Korean woman, Yeong-hye, who, after a dream, refuses to eat meat. Her husband found her at this act when Yeong-hye still in her nightdress emptying the content of their fridge into a big trash bag. 

In the first part of this novel, the author focuses on the relationship between Yeong-hye and her husband. He thought himself lucky for finding such a quiet, compliant wife, and was unpleasantly surprised by her confrontation when she suddenly became a vegetarian. 

This was the best part of the book, in my opinion. I saw the defiant spirit of Yeong-hye in the society ruled by men. How she didn’t want to comply with the socially accepted rules. And thought of her as a strong-willed woman. 

The second part is a pornographic portrayal of sex, art and the strangest desires of one of the characters. This was the point when I couldn’t go on anymore. I actually DNF’d this book 2 or 3 times because I didn’t have a stomach for the horrible desires described in it. Maybe if Yeong-hye actually showed some spirit, I’d feel something for her – be it pity or anger. But because she had no fight in her, this part felt wrong even to read about.

After checking the thread on GoodReads about the ending of the book and how many people had to read and re-read multiple times to understand what actually happened. I decided to just sit down and power through the final third part, of this short novel.

The third part felt dull in comparison to such intense beginning of the book. And I just skimmed it until the end.

If you did, let me know in the comments what you thought about it!

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3 thoughts on “The Vegetarian by Han Kang | A disturbing allegory of women’s place in the Korean society

  1. I was curious about this book while simultaneously extremely hesitant because I heard it was freaky. Now, I’m even more hesitant and to be honest I might not read it at all.
    Still I think knowing a little more about it before going in is better so thanks for your honest thoughts. I always see people praising this book as incredible and talking about all the metaphors but no one says anything like this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Phew! Thank you! I thought people would come after me for this review, ahaha, but it’s been very pacific so far. 😀
      Maybe I’m very sensitive to the things described in this book, but OMG it was definitely freaky, to say the least.

      If you were / are curious to try this book for yourself, I’d say do it. Get it at the library if you can, and just read the first third / half of the book. It’s only 200 pages ish anyway, and it reads very quickly. The first part of the book was actually very good until all the weird disturbing things started to happen. And if you do read it, let me know what you think. I’d love to see more feedback on this book. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

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