Anna Kim’s Frozen Time and The Vegetarian by Han Kang written in 2010 and 2007 respectively are fictional novels that point out to contemporary issues that have affected the society. Frozen Time is a novel that depicts the war that took place in Kosovo from a fictional perspective but unearths the lack of empathy and inhumanity surrounding the genocide that took place. Similarly, Hang Kang’s the Vegetarian highlights the cruel nature of a system, a family and how they propagate inhumane activities and lack empathy to an individual who decides to go against the cultural norm (Kang). In both novels, the protagonists, a female Red Cross employee and Yeong-Hye illustrate how the world can be cruel and lack empathy towards people and the environment through narratives brought forward by their authors.
The book narrates a story of the life of Yeong-hye who decides to seize consuming meat after experiencing dreams involving animal slaughter images. Her decision affects her relationship with the family, as well as society. She becomes distant from her family members and husband, who are against her decision (Hahn). This story is narrated in three main parts, The Vegetarian, Mongolian Mark, and Flaming Trees. The first part is told by Yeong-hye’s husband, the second part by her brother-in-law and the third part by her sister In-hye.
In the first part, Mr.Cheong, Yeong-hye’s husband, perceives his wife as an unremarkable human being. He points out that he married her, knowing that she will be a good wife, dutiful, and will perfectly fit in his lifestyle (Kang). However, years later, Mr. Cheong finds his wife disposing of all meat products in their house. When he demands an explanation, his wife replies saying she had a dream about animal slaughter. A few months later, he summons Yeong-hye’s family to convince her to consume meat products. Her father hits her when she refuses to eat the meat and forces a piece of pork in her mouth. Yeong-hye becomes agitated, spits the meat out, and slits her wrist using a knife (Hahn). She is then rushed to the hospital by the family and her husband, who declare her mentally unstable. The incredulous family joins forces against her decision to quit eating meat products. Yeong-hye manages to get out of the hospital, and when tracked down, she discloses a bird located in her palm with a predator bite in it.
In-hye’s husband is acknowledged as a video artist in the book. He also imagines a romantic scene between two individuals, with their bodies adorned by flowers. When he learns that Yeong-hye possesses a birthmark that resembles a flower petal, he decides to record and paint her (Hahn). This is to bring the image to life artistically. In the book, it is revealed that In-hye’s husband falls in love with Yeong-hye when he found her naked in her apartment. The narrator posits that her husband had divorced Yeong-hye at this time.
Yeong-hye agrees to model for her sister’s husband, who paints flowers all over her body in the studio. In-hye’s husband introduces a fellow artist and friend to join her in a sexual film, but the friend rejects the idea. Nonetheless, the brother-in-law asks a friend to draw flowers on his body, visits Yeong-hye in her apartment and engages in intercourse with her (Kang). When In-hye finds the film, she calls the authorities claiming that her husband and sister are not mentally stable. After that, the brother-in-law is taken out of the building by the authorities. He divorced In-hye, who dedicates her life to supporting her vegetarian sister and her only son.
Yeong-hye is left alone by the family and husband. She is responsible for her son after the divorce because of her decision. Her sister is the only family member who supports her after her mental decline. Her situation worsens, leading to her admission in a mental hospital where she is put on high-level treatment. In-hye falls into depression due to continuously ruminating about her divorce and caring for her children. However, she still visits Yeong-hye and supports her. She is against the nurses and doctors who force food on her sister and threaten to sedate her to prevent vomiting (Hahn). This leads to their transfer to another hospital by an ambulance as In-hye observes the trees on the road.
Cruelty and empathy in The Vegetarian
The ethics of meat consumption has, over the years, provoked debates and divided opinions among people. Yeong-hye’s decision to avert the consumption of animal products is exclusively based on ethics. She experiences nightmares filled with bloodshed and loses interest in meat consumption. This is because the slaughter of animals for meat significantly reflects Cruelty to the animals, as well as the destruction of the environment. According to Mendis and Cat, there are environmental impacts of animal production, the rights of animals, and the health impact of meat on human consumption. The manner at which animals are raised in the farms and the large numbers of animals transported and slaughtered to make food represents the most significant cause of animal suffering globally. The concerned individuals lack the power to influence the food animal industry but resolve to stop its consumption. In this way, they do not contribute to the Cruelty towards animals or inflict suffering to them. Plant-based diet adoption allows them to feel at ease concerning cruelty towards animals through slaughter.
Yeong-hye converts into a vegetarian because she perceives a form of animal suffering in her dream. The plight of animals is one of the significant reasons why Yeong-hye chose to be a vegetarian as narrated in the book. She goes to the extent of disposing of all the meat products in her household after the revealing dream she experienced. Animals have the right and deserve the best interests, regardless of whether they are essential to humans. Switching to a plant-based diet will alleviate the needless suffering and cruelty faced by countless animals (Parkes and Tania 26). Also, a switch will prevent damage on the earth due to pollution, land erosions, energy wastage, and deforestation. In the factory farms, the animals are exposed to unsanitary conditions and mutilations such as cutting off horns and docking tails of sheep and pigs. Consequently, they are subjected to painful injections with growth hormones to boost production in the slaughter farms. Such actions show Cruelty towards animals all over the globe.
Vegetarianism reduces the needless suffering and slaughter of animals in the world. It increases compassion for animals and one’s feeling of lightness (Mendis and Cat). It is imperative that humans understand and share the feelings of animals instead of subjecting them to cruel slaughter and suffering. Yeong-hye empathizes with animals and refuses to eat the meat even when forced by her father and other family members. She stands by her decision despite the antagonism she faces from her family. Han Kang’s novel brings about ethical vegetarianism and opposition to animal cruelty. It advocates for a vegetarian diet and the freedom of animals from slaughter and other forms of suffering in the factory farms.
Empathy is the capacity to understand and feel what other individual experiences within their reference frame (Parkes and Tania 26). It is the capacity to place oneself in another individual’s position. In Han Kang’s novel, The Vegetarian, Yeong-hye’s family fails to empathize with her when she made a decision to stop eating meat. Despite her reluctance to feed on meat, they still force pork down her mouth and subject her to physical abuse. She faces immediate pressure to change her mind to the point of slashing her wrist in protest. Yeong-hye’s husband is only concerned about the potential social embarrassment from people when they realize that his wife is a vegetarian. He is entirely self-absorbed and indifferent to his wife. This shows that conformity and social cohesion do not produce empathy. Instead, it provides ambient violence of the Korean society to keep individuals along the defined boundaries of prosperity.
Yeong-hye’s family is not concerned about her feelings and do not understand her point of view. In this way, they lack empathy because they force her to behave in a manner that she resents. What is more, Yeong-hye’s decision is automatically written off by her family as an act of madness. This is evident when she is taken to a mental institution forcefully without her consent by the family. Her rebellion is institutionalized and marginalized by the society she belongs to (Mendis and Cat). There is also a lack of empathy from the doctors in the psychiatric hospital who endeavor to feed her forcefully, which is an act of coercive violence.
Han Kang’s use of vegetarianism as a response to animal rights and lack of empathy is imperative and applicable in the Korean society (Wolf). Vegetarianism is not a form of madness as perceived by the family in the book. It is a rational choice made by Yeong-hye and not subject to criticism and violence. She is obstinate to the extent of painting flower petals across her body, signifying the shift to a plant-based diet. Not only does she refuse to eat meat, but also any other food offered as a protest to her vegetarianism decision.
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