A Disturbing Rorschach Inkblot

5 min read
Published:
24 Jun 2016
Duration:
5 min read
Words:
790 words
What happens when you try to break free of a life constrained by someone else
What happens when you try to break free of a life constrained by someone else

This is the central premise explored by Han Kang in The Vegetarian, the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2016. The book is written in three parts. The central character in the first part, Yeong-hye, is faced with the constraints of having to live life on her husband’s terms and depending on him to create an identity for herself of ‘a good wife’. She is an unfulfilled being trying to find fulfillment. To break free of the constraints, she––unconsciously––resorts to her unconscious. Her desire to find fulfillment manifests in the form of a macabre dream, which is followed by similar disturbing dreams.The dreams throw her life completely out of balance, and she hopes to set herself aright by becoming a vegetarian. That act of breaking free of the constraints and finding herself will for her mean breaking free of all the traditions that bind her.

Through In-hye, who has both her feet planted firmly in the conscious reality that we live our lives  in, we get a look into the absurdity of the characters’ lives

The second part of the book revolves around Yeong-hye’s brother in law, who is an unsuccessful artist. He can’t break free of his mediocrity because he doesn’t have the inspiration to produce serious art. In order to overcome the stasis he’s found himself stuck in, he too delves deep into his unconscious. Inspiration comes to him in the form of Yeong-hye’s Mongolian mark, which he fixates on—a Rorschach image of sorts—from which he will create art. But the force of his unconscious’ pull, just as with Yeong-he in the first book, drags him into dangerous territory. In both parts, the protagonists’ trying to break free of their constraints creates conflict with the social norms that they are supposed to adhere to. It is this conflict that plays out through the whole book. The first two parts of the books provide the readers the snapshots into the characters’ unconscious, making the book bewildering, dark and disturbing.

In the third part of the book, Yeong- hye’s sister, In-hye, is the rational narrator (and also a stand-in for the readers of the book) who tries to make sense of these snapshots of the play of the unconscious presented in the first two parts. Through the narrator, who has both her feet planted firmly in the conscious reality that we live our lives  in, we get a look into the absurdity of the characters’ lives. We understand that Yeong-hye’s unconscious has been coloured with the abuse she has had to bear all her life at the hands of her husband and her father. And that her giving in completely into her dreams is how her suppressed emotions seek expression.

As we re-examine the stories of the first two books from within the frame of the third, we are forced to confront many questions: For people who suffer from deep psychological problems, what social norms can be considered normal? Can they even be expected to follow societal notions of what is right and what is not? Are their acts of subversion the only way they can create a semblance of a life?

There is no resolution to the problems faced by the characters even by the end of the book. There is no redemption for them. Thus we the readers cannot even find escape in notions of poetic justice, just like In-hye. Among the three protagonists, In-hye actually suffers the most because she has to consciously process the absurd lives lived by her loved ones. The other two characters are so given over to their unconscious drives that they will not weigh for themselves what they are living through. So how does In-hye (and those of us who have to confront the absurdity of our lives) deal with an absurd world? By continuing to plod on, without seeking escape. Even when we think we can’t.