Compassionate sisterhood in East Asian Family: A Feminism Criticism Analysis of the novel The Vegetarian | Teen Ink

Compassionate sisterhood in East Asian Family: A Feminism Criticism Analysis of the novel The Vegetarian

March 9, 2023
By RachelWu BRONZE, Beijing, Other
RachelWu BRONZE, Beijing, Other
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

Women will hold each other's hands tightly walking over flaming forests. The novel The Vegetarian tells a story about a Korean woman, Kim Yeong-Hye, trying to deal with the oppression surrounding her and become a true vegetarian. She has everything that an East Asian female should have, an authoritarian father, an irresponsible husband, and an average life. The author, Han Kang, portrays an empowered sisterhood in the novel, by emphasizing the apathy of husbands toward their wives, contrasting the female and female relationship with the father and daughter relationship, and highlighting the empathy between females when they have similar trauma.
To begin with, the disregard of the husband has imprisoned helpless women in a marriage. “As for the man’s family, when they see only his anger and not the vulnerability of suppressed feelings behind the anger, they may become not empathic, but fearful” (Nemko 3). Society requires men to achieve great success that helps them get appreciation from others, which cuffs invisible shackles on men that make it difficult for them to express their feelings. On the other hand, under overestimated expectations, husbands spent all their experience on how to promote and gain more wealth. Accordingly, a husband usually has a low level of empathy to sense and understand his wife’s struggle in the marriage. In the novel, after Yeong-Hye had a terrible dream, she decided not to have meat anymore. Once her husband takes her to a company dinner, she insists that she will not eat any meat. Her husband is mad at Yeong-Hye and blames Yeong-Hye for making him lose a good opportunity to flatter his boss because of Yeong-Hye’s behavior. The description in the novel shapes a mediocre male character, Yeong-Hye’s husband. Since it is difficult for him to find a sense of social identity from others with the high expectation and pressure from society, he takes his ordinariness unwillingly. As a result, his inferiority and incompetence drive him to vent his anger on his wife, who’s not to blame. He does not care about Yeong-Hye’s feelings, but only about his opportunity to get a promotion, which will help him get social recognization. There is no compassion between husbands and wives, only cold chains tighten them together. Yeong-Hye’s strange behavior could be seen as a representation of her silent revolt, against her heartless husband and her ordinary marriage. Not only the husband who lacks empathy but also the father is an accomplice in pushing women into the abyss of a patriarchal society.
The father stresses and intervenes in the daughter’s choice in order to establish his authority in the family, but not for a caring purpose. “Parents in a patrilocal society, raise their daughters to be able to ‘fit in’ to a different family” (Sen 3). In a patrilocal family, the father has to ensure the daughter becomes a perfect wife successfully. If the daughter is against the will of her father, this will be regarded as unfilial. After Yeong-Hye has decided to become a vegetarian, she does not make breakfast and prepare clothes for her husband anymore which makes her husband complains about that with her father. Yeong-Hye resists having meat not only to embarrass her husband but also to challenge the authority of her father, who is representative of the whole family. And the reason that her father tends to force her to eat meat compulsively in front of all of the family members is that he wants to rebuild his authority and tell her that he is the only one who can make decisions in the family. At this urgent moment, sister, In-Hye, is the only person in her family to try to stop her father. She cried, “Father, I beg you, stop this” (Han 39). The result is doomed since she has to fail because a female has no power to stop this tragedy in her voice. To sum up, the father is the first man in a daughter’s life, he is the one who put the seed of patriarchy in her body. However, there is a power beyond the privilege of men, the sisterhood.
Contrastingly, similar trauma in different women’s life has enforced the bonds between them helping each other out of the dilemma of patriarchy. “ ‘Sister... all the trees of the world are like brothers and sisters’” (Han 144). The “trees” here means the unity and empathy of female. On the other hand, the passage mentions “brothers and sisters”, in my opinion, this means the unity of human beings should not exclude males or females. Because trees own no sex, it belongs to nature and represents the most original power in the world. Back to the point, these are the words that Yeong-Hye gives to her sister when she is not very conscious. Her sister is the last hope in her life since she is the only person who does not willing to force Yeong-Hye to eat meat. In-Hye also has an unfortunate marriage in that her husband never takes the rearing responsibility. When Yeong-Hye lying on the bed weakly, she sits aside and starts to regret “Could I prevented it?”(Han 158). They have similar situations, similar marriages, and even similar struggling, so what they have done is not resist but embrace the vulnerability of each other. Without the limitation of social discipline and the desire for authority, women care about each other and bond together with an empathizing heart.
The author builds a strong bonding between sisters by comparing it with a ruthless father and an unfeeling husband. Separation of husbands and wives caused by rules in the patriarchal society creates a huge empathy gap between sexes; fathers in a family tend to emphasize the power they have; only the females with compassions are able to support each other by recalling the same memory that they are tortured in marriage and family. Han Kang critiques the East Asian society that has oppressed females and gives hope to those who are still struggling with marriage and the family by building up this kind of moving sisterhood in the novel. For decades, people thought that power means manliness and bravado. In fact, empathy is another branch of energy that keep motivating people and holding them together. The destination of sisterhood is the unity between sexes, which aims to seek a path for gender equality and break the boundaries in society and people's minds.
Kang, Han. The Vegetarian: A Novel. Hogarth, 2016.
Nemko, Marty. “The Gender Gap in Empathy.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 20, 21 Feb. 2023.
Sen, Swagata. “Patrilocality Is the Root of Gender Discrimination.” Rights of Equality - Promoting Gender Equality and Women Empowerment, 15 Oct. 2022,, 23 Feb. 2023.

The author's comments:

The Vegetarian is a novel written by a Korean writer, Han Kang. This book report will focus on the  concept, sisterhood, in feminism criticism theory. Han Kang depicts a conventional image of the marriage in East Asia, which reveals a realistic portrait of housewives. The trauma and struggle of female in the society are combined with the imagery the author used in the novel.

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