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In Session: Environmental Crisis and Response in Modern and Contemporary Korea
4: Dreaming of a Sentient Land: Ecofeminism and Crises of Embodiment in Han Kang's the Vegetarian
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
Cornell University, United States
Growing numbers of South Korean writers have articulated the costs of ecological damage arising from rapid industrialization and urbanization since the 20th century. In Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (2007), the first Korean novel to win the Man Booker International Prize for fiction in 2016, environmental degradation and violence vis-à-vis the nonhuman world are aligned with the oppression of women in contemporary Korean society. This paper analyzes The Vegetarian with ecofeminist and posthuman frameworks, situating the novel alongside earlier works such as the short story “The Fruit of My Woman” and within a corpus of ecofeminist and ecocritical literature which critiques gender disparities and rapid South Korean development following the Korean War.
In the novel, the protagonist Yŏnghye finds alternative methods of communicating in a society that does not accept her speech: dreaming, becoming a vegetarian, transforming into a tree. Dreaming creates a liminal space for recognizing the sentience and suffering of the nonhuman world and instigates a process of profound transformation in which Yŏnghye rejects her human body. This paper argues that The Vegetarian challenges the dominant Cartesian worldview in which land can be seen as an object and arrives at a posthuman perspective in which land is treated as a speaking subject.