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Love, death and Quorn: vegetarianism in literature

Tolstoy, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Franz Kafka. Some of literature’s greatest, whose meat-free diets all beg the same question: how deep can getting Greggs’ vegan sausage roll really be?

As it turns out, pretty deep. Hipsters and certain brands of vegan activism may have changed their image, but plant-based diets have roots as a subversive, anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist act. From the Pythagoreans’ quest for perfect moral virtue to the modern-day McLibel case (still the longest-running trial in British legal history), the question of whether your post-Fever six chicken nuggies are the fruits of a corrupt industry is a question as old as civilisation itself.  Meat consumption has never been separable from ethics.

Nor has ethics ever been separable from literature. Even without modern knowledge of the link between meat consumption and environmental catastrophe, widening class divide, antibiotic resistance or the risk of pandemics, authors across the ages have been shaped by questions of human identity and our relation to our environment, implicating vegetarianism and veganism more often than you may realise.

Vegetarianism has in particular been associated with the ideals of both Enlightenment and Romantic era authors; the aesthetic of the lone, Romantic poet, estranged from society and returning to prelapsarian ideals often involved eschewing animal flesh. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the Creature is in fact vegetarian as part of his attempt to be “peaceful and human”, reflecting the beliefs vocally held by the Shelley’s. His murderous tendencies may get in the way slightly, but his perception of how humans should act in relation to the world around them feeds into an important discourse on the nature of our moral codes.

But Frankenstein’s monster aside, vegetarian lifestyles are rarely intradiegetic, which makes the overt politicisation of vegetarianism in Han Kang’s 2016 Man Booker Prize-winning ‘The Vegetarian’ the culmination of a long-standing but far from obvious literary tradition. The protagonist, Yeong-hye’s decision to renounce meat signals the beginning of her descent into madness, depression, and exclusion from society, and the vividly brutal dreams which triggered this decision create an eerie backdrop of blood and slaughter against which her desperation and desolation play out. 

Throughout the novel’s three parts which focus on Yeong-hye, her brother-in-law and her sister In-hye respectively, this book shows the politically subversive potential of our individual choices. The eponymous character’s vegetarianism and her choice not to wear a bra are seen as equal and related affronts to society; her husband sees her choice as a selfish attack on his career prospects, and the stir she makes within her microcosmic family circle is a reminder that what we consume makes a difference in the world. The unsettling eroticisation of the human form amidst the bloodlust, meat and mental institutions gives the novel the bizarre, surreal quality of a fever dream, but its reflection of reality is a crystal-clear image.

It’s impossible to say what Tolstoy or Kafka would have made of Han’s unsettling portrait of life in modern-day Seoul but the three of them, like so many great authors, are united by their unremitting questioning of the codes by which we live, so readily accepted by others.

So, the next time you’re feeling too lazy to cook anything but plain pasta for tea, you can console yourself with the knowledge that you’re continuing the legacy of some of humanity’s greatest, challenging the many ethical and capitalist assumptions linked to meat.