Comparing Death in “The Tree” and The Vegetarian

Both Han Kang and Anne Finch present the idea of impending death that cannot be avoided, however, both authors present the ideas in different ways as they are using different forms of writing to do so. In addition, both Kang and Finch use death as a way to look back and reflect on the past that has led up to the present. In Kang’s The Vegetarian, specifically Part 3: Flaming Trees, she uses Yeong-hye’s stubbornness, from her mental condition, to eventually make In-hye see that death is not necessarily such a bad thing, and that perspective is something important to consider when death is in discussion, however, this perspective also comes into play regarding the loved ones of those that are dying. Kang uses the relationship between In-hye and Yeong-hye in Flaming Trees to show In-hye’s inability to understand Yeong-hye’s seemingly calm notion towards her own death. On the other hand, Anne Finch paints death as something that is sacred, perhaps something that is just as important as one’s birth, and therefore should be celebrated for all of its achievements in life, no matter how seemingly great or small they may appear to be, but also believes in a sort of karmic aspect to it. Finch carefully employs a rhyme scheme that highlights words that depict her view of death as being honorable and a generally positive experience that is a part in all life.

Throughout Flaming Trees in The Vegetarian, from as early as the third page in, there is this notion from both the hospital staff and In-hye that Yeong-hye needs saving, as both parties work endlessly running after Yeong-hye trying to get her back on her feet. However, no one ever stops and asks what it is Yeong-hye wants, exactly. Everybody just makes the assumption that whatever she says is invalid because she is mentally ill, as she goes on being ignored throughout even Part 1 and Part 2 in the novel (The Vegetarian and Mongolian Mark, respectively). In The Vegetarian, her husband Mr. Cheong pays no attention to Yeong-hye unless it affects his image and just ignores her issue when she tries to speak up about it, “Haven’t you even ironed my white shirt?” (Kang 18) he says after she tells him that she had a dream. This is just an example of the type of response she gets when she tries to explain what she is going through. In Mongolian Mark, while In-hye’s husband does inquire about her condition, “Why is it you don’t eat meat? I’ve always wondered, but somehow I couldn’t ask.” (98), he only asks because he is sexually fascinated with her “… he said, fighting all the time to suppress the sexual images that were running through his head.” (98). In addition, if he truly was concerned, he would have tried to help her out after he had been sexually involved with her. Nobody until In-hye in Flaming Trees even tries to truly understand her condition out of concern for her safety or well-being, however, by this point, it is too late as she is too far gone. It is only when she is “hunched in a corner of a room” (133) that she hints at what she wants. She says, “It’s okay now” (133). In-hye could not tell what Yeong-hye meant here, “It wasn’t clear who these words were intended to comfort; the boy or herself.” (133), but it is straightforward that she is not only not trying to comfort herself or the boy, but she is trying to bring peace to In-hye. In-hye has been worrying about her for so long, and as far as the text is concerned, she is the only one who does at this point, “her parents… didn’t make any further effort to visit Yeong-hye” (142). Yeong-hye embraces the idea of death or is at least unopposed to it, as she resists medical help, “[Yeong-hye’s] also been trying to pull the IV needle out” (150) and later asks In-hye, “Why, is it such a bad thing to die?” (162). What Kang is getting at here is that death should not be viewed as such a woeful thing, universally. However, death is also not just a problem that affects one person, as it deeply affects the loved ones that surround the dying. Really, she is saying that not everybody sees things the same way, using mental illness as an extreme, but effective example. Her point is further supported by a quote from In-hye “It was a fact. She had never lived. Even as a child, as far back as she could remember, she had done nothing but endure.” (166). What is death to someone who has never experienced life or someone who is dissatisfied with the life they live. To people like this, death may seem like something new, like something that brings hope, or a solution to all of one’s problems. When the only thing that anyone has done in their life is “endured”, then death may seem like the only answer to making them feel like they may find peace. Why is it so irrational that a young person that has suffered so much throughout her life, wishes that life was more simple? Why is it crazy that this girl who has suffered yearns for a life with less conflict, like the life of a plant? This is how Yeong-hye feels. Finch shares a similar view about death with Kang in that death is not necessarily bad and can be freeing, but looks at it more positively.

In “The Tree,” Anne Finch uses certain words that tell of a tree’s good deeds toward its guests and visitors. The simple AABB rhyme scheme that Finch constructs throughout the poem not only sets a heavenly rhythm for the poem, but emphasizes key words that display her assertion that the tree deserves a good death. The opening two lines end in the rhyme “Shade” (Finch 1) and “made” (2). This rhyme in context, preceding the third line , “Sure, some Return is due from me” (3), shows that this tree graciously gave its shade to the narrator and did not even expect a “return” to be made to it. Finch immediately opens up the poem with one of the many examples of the tree’s selfless acts to both set the tone for the rest of the poem and to bolster the tree’s identity as having a kind nature. Finch continues the rhyme scheme with “give” (5) and “receive” (6), “stay” (7) and “away” (8), and “freed” (11) and “Reed” (12). In the lines, “When thou to Birds do’st Shelter give,/ Thou Musick do’st from them receive;” (5, 6) Finch further sets up the idea that this tree is selfless, continuing to build this tree up so that she may not only justify that it is deserving of the honorable death that it later gets, but prove to the audience that it is deserving of the privilege to die so respectably. This tree’s relationship with the birds is similar to its relationship with the narrator in the fact that the tree just gives without intending to gain from the situation. Finch’s lines “If Travellers beneath thee stay,/ Till Storms have worn themselves away,” (7, 8) give the reader yet another example of the tree’s behavior, showing that this is the tree’s normal and natural behavior. With the lines, “The Shepherd here, from Scorching freed,/ Tunes to thy dancing Leaves his Reed;” (11, 12), Finch again shows the selflessness of the tree, but also shows the magnitude of the deeds that it does for its guests. Finch uses the word “Scorching” in order to embellish how hot it is, thus making it seem like the tree is saving lives here by offering its “cool Shadows” (4). The line, “‘Till that large Stock of Sap is spent” (21) speaks volumes as it shows that this tree is dedicated to service and will live to serve as long as it has the power to keep on doing so. The tree finds happiness in the song that the birds sing or the company of the travelers and shepherds; it does not need anything other than that. Finch uses all of these examples to really convince the reader that the tree deserves the death it will receive, as one final gift to it.

Finch changes direction from telling of the tree’s deeds and focuses on it’s death as she progresses through the poem. In the rhyme, in particular, words like “strive” (23) and “alive” (24), “wait” (17) and “Fate” (18), “attend” (25) and “End” (26), and “burn” (31) and “Urn” (32). In the lines, “‘Till the fierce Winds, that vainly strive/ To shock they Greatness whilst alive,” (23, 24), Finch is trying to say that the tree is surprised to find that its time to pass on has come. The negative force that is time, hits the tree like a brick wall and shocks it, now that it knows it will not be able to serve anyone any longer. However, it does not fight its destiny, but instead will pass with grace. Finch’s lines, “No; let this Wish upon thee wait, And still to flourish be thy Fate,” (17, 18) tell the reader that the narrator has something special in store for the tree that he was unable to show his gratitude toward. Here is where Finch essentially implants the idea that the tree will receive a gift that it deserves in its passing on, as its “fate” will be “flourished”. This foreshadowing is a somewhat subtle tool she uses to start to get her point across. Finch sets up the situation so the narrator knows the kind of funeral/death the tree is deserving of. Finch, in the lines, “Shall on thy lifeless Hour attend,/ Prevent the Axe, and grace thy End;” (25, 26), at this point really punches in the idea that she laid the groundwork for almost ten lines ago. She again, more concretely says that the tree deserves a noble and appropriate death, as it had lived to serve. For this tree, simply being cut down is not good enough; sure, the tree would still be of use to nature, however it seems cruel in a way. The way Finch chooses the tree to die seems a lot more appropriate. The rhyming lines, “But shalt, like ancient Heroes, burn,/ And some bright Hearth be made thy Urn.” (31, 32). Here, Finch says that a death by fire seems a pure death, even saying that the tree would burn “like ancient Heroes”. Finch would agree that the tree lived like a hero, so it therefore deserved to die as one. In addition, burning the tree feels more personal a death than just chopping it down, as it could be seen as both the tree’s death and a sort of funeral service all in one. Instead of being cut up and sent away, it is able to serve one final time, as a “Hearth”, generating warmth for its guests in its last moments. Not only this, but by being made a hearth, the tree can die in the place it has spent its whole life; it is home. In general, the death seems more humane, as humans are cremated and are given funerals, as well. Both “The Tree” and The Vegetarian offer a unique perspective on death, both of which have to do with reflecting on the past.

In both The Vegetarian and “The Tree”, death is seen as something that spurs reflection and remembrance. In Flaming Trees, In-hye is in denial about Yeong-hye’s condition, hoping that it still may get better, despite the fact that it has only gotten worse in the few years that they have been trying to deal with it. Within the section of the novel, In-hye goes through the stages of grief and she reflects as a part of the bargaining stage. The hypothetical questions linger throughout for In-hye as she wonders if “there was something she could have done to prevent it?” (Kang 142). She thinks back to many events in both the recent past and their childhood wondering if she could have stopped In-hye from becoming so troubled. This is In-hye bargaining, wishing she could go back to the past and just fix things before they broke. She traces back all of the events in Parts 1 and 2, from the dinner with their parents to the art project her husband had been working on. As much as In-hye probably would not admit that Yeong-hye will die, especially in the early part of Flaming Trees, she knows deep down that Yeong-hye cannot possibly recover. She is only fighting so hard because that is what we do for the ones we love, despite the seemingly insurmountable odds. Looking in from the outside, it would be pretty clear that Yeong-hye would not recover, but as an insider, hope takes over and warps perceptions. Despite In-hye’s efforts to keep Yeong-hye alive, Kang knows In-hye truly knows that Yeong-hye cannot survive, which is why Kang already has In-hye going through the grieving cycle while Yeong-hye lives.

Reflection is the whole basis for the Finch’s poem, “The Tree”. With the poem’s simple and all-encompassing title, “The Tree”, it is perfect for an elegy. This poem starts out outlining the tree’s wonderful services, such as providing shade for the birds, and shelter for the travelers, and so on and then takes a sharp turn and tells of the tree’s glorious and fitting death. The narrator is reflecting on the events in the tree’s life and then quickly gets to the tree’s death. “The Tree” is a summation of this tree’s highlights, as narrator reflects upon the fact that he has only taken from the tree, “Shall I then only Silent be,/ And no Return be made by me?” (Finch 15,16). However, the narrator finds in his/her reflection that he/she can really only do one thing for the tree this time around. The narrator can give the tree a death that it is deserving of, “Prevent the Axe. and grace thy End;” (26). This is done because Finch believes that death is not necessarily a bad thing if done the right way. And in order to send somebody off in the appropriate manner, their life has to be reflected upon to know what would be appropriate. This tree is deserving of a noble death only because of the services it has done for its many guests in its life, or for as long as the narrator has known the tree.

Works Cited

Finch, Anne. “The Tree.” Selected Poems. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979. 152-53. Print.

Kang, Han. The Vegetarian. Trans. Deborah Smith. N.p.: Portobello, 2015. Print.

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