5 Fictional Vegetarians Who Defy Stereotypes
On Memes and More Nuanced Representations of Non-Meat Eaters
Three years ago, I found myself in a shed in Campagnola Emilia, Italy, surrounded by dozens of cute nonni, confronted with a moment of meat-eating reckoning. I was on a study trip with the University of Gastronomic Sciences, where I was pursing a Master’s degree, and the nonni we were visiting were skilled norcini, or pork butchers, who make salumi. They greeted us in the shed with a table full of pancetta, coppa, lardo, and culatello. Oh, and an entire side of pork. I mean, literally, half of a butchered pig, bisected from snout to tail.
The norcini had the side of pork on display so that they could demonstrate butchery for us, showing us exactly where that pancetta came from. If anything could turn my stomach and my conscience, this was it. I looked the pig in the eye socket, and then looked at the ribbons of lardo on the platter. Reader, I ate the cured meat, and I never looked back.
This is all to say that I am decidedly not a vegetarian. I may not eat meat every day or even every week, and I may pay extra attention to the provenance of the animal products I eat, but eat them I do.
Even though I have not chosen to give up meat, I don’t look upon people who have with disdain. My vegetarian, vegan, and pescatarian friends abstain from meat and eggs and cheese and even honey for ethical and personal reasons that I do not question. Still, if the prevalence of memes mocking the veg lifestyle proves anything, it’s that plenty of others do question them.
It’s hard to believe that in 2016—15 years after Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and a decade since Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, knowing what we know about the ravages of carnivorousness on animals and the environment—so much stereotyping of vegetarianism remains.
I turned to my beloved friend Lily, who has been vegetarian for 11 years, to find out how she feels misunderstood for her decision to stay away from meat, and she sent me a thousand-plus-word-long email in response. Some of the things people wrongly assume about Lily’s vegetarianism: “That it’s a decision I make because I ‘love animals’… that it’s akin to a religious practice with rules that can’t be violated… that my vegetarianism is an implicit judgment of their dietary choice…” Clearly there is much in the record that needs setting straight, even in the case of one singular vegetarian.
Fiction can help us see beyond stereotypes by both reflecting our own lives back at us and inviting us to imagine ourselves in lives decidedly different from our own. I set out to take a look at portrayals of vegetarians in fiction for precisely that reason, and I was surprised by how difficult it was to recall and find notable veg characters. Food plays a defining role in our lives; in fiction, showcasing what characters eat is one way to reveal those characters’ traits to readers. Why there aren’t more memorable characters who follow a vegetarian diet is perplexing, but the books on this (by no means exhaustive) list offer a glance at some nuanced representations of vegetarianism in literature.
J.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello
J.M. Coetzee’s 2003 work of fiction Elizabeth Costello unfolds in eight chapters called “lessons,” each recounting a lecture given by the titular character, an aging Australian novelist who is renowned for being renowned. Costello’s best known work is the novel The House on Eccles Street, whose protagonist is a spin on Leopold Bloom’s wife, Molly; three decades later, Costello is still riding the wave of Eccles Street fame, giving talks at universities and on cruise ships.
Costello doesn’t want to talk about Eccles Street, though. Each time she is invited to speak, she expounds on her own theories about fiction, realism, and the human-animal divide. It is on this last point—and our inability to satisfactorily define it—that Coetzee pins Costello’s rationale for being vegetarian and for fighting for animal rights. Costello rejects the Cartesian human-animal divide, at one point saying, “The question to ask should not be: Do we have something in common—reason, self-consciousness, a soul—with other animals? (With the corollary that, if we do not, then killing them, dishonouring their corpses.)”
Why it’s notable:
Coetzee is himself a vegetarian; the “lessons” “The Philosopher and the Animals” and “The Poet and the Animals” are metafictional talks that he delivered as Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton. It’s rare enough to see vegetarianism in fiction; rarer still is seeing philosophical debates about vegetarianism playing out in fictional narratives. Costello’s talks on animal rights and vegetarianism allow us to embody the belief system that undergirds her abstention from meat, much in the way that she says poets like Ted Hughes can embody animals “by a process called poetic invention that mingles breath and sense in a way that no one has explained and no one ever will.”
The philosophy that Costello espouses in her speeches is not unassailable; Coetzee has Costello compare the slaughter of animals to the slaughter of Jews in the Holocaust. But her points are not left unquestioned—especially interesting since Coetzee himself delivered Costello’s speeches and their counterpoints in lectures himself.
Also compelling here is Coetzee’s engagement with another literary vegetarian: Franz Kafka. Kafka biographer Max Brod referred to him as a strenger Vegetarianer (strict vegetarian), and while none of Kafka’s works explicitly deal with vegetarianism, he frequently explores the division between humans and animals. In her lectures, Costello often references Kafka’s “A Report to An Academy,” comparing herself to the ape in that story who calls himself human.
Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated
In 2009, Jonathan Safran Foer published Eating Animals, his nonfiction reckoning with what it means to be a meat-eater, spurred on by fatherhood and the decision of how to feed his son. In that book, he laid bare his reasoning for becoming a vegetarian—it has a lot to do with CAFOs and shit (concentrated animal feeding operation). I’m more interested, though, in the fictional representation of vegetarianism that Foer has crafted.
Foer’s 2002 debut Everything is Illuminated sees its protagonist, also named Jonathan Safran Foer, traversing Ukraine with the help of Alex, a translator with a delightfully loose grasp of English, as well as Alex’s grandfather, a “blind” driver and his “seeing-eye bitch,” Sammy Davis Junior, Junior. They’re in search of the woman who (possibly) saved Jonathan’s grandfather from the Nazis.
On the first night of their journey, they’re looking for a place to eat in Lutsk when Jonathan haltingly reveals to Alex that he’s a vegetarian: “‘I am a… how to say this…’ ‘What?’ ‘I’m a…’ ‘You are very hungry, yes?’ ‘I’m a vegetarian.’ ‘I do not understand.’ ‘I don’t eat meat.’” Hilarity ensues.
Why it’s notable:
Rather than being deadly serious, vegetarianism is treated with levity in Everything is Illuminated. Jonathan’s refusal to eat meat is a character trait that sets him apart as even more of a stranger in a strange land than he already is, baffling his guides, the waitress at the restaurant, and just about everyone else they encounter. That point of mutual misunderstanding becomes pronounced as a humorous detail.
Eventually, Jonathan is served two potatoes. He knocks one of the potatoes to the floor, and we see that what initially set these characters apart draws them together in an inside joke of sorts:
Grandfather inserted his fork in the potato, picked it up from the floor, and put it on his plate. He cut it into four pieces and gave one to Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior under the table, one to me, and one to the hero. He cut off a piece from his piece and ate it… “Welcome to Ukraine,” Grandfather said to him…We laughed with much violence for a long time.
Ann M. Martin, The Baby-Sitters Club series
While researching, I realized that a surprising number of YA books feature vegetarian characters. Noteworthy examples include John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (2012)—Hazel Lancaster is a vegetarian because she wants to “minimize the number of deaths she is responsible for”—and Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries series (2000-2015)—Mia Thermopolis first reveals that she doesn’t eat meat while describing her mother’s cooking: “She even observed my rights as a vegetarian and didn’t put any meatballs in the sauce.”
I’m going to focus on The Baby-Sitters Club series (1986-2000) here, because these books gave me one of my first encounters with vegetarianism while I was growing up on Long Island in the 1990s via Dawn Schafer. Dawn is an “alternate officer” in the BSC, and she has recently moved to Connecticut from California. She joins other 12-year-olds Kristy Thomas, Claudia Kishi, Mary Anne Spier, and Stacey McGill in their entrepreneurial pursuit to babysit for all of Stoneybrook. Each girl has a defining characteristic: Kristy is a bossy tomboy, Claudia is a Japanese junk-food addict, Mary Anne is organized and wears conservative jumpers, and Stacey is a glamorous former New Yorker. When Dawn joins the group, she becomes the resident Californian, obsessed with sunshine, healthy food and her vegetarian diet.
Why it’s notable:
Dawn presaged the current ubiquity of avocado toast—in #64, Dawn’s Family Feud, she draws pictures of “spinach salad with avocado slices on whole wheat toast” for a fake menu. For lunch, Dawn brown-bags “tofu salad…And dried apple rings, a granola bar, and some grapefruit.” When she’s planning the menu for a New Year’s sleepover party, she peruses a health food cookbook, pointing out recipes for a “tofu apple nut loaf” and “soybean pie” (thankfully, some 30 years later, vegetarian cooking no longer involves soybean pie). Simply put, via Dawn, Martin introduced a generation of readers to vegetarianism.
True, Martin doesn’t exactly deviate from stereotypes about vegetarianism. Hamburgers make Dawn squeamish, and she’s outspoken about the environment (as seen in #57, Dawn Saves the Planet). But this series does allow young readers to see a set of girls who are coming into adolescent independence, embracing the things that make them different—in Dawn’s case, her love of avocados, disgust for red meat, and proselytizing about organic food. The prevalence of vegetarian characters in YA lit could be chalked up to the fact that becoming a teenager comes with a desire to assert one’s independence and a newfound ability to think for oneself. Making the decision to follow a vegetarian diet is one way for teens to be their own people.
Han Kang, The Vegetarian (trans. Deborah Smith)
The winner of the 2016 Man Booker International prize, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was originally published in South Korea in 2007, but has enjoyed newfound attention this year with its translation into English by Deborah Smith. At the start of the book, a married young Korean woman named Yeong-hye wakes one morning from a dream and proceeds to completely empty the refrigerator of meat and become a vegetarian, much to the chagrin of her husband and everyone else around her.
This book unfolds in three parts—Kang has called it a “Trilogy or triptych, which consists of three independent novellas”—each narrated from the perspective of one of Yeong-hye’s relatives. We rarely hear from Yeong-hye herself except in visceral, italicized sections, like this first one that describes her life-changing dream:
A long bamboo stick strung with great blood-red gashes of meat, blood still dripping down. Try to push past but the meat, there’s no end to the meat, and no exit… My bloody hands, my bloody mouth. In that barn, what had I done? Pushed that red raw mass into my mouth, felt it squash against my gums, the roof of my mouth, slick with crimson blood.
As The Vegetarian progresses, Yeong-hye’s abstentions, fueled by her desire to refuse human brutality and become a plant, become more and more extreme, as does the violence done to her by her family (at one point, her father tries to force-feed her meat).
Why it’s notable:
As Porochista Khakpour has pointed out in The New York Times Book Review, this book is not simply about the dangers of going against the mores of patriarchal South Korea by refusing to eat and prepare meat: “In Britain, where ‘The Vegetarian’ landed on The Evening Standard’s best-seller list, reviews tried to make sense of its strangeness by attributing it to the culture. ‘The narrative makes it clear it is the crushing pressure of Korean etiquette which murders them,’ The Independent daftly concluded.”
Rather than view this book as a rebuke to the patriarchy, which Kang insists it isn’t, what’s worth focusing on is how Yeong-hye’s vegetarian diet allows Kang to explore what she referred to as the book’s layers in a Lit Hub conversation with Bethanne Patrick: “human violence and the (im)possibility of innocence; defining sanity and madness; the (im)possibility of understanding others, body as the last refuge or the last determination…”
Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies
A finalist for the 2015 National Book Award and one of the most talked-about books of last year (even President Barack Obama named it as his favorite book of 2015), Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies is a novel of a marriage, but not only that. Groff divides the novel into two sections—“Fates,” largely concerned with the perspective of husband Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite, a failed actor, successful playwright, and eternal golden boy; and “Furies,” narrated by wife Mathilde Yoder, a mysterious, “icy” woman who quits her job in an art gallery to manage Lotto’s work.
Lotto and Mathilde marry young, just two weeks after they have met at Vassar, and they stay married for 24 seemingly happy years, by Lotto’s telling in “Fates.” In “Furies,” though, Groff gives us Mathilde’s side of the story, and it’s not just a recounting of the same events from the other side of the bed, but rather an accounting of a different set of events. We learn that Lotto has known next to nothing about his wife’s past, and about her fury.
Admittedly, vegetarianism plays a minor role in Fates and Furies. Though neither Lotto nor Mathilde eat meat in this book, it’s not much pronounced, and Groff only writes once about Mathilde’s decision to abstain from meat, deep into the “Furies” section, when Mathilde’s uncle takes her out for dinner on her 14th birthday: “Mathilde had been a vegetarian since she saw an exposé on television about industrial husbandry, cows hung on hooks and flayed alive, chickens squeezed into cages that broke their legs and living out their days caked in their own shit.”
Why it’s notable:
Vegetarianism—pescatarianism, to be exact, as both Lotto and Mathilde eat fish—is subtle throughout the majority of the book, and it’s precisely that subtlety that that makes it noteworthy. We see glimpses of meals that don’t contain meat, but the fact that they’re meatless isn’t commented on: Mathilde sets out a “bowl of hummus” at a housewarming party, she “toss[es] vinaigrette into Bibb lettuce” for a potluck, she feeds Lotto “a piece of salmon burger,” Lotto speaks of missing a big Thanksgiving gathering because of work, “thereby being able to buy many more decades of Tofurky that you will all insert into your gobbets.” In Groff’s deft hands, the fact that Lotto and Mathilde don’t eat meat is part of their characters, but it doesn’t define their whole characters, just as, contrary to meme stereotypes, real vegetarians don’t exclusively talk about being vegetarian.