The novella primarily deals with desire, shame, and empathy reflected by the characters' faltering attempts to understand the people around them. Charles Montgomery, a teacher in the English Interpretation and Translation Division of Dongguk University and the editor of the Korean Literature in Translation website, states that Han's "description of some evil functions of life" is reminiscent of her previous book, "Convalescence", which is a short story about a group of people each of whom have suffered different kinds of trauma. Montgomery argues that "since it's written from the perspective of multiple narrators it achieves a kind of overall verisimilitude and three-dimensional character".
Contrary to what the title might suggest, the book only briefly touches on the philosophy of vegetarianism and the associated diet. 
During a 2016 interview, Han Kang stated, "I think this novel has some layers: questioning 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, and some more. It will be inevitable that different aspects are more focused on by different readers and cultural backgrounds. If I could say one thing, this novel isn’t a singular indictment of the Korean patriarchy. I wanted to deal with my long-lasting questions about the possibility/impossibility of innocence in this world, which is mingled with such violence and beauty. These were universal questions that occupied me as I wrote it".