Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

The Good Earth is the story of Wang Lung, a simple farmer who lives in pre-revolutionary China with his aging father. The book follows the course of his life beginning when he marries a slave girl from the rich House of Hwang since he is unable to afford the dowry for a bride of higher standing. His bride, O-Lan, toils by his side as they farm their land and bears him two sons and a daughter who turns out to be mentally retarded. The family lives happily for awhile, making enough money to buy a little of the land that is being sold by the House of Hwang to support the decadent lifestyle, opium use and gambling of its inhabitants. But the prosperity of Wang Lung's family is short lived, as famine strikes the land and they, along with their neighbors, begin to slowly starve, resorting to eating “goddess of mercy earth”, which is basically dirt mixed with water. They won’t resort to cannibalism, as others in the town have begun to do, but during this time, O-Lan bears another girl, which she immediately smothers, as they are unable to feed the three children they already have. On the brink of death, the family spends the last of their coins to travel to a southern city, where O-Lan and the children beg and Wang Lung carries a ricksha for pennies a day. But as quickly as their fortunes went downhill they are returned as the revolution rises up in the city and the commoners take over one of the rich palaces, ransacking the place. Wang Lung and O-Lan, swept up with the crowd, take part in the looting, making off with enough money and jewels to return to their land rich. This windfall fortune enables Wang Lung to buy yet more of the Hwang estate and he prospers as he now has enough land to rent out to others. O-Lan bears twins, a boy and a girl, and the older children are sent to school to become scholars. Wang Lung grows rich enough to buy the House of Hwang and move into it, along with his uncle’s degenerate family, which he feels obligated to provide for due to his new-found wealth and a sense of family responsibility. But even through their prosperity, there is constant unrest and the seeds of the family’s decline begin in the same way they began in the house of Hwang, with his sons spending money frivolously, his uncle and aunt’s opium addiction, and Wang Lung’s own taking of a mistress, an action that wounds O-Lan deeply but she is powerless to prevent. The course of Wang Lung’s life is followed as his children are married, grandchildren are born and his wife and father die. In the end, he is only comforted by the land, the one thing that he sees as valuable above all. In the final pages of the novel, it is clear that his sons do not share his feeling and that they will sell the land after his death, completing the cycle that occurred to the House of Hwang before them.

Pearl Buck lived in China for 40 years, daughter to a missionary couple who brought her to China when she was only 3 months old. Despite her missionary background, the book is almost devoid of Christian influence. Wang Lung and his family burn incense to a variety of local gods, and his only exposure to Christianity in the book is when a missionary hands him a picture of Christ on the cross and he does not understand the English writing. He assumes it must be the picture of some criminal, and O-Lan uses the flyer to stitch into the soles of their shoes. Pearl Buck is famous for saying that 100 years of missionary work in China had no more effect “than a finger drawn through water”.

I found The Good Earth to be an interesting and valuable read. It is the only book I have read on life in China at the turn of the century, and it is interesting how a culture half-way around the world would share the common values (such as the value of land-ownership) and common troubles (such as the plight of women) that our country did during the same time period. Pearl Buck poignantly shows what life is like for women in China primarily through her portrayal of long-suffering O-Lan, who Wang Lung always looks down on due to her large, unbound feet, and treats like one would a beast of burden. Throughout the novel girl children are referred to as slaves, and Wang Lung’s oldest daughter remains unnamed throughout her life. Even the rich women of society live with the degradation of their husband’s mistresses and must accept it silently.

The Good Earth was an eye-opener when it was first published for portraying the life of a Chinese family with realism, as opposed to the stereotypical portrayal of the Chinese that was common at the time. Although the characters’ actions are not always honorable, the reader can empathize with them and recognize the same work ethic and love of the land that is still valued today.


Amanda said...

Jason read this book a little earlier this year and he said he really liked it, though he also said it was miserable. It sounds quite miserable from your description. I've debated whether or not to read it when I get a little more time and don't have 10 books lined up in queue, and I'm glad to see another person's opinion.

Anonymous said...

It was a pretty quick read actually--it only took a couple of days of reading during the girls' nap-time. I agree with Jason--I liked it, but it was miserable.

Unknown said...

You know what, though, the thing I liked about that book was that I felt like Wang Lung basically WAS a good guy. And he still ends up doing so many stupid things. It's amazing to me how blind we can all be - or how we choose to be blind, you know? It's amazing how selfishly the book sticks to Wang Lung, when obviously there is so much more around him than he sees, but I liked that, the selfish tunnel vision that most of us have, you know?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I know what you mean. I almost put in the review that as I read it, I thought that all of Wang Lung's actions seem almost, well, like he couldn't or wouldn't have chosen any different course of action given the options available to him, and that if I had been him, I would have done the same things. But then I thought back on all of his bad choices and reconsidered. As you're reading the novel, however, his story is very much the focus, and his actions seem very much the logical choice, for him.