The Good Earth


Reading The Good Earth was a clarifying experience for me: Pearl S. Buck's novel is a famous and well-executed example of a mode of novel-writing that I personally dislike, and as such, it helped me understand my position towards books like it. Buck is quoted, on the back of my edition, as having said "I can only write what I know, and I know nothing but China, having always lived there." To me this seems exactly true: the story of farmer Wang Lung and his wife O-Lan is about China, not about individuals who happen to be Chinese. It reads, to me, as more of an educational primer on traditional Chinese culture than a novel about real people. Wang Lung functions as a kind of Platonic ideal of pre-revolutionary Chinese peasantry (and, later, of pre-revolutionary Chinese wealth); every impulse or priority he possesses can be generalized to the populace at large. So he is healed and sustained by his connection to the land, because his culture lives by the agricultural economy of the time. He seeks a sturdy, hard-working wife because these are the qualities generally prized in peasant women, and spares a moment of regret that she cannot be pretty, because everyone desires physical attractiveness in a partner. He exults in her ability to bear sons because males are valued in traditional Chinese culture, and fears as a bad omen when she bears a girl, because females are culturally devalued. He works hard, because the peasantry is hard-working. He yearns to buy land and take the place of the formerly-grand family in his district, because he lives in a hierarchical social structure and all those on the bottom would rather be on the top. And so on.

Even Wang Lung's flaws and weaknesses are presented as typical, rather than exceptional. As he amasses wealth he starts spending more frivolously, as upper-class people (according to this analysis) typically do. One year, when the land is flooded and can't be worked, he becomes restless and snappish, eventually going into town and becoming enamored of a young prostitute. The implication is that when the Chinese peasants have money to spend and are not working the land, they will get into trouble:

Now if the waters had at this time receded from Wang Lung's land, leaving it wet and smoking under the sun, so that in a few days of summer heat it would need to have been ploughed and harrowed and seed put in, Wang Lung might never have gone again to the great tea shop. Or if a child had fallen ill or the old man had reached suddenly the end of his days, Wang Lung might have been caught up in the new thing and so forgotten the pointed face upon the scroll and the body of the woman slender as bamboo.
But the waters lay placid and unmoved except for the slight summer wind that rose at sunset, and the old man dozed and the two boys trudged to school at dawn and were away until evening and in his house Wang Lung was restless and he avoided the eyes of O-lan who looked at him miserably as he went here and there and flung himself down in a chair and rose from it without drinking the tea she poured and without smoking the pipe he had lit. At the end of one long day, more long than any other, in the seventh month, when the twilight lingered murmurous and sweet with the breath of the lake, he stood at the door of his house, and suddenly without a word he turned abruptly and went into his room and put on his new coat, even the coat of black shining cloth, as shining almost as silk, that O-lan made for feast days, and with no word to anyone he went through the fields until he came to the darkness of the city gate and through this he went and through the streets until he came to the new tea shop.

Wang Lung's behavior and mental health always suffer when he is away from the land, and he is always healed as soon as he gets back to working it - because, again, the life blood of the peasantry is the land, and Wang Lung is the ultimate peasant. When he finds economic success and moves to the town (because his society prizes those from the town over those from the country), he feels less happy and present: "Everything seemed not so good to him as it was before." Here is the Protestant idea, shared by Maoists and embodied by Wang Lung, that true virtue and happiness consists in hard, manual labor, and the pursuit of material opulence is a false quest.

O-lan, similarly, is the Platonic Chinese peasant wife: she is made unhappy by Wang Lung's new consort, but she bears it humbly because that is what's expected from her, only exercising her culturally-mandated prerogative to cut the second woman when she sees her. She bears each child alone and silently, returning to the fields later the same day, because the ideal wife labors beside her husband without complaint. When Wang Lung begins to amass wealth, she binds the feet of their daughter because the feet of upper-class women are bound. She is an excellent household administrator, because a wife should be, but she never makes herself conspicuous, because women should keep a low profile. Et cetera.

There's nothing wrong with this type of storytelling; some people like their characters to seem universal in this particular way. This story-type was very popular in the socialist-minded 1930's (The Good Earth came out in 1931), because it so neatly prioritizes class conflict and typically glorifies the working classes, in addition to being written in a widely-accessible style. Personally, I find it's not to my taste. I am probably displaying my western-ness in my preference for stories with highly individualized characters who are engaged in more complex and subtle ways with the mores of their societies. Nevertheless, Buck's novel is well-written, with a quiet, well-balanced plot, and I can understand its enduring popularity even if it won't become a favorite of mine.

(The Good Earth was my fifth book for the 9 for 2009 Challenge.)


  • Thanks for being in 9 for '09.

    Remember to post your books for the 8/29 drawing, since you've read 5 books.

    I read this novel many, many years ago and enjoyed it.

    I like your analysis of the novel, about how the characters represent ideals.

    I've read some more contemporary Chinese novels. Some of my reviews are on my blog.

  • This is waiting on my TBR shelf, so I'm interested to see how I'll like it in comparison to you. One of my friends who've read this said it bored her, but I would like to give it a try anyway. Your thoughts are really insightful and something to keep in mind about the book. I'll get back to your review when I'm done.

  • Thanks for the interesting review. I've always felt like I should read this book, but perhaps it's not so pressing! I'm still curious though, so I'll just knock it a little further down the TBR list. :)

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
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