The Good Earth.
Author: Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973)
Type of plot: Social chronicle
Time of plot: Early twentieth century
Locale: Northern China
First published: 1931
With a detached, pastoral style, this novel follows the cycles of birth, marriage, and death in the Chinese peasant family of Wang Lung. The good years of plentiful harvest, marriage, and healthy children are balanced by the times of near starvation and stillborn progeny. Wang Lung finally finds himself a wealthy man, but his grown sons for whom he has worked so hard have no respect for their father's love of the good earth; they plan to sell his hard-earned property as soon as he dies.
Wang Lung, an ambitious farmer who sees in the land the only sure source of livelihood. But at the end of his life his third son has left the land to be a soldier and his first and second sons callously plan to sell the land and go to the city as soon as Wang dies.
O-lan, a slave bought by Wang's father to marry Wang. She works hard in their small field with Wang, and during the civil war violence she loots in order to get money to buy more land. She dies in middle age of a stomach illness.
Nung En, their oldest son, who, when he covets his father's concubine, Lotus Blossom, is married to the grain merchant Liu's daughter.
Nung Wen, their second son, apprenticed to Liu.
The Fool, their feebleminded daughter.
Liu, a grain merchant in the town.
The Uncle, who brings his wife and shiftless son to live on Wang's farm. Secretly a lieutenant of a robber band, he also brings protection.
Lotus Blossom, Wang Lung's concubine, who is refused entrance into the house by O-Lan.
Ching, a neighbor hired by Wang Lung as overseer, as the farm is extended.
Pear Blossom, a pretty slave taken by Wang after the death of his wife.
His father had chosen a slave girl to be the bride of Wang Lung, a slave from the house of Hwang, a girl who would keep the house clean, prepare the food, and not waste her time thinking about clothes. On the morning he led her out through the gate of the big house, they stopped at a temple and burned incense. That was their marriage.
O-lan was a good wife. She thriftily gathered twigs and wood, so that they would not have to buy fuel. She mended Wang Lung's and his father's winter clothes and scoured the house. She worked in the fields beside her husband, even on the day she bore their first son.
The harvest was a good one that year. Wang Lung had a handful of silver dollars from the sale of his wheat and rice. He and O-lan bought new coats for themselves and new clothes for the baby. Together they went to pay their respects, with their child, at the home in which O-lan had once been a slave. With some of the silver dollars Wang Lung bought a small field of rich land from the Hwangs.
The second child was born a year later. It was again a year of good harvest.
Wang Lung's third baby was a girl. On the day of her birth crows flew about the house, mocking Wang Lung with their cries. The farmer did not rejoice when his little daughter was born, for poor farmers raised their daughters only to serve the rich. The crows had been an evil omen. The child was born feebleminded.
That summer was dry, and for months no rain fell. The harvest was poor. After the little rice and wheat had been eaten and the ox killed for food, there was nothing for the poor peasants to do but die or go south to find work and food in a province of plenty. Wang Lung sold their furniture for a few pieces of silver. After O-lan had borne their fourth child, found dead with bruises on its neck, the family began their journey. Falling in with a crowd of refugees, they were lucky. The refugees led them to a railroad, and with the money Wang Lung had received for his furniture they traveled on a train to their new home.
In the city they constructed a hut of mats against a wall, and while O-lan and the two older children begged, Wang Lung pulled a ricksha. In that way they spent the winter, each day earning enough to buy rice for the next.
One day an exciting thing happened. There was to be a battle between soldiers in the town and an approaching enemy. When the wealthy people in the town fled, the poor who lived so miserably broke in the houses of the rich. By threatening one fat fellow who had been left behind, Wang Lung obtained enough money to take his family home.
O-lan soon repaired the damage which the weather had done to their house during their absence; then, with jewels which his wife had managed to plunder during the looting of the city, Wang Lung bought more land from the house of Hwang. He allowed O-lan to keep two small pearls which she fancied. Now Wang Lung had more land than one man could handle, and he hired one of his neighbors, Ching, as overseer. Several years later he had six men working for him. O-lan, who after their return from the south, had borne him twins, a boy and a girl, no longer went out into the fields to work but kept the new house he had built. Wang Lung's two oldest sons were sent to school in the town.
When his land was flooded and work impossible until the water receded, Wang Lung began to go regularly to a tea shop in the town. There he fell in love with Lotus and brought her home to his farm to be his concubine. O-lan would have nothing to do with the girl, and Wang Lung was forced to set up a separate establishment for Lotus in order to keep the peace.
When he found that his oldest son visited Lotus often while he was away, Wang Lung arranged to have the boy marry the daughter of a grain merchant in the town. The wedding took place shortly before O-lan, still in the prime of life, died of a chronic stomach illness. To cement the bond between the farmer and the grain merchant, Wang Lung's second son was apprenticed to Liu, the merchant, and his youngest daughter was betrothed to Liu's young son. Soon after O-lan's death Wang Lung's father followed her. They were buried near one another on a hill on his land.
When he grew wealthy, an uncle, his wife, and his shiftless son came to live with Wang Lung. One year there was a great flood, and although his neighbors' houses were pillaged by robbers during the confusion, Wang Lung was not bothered. Then he learned that his uncle was second to the chief of the robbers. From that time on, he had to give way to his robbers. From that time on, he had to give way to his uncle's family, for they were his insurance against robbery and perhaps murder.
At last Wang Lung coaxed his uncle and aunt to smoke opium, and so they became too involved in their dreams to bother him. But there was no way he could curb their son. When the boy began to annoy the wife of Wang Lung's oldest son, the farmer rented the deserted house of Hwang, and he, with his own family, moved into town. The cousin left to join the soldiers. The uncle and aunt were left in the country with their pipes to console them.
After Wang Lung's overseer died, he did no more farming himself. From that time on he rented his land, hoping that his youngest son would work it after his death. But he was disappointed. When Wang Lung took a slave young enough to be his granddaughter, the boy, who was in love with her, ran away from home and became a soldier.
When he felt that his death was near. Wang Lung went back to live on his land, taking with him only his slave, young Pear Blossom, his feebleminded first daughter, and some servants. One day as he accompanied his sons across the fields, he overhead them planning what they would do with their inheritance, with the money they would get from selling their father's property. Wang Lung cried out, protesting that they must never sell the land because only from it could they be sure of earning a living. He did not know that they looked at each other over his head and smiled.
Pearl Buck referred to herself as "mentally bifocal" with respect to her American and Chinese ways of looking at things. The daughter of American missionaries in China, Buck came to know that land better than any other. She spent her formative years in China, and that time was extremely significant in developing her ideas, viewpoints, and philosophy. She attended schools both in China and the United States and made several trips back and forth, some unwillingly as when she and her parents were expelled from China during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.
Buck began her writing as a girl in China with articles and short stories. There is no doubt that she had a gift for making the strange, unknown, and distant appear familiar. Until the time of her first published success, East Wind, West Wind, very little had been written about simple Chinese life although China was becoming of increasing interest to businessmen, diplomats, and missionaries. Nevertheless, the general public thought of the Chinese in rather strange terms, not as people with whom they could easily identify. Buck's feeling for the fundamental truths of life transcended any preconceived notions that the reading public may have had about China, and portrayed her people as understandable human beings who struggled for happiness and success like anyone else.
The Good Earth was published in 1931 and is probably Buck's most popular and widely read novel. It depicts a simple picture, the cycle of life from early years until death. Some Americans who first read the book thought the simple detailed descriptions of everyday Chinese life were "too Chinese" and, therefore, unappealing. Then, too, some Chinese felt that the author's portrayal of their people was inaccurate and incomplete. Most Chinese intellectuals objected to her choice of the peasant farmer as a worthy subject of a novel. They preferred to have the Western world see the intellectual and philosophical Chinese, even though that group was (and is) in the minority. Buck's only answer to such criticism was that she wrote about what she knew best; these were the people whom she came to love during her years in the interior of China.
The theme of The Good Earth is an uncomplicated one with universal appeal. The author tries to show how man can rise from poverty and relative insignificance to a position of importance and wealth. In some ways, the story is the proverbial Horatio Alger tale that so many Americans know and admire. The distinctive feature of this novel is its setting. Wang Lung, the main character around whom the action in the novel resolves, is a poor man who knows very little apart from the fact that land is valuable and solid and worth owning. Therefore, he spends his entire life trying to acquire as much land as he can in order to ensure his own security as well as that of his family and descendants for generations to come. Ironically, he becomes like the rich he at first holds in awe. He has allowed himself to follow in their path, separating himself from the land. The earth theme appears repeatedly throughout the book. Wang Lung's greatest joy is to look out over his land, to hold it in his fingers, and to work it for his survival. Even at the end of the novel he returns to the old quarters he occupied on his first plot of land so that he can find the peace he knows his kinship with the land can bring him.
Buck's style is that of a simple direct narrative. There are no complicated literary techniques such as foreshadowing, flashbacks, or stream of consciousness. Neither are there any involved subplots to detract from the main story line. Wang Lung is, as has been noted, the central character, and all the other characters and their actions relate in one way or another to him. The Good Earth is structured upon characterization; it is a book of dramatic episodes which are projected through the sensitivities and experiences of those characters. It may be said that a strength of the author's characterization is her consistency, that is to say, all of her characters act and react in keeping with their personalities. None is a mere stereotype, as their motives are too complex. O-lan is typically good, but there are aspects of her personality which give her depth, dimension, and originality. When she does some seemingly dishonest thing such as steal the jewels she found at the home of the plundered rich, or kill the small baby girl born to her in ill health, she is consistent with her character in the context of these situations. She is realistic, and she sees both acts as producing more good than evil.
One of the most obvious and significant Chinese customs which appears repeatedly in the novel is the submission of the wife in all things to the will of the man. Girls were born only to be reared for someone else's house as slaves, while boys were born to carry on family names, traditions, and property. Such were the conditions in China when Buck wrote The Good Earth. Since that time, along with many other changes, the status of women in China has improved, although the old ways die hard.
The novel may be criticized as having no climax. True enough, there is no single momentous decision. Instead, dramatic interest is sustained by well-placed turning points which give the story new direction. One such point is Wang Lung's marriage to O-lan, which is followed by their first satisfying years together. Later, in the face of poverty, destitution, and little hope of recovery, Wang Lung demands and receives the handful of gold from the rich man and is thus able to get back to his land. At this point we see how very much Wang Lung's land means to him and what he is willing to do to have it back. In the closing pages of the novel, the quiet servitude and devotion of Pear Blossom, his slave, brings him the only peace and contentment he is to know in his last years.
The success of The Good Earth is apparent. Pearl Buck won the Pulitzer Prize for it and it has been dramatized as well as made into a motion picture. It is widely read in many languages, undoubtedly because of its universal appeal as a clear portrayal of one man's struggle for survival, success, and ultimate happiness.