Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth has probably been on every one of my reading challenge lists for the last ten years, or darn close to every list, anyway. It’s also another case of mistaken identity on my part, as I went into this one knowing, again, almost absolutely nothing about it except that so many of my reading friends have raved about it and that it has been critically well-received for a very long time.
My own edition, for example, indicates that Buck won the Pulitzer Prize, that this one is a “classic novel” by a “Nobel Prize-winning author,” and that it is a “comment upon the meaning and tragedy of life as it is lived in any age in any quarter of the globe.” This is all riveting and laudatory, but it’s not a whole lot to go on. Perhaps I can be excused, then, for thinking this was a Chinese novel translated into English and for thinking its author was a Chinese woman, not a white American one. And perhaps I can even be excused for thinking this was a novel of eco-criticism, not one of historical fiction. Maybe? Please excuse me?
First things first, I think this is a powerful and important novel about a turbulent and not very well understood time and place in world history. It is written as a kind of episodic saga spanning the full life of one man, from his late youth (marriage) to his old age, and it details the many hardships and turns of fortune, including extreme highs and lows, alongside the every day experiences of a traditional working man of the land. And the land is everything to Wang Lung. It means more to him than his wife or family, his children or his lover(s), more to him than even his own health or well-being, seeing as how not even extreme poverty is enough to scare him from his land, at least not for long. In this way, Wang Lung is a kind of hero who stands for the importance of man’s connection to the earth. What are we, after all, if we do not have land of our own and if we do not care for it and protect it jealously? Nomads, homeless and hungry.
That’s about as far as Wang Lung’s heroism extends, though, and it sometimes becomes difficult for me to understand just why this book is so popular, other than the fact of its quality writing, its (apparent) accuracy about the period, and its exposing to western audiences a culture that had been and perhaps remains mostly unknown. Because, really, Wang Lung is not a very good man. At least not by contemporary standards. He shows very little kindness to his wife and eventually becomes downright cruel toward her. He shows very little care for his children, except in so far as he helps them to advance his own legacy. He does, however, demonstrate great resilience in the face of countless setbacks and downright bad luck and he honors his family in the traditional family, particularly his elders, even though they do not deserve it. So, in some ways, he might be an example of man, father, and son for his time. But today? There’s so little to root for.
The true hero of The Good Earth is O-Lan, the slave-turned-wife who saves Wang Lung from himself and without whom none of his success would have been possible. Despite lack of love or respect, she persists quietly in making a home for her family, in ensuring their well-being, and in deftly handling some of the most extreme challenges that the Wang family face, both in poverty and in success. She’s a character to celebrate and one that I will surely remember long after most of my memories about the book have faded.
The story itself is a fascinating and deeply personal, even insightful, look into pre-Revolutionary China. Most of the war and its effects are demonstrated by the shifts in society, politics, class, and economics, rather than by any description of the war itself (there are a few brief mentions and it becomes more prominent near the end, though Wang Lung remains stubbornly ignorant to all that is happening, partly because he cannot read and partly because he cares for nothing but his own property and has no use for the world beyond it.) As a description of mostly rural China in the 1920s, it seems to me a masterful work. I’m struck by how much was changing so rapidly and can’t help compare it to the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, which would undergo it’s own riotous transformations.
As much as I enjoyed the story, despite mostly despising the supposed protagonist (which is fine – I don’t mind a book with a character I hate, so long as the writing is good, the purpose clear, and the story solid), I do wonder how much might be different if it had been written by a native Chinese person. Buck spent much of her life, including her youth, in China, but I cannot help but wonder about a story that deals with Chinese ancestry and legacy as written by an outsider. It’s a rather uninformed concern, however, as this is the first text about 1920s China that I’ve ever read. I’m eager to research Chinese reception of the novel, both at its time of publication and to this day. Another new project ahead?
The Good Earth is the first book I’ve completed for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge.
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