The Good Earth
The Good EarthIntroduction
Pearl S. Buck
Pearl Buck was one of the most widely read American novelists of the twentieth century. When she published her most popular and critically acclaimed novel, The Good Earth, in 1931, she was living in China as the wife of a Christian missionary. By that time, she had lived in China for about forty years and brought to her portrayal of Chinese rural life a knowledge that few if any Western writers have possessed.
The novel is about a poor farmer named Wang Lung who rises from humble origins to become a rich landowner with a large family. Although Wang Lung is a fundamentally decent man, as he becomes wealthy and acquires a large townhouse he becomes arrogant and loses his moral bearings, but he manages to right himself by returning to the land, which always nourishes his spirit.
The Good Earth contains a wealth of detail about daily life in rural China at the end of the nineteenth century and in the first quarter of the twentieth century; it shows what people ate, what clothes they wore, how they worked, what gods they worshiped, and what their marriage and family customs were. The novel is written in a simple but elevated, almost Biblical style, which lends dignity to the characters and events. It was widely praised for presenting American readers with an accurate picture of a country about which they knew very little in the 1930s. As of 2006, The Good Earth had never been out of print and had sold millions of copies in many different languages.
One of most popular American authors of the mid-twentieth century, Pearl Buck was born on June 26, 1892, in Hillsboro, West Virginia. Her parents, who were Christian missionaries, took her to China when she was three months old. Spending her childhood in Chinkiang, China, Buck was able to read Chinese as well as English literature when she was only seven years old. When she was eight, her family was endangered by the Boxer Uprising of 1900, which targeted Western missionaries for killing.
After attending a boarding school in Shanghai, Buck returned with her family to the United States, and in 1910, she enrolled at Randolph-Macon Woman's College, in Lynchburg, Virginia.
She graduated in 1914, and she soon returned to China, marrying John Lossing Buck, an American agricultural specialist. The couple lived in a village in North China. In 1924, Buck taught English literature at the University of Nanking. The following year, she returned to the United States and enrolled at Cornell University, from which she received an M.A. in 1926. After returning to China in 1927, Buck and her husband found themselves caught up in revolutionary violence in Nanking. A mob looted their house as they lay in hiding in a tiny room in a nearby house.
During the 1920s, Buck developed her writing craft, publishing stories and essays in magazines. Her first novel, East Wind, West Wind was published in 1930. It was followed by The Good Earth in 1931, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and the William Dean Howells Medal in 1935. The novel, which was a runaway bestseller, was made into a Broadway play and a film. Buck was now a prolific writer, and two novels soon followed: Sons (1932) and A House Divided (1935), which followed the saga of the family of Wang through later generations.
Buck returned permanently to the United States in 1934. She divorced her first husband and married Richard Walsh, the president of a publishing company. The couple lived in Pennsylvania and adopted six children.
In 1938, Buck became the third American and the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The award was for Buck's outstanding publications, The Good Earth, The Exile (1936; a biography of her mother), and Fighting Angel (1936; a biography of her father).
Buck continued to publish for the remainder of her life, but her later books were not as highly
regarded by critics as her work of the 1930s. However, throughout her writing life, her books remained popular with readers, and at the time of her death, her books had been translated into more languages than those of any other American writer. In all, she published over seventy books, including novels, short stories, biographies, an autobiography, poetry, plays, and children's literature, as well as translations from the Chinese. She was also involved in humanitarian causes and was an outspoken advocate for civil right and women's rights. She sought to promote understanding between Eastern and Western cultures.
Buck died on March 6, 1973, at the age of eighty.
As The Good Earth begins, Wang Lung, a poor farmer in north central China, is preparing to get married. He is looking forward to having a woman to do the household chores since his mother died six years earlier. He lives with his father, an old man who complains a lot.
Early in the morning, Wang Lung puts on his best clothes and walks into the town. He is on his way to the House of Hwang, the wealthiest family in town, where he has been promised a slave girl as a wife. The marriage has been arranged by his father, and he has never met the girl, although he knows she is not pretty.
Arriving in town, he visits the barber and then the butcher, where he buys meat for the evening wedding feast. Outside the House of Hwang, he is at first too frightened to go in, and he goes to a restaurant and buys noodles and tea. When he returns to the House of Hwang at noon, he is taken to the Old Mistress, who summons the female slave, named O-lan. The old mistress says O-lan is a virgin and a good worker, although somewhat slow and stupid. Wang Lung is pleased to have her, and on their way home, he takes her to a temple, where he burns incense to the gods. When they arrive home, O-lan prepares the food, and Wang Lung's neighbors and relatives arrive for the feast.
As the days go by, Wang Lung begins to enjoy married life. O-lan, although she is mostly silent, is a good cook and a competent housekeeper. By summer, she has started to work with him in the fields, too.
Soon O-lan becomes pregnant. Refusing help from anyone, she gives birth to a baby boy, to the delight of Wang Lung and his father.
Following a local custom, Wang Lung buys fifty eggs and dyes them red in honor of the new baby. In a short time, O-lan resumes her work with her husband in the fields. That year, the harvest is a rich one, and the frugal Wang Lung manages his affairs well, in contrast to his lazy uncle and his wife. During the winter, he even manages to save some silver pieces.
For the New Year celebrations, O-lan makes rice cakes, and Wang Lung and she take their son to the House of Hwang. O-lan presents the boy to the Old Mistress and gives the cakes to the ladies in the house. O-lan learns from the cook that the Hwang family has fallen on hard times because of the spendthrift habits of the young men, and the family wishes to sell some land. Wang Lung decides to buy the land and is proud of his new acquisition.
In spring, he and O-lan labor on their new land. In the fall, O-lan gives birth to a second son, and Wang Lung is happy with his good fortune. His plentiful harvests continue, he saves money from the sale of his produce, and he earns a reputation in the village as a man of substance.
Wang Lung is angered by the laziness of his uncle's family. His uncle has a wife and seven children, but none of them works, and the family is always in need. One day Wang Lung's uncle complains of his ill-fortune and asks Wang Lung for money. Reluctantly, Wang Lung gives him nine pieces of silver.
O-lan gives birth to a baby girl. Neither he nor O-lan is pleased by this, since girls are not valued as highly as boys.
There is a summer-long drought, and only one piece of Wang Lung's land bears harvest. But Wang Lung remains well off, and he buys more land from the House of Hwang as that family's fortunes continue to decline.
The drought continues into autumn. Food becomes scarce, and Wang Lung and O-lan are forced to kill and eat their ox in order to survive. Wang Lung gives his uncle some beans, but when the man returns for more, Wang Lung refuses. His uncle turns against him.
In the winter, hungry villagers, encouraged by Wang Lung's uncle, come to Wang Lung's house, intent on stealing food. But they find little food there. The famine gets so bad that people eat grass and the barks of trees, as well as dogs and horses.
- The Good Earth was filmed by Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1937, directed by Sidney Rainer. As of 2006, the film was available on video cassette. A play based on the novel was written by Owen Davis and Donald Davis and produced in the Theatre Guild in New York City on October 17, 1932.
O-lan gives birth to another girl, but the infant dies, either strangled or smothered by O-lan. With his family penniless and starving, Wang Lung decides they will travel south to escape the famine. He and O-lan sell their furniture but keep their land.
Wang Lung and his family begin their walk south, then catch a train. When they arrive in the city of Kiangsu (based on Nanking), Wang Lung buys mats and builds a hut that rests against the wall of another house. They get rice from the public kitchens for the poor. The following day, the family begs on the streets, except for Wang Lung, who hires a rickshaw and conveys people around town. But for all his hard work, at the end of the day, he has made almost no profit. Fortunately, however, O-lan and their sons have collected enough money to pay for their rice the following morning.
As Wang Lung pulls the rickshaw each day, he gets to know the city, but he does not feel at home there. He hears young men speaking to crowds at street corners, saying that the Chinese must have a revolution and rise up against the foreigners. Wang Lung meets a foreigner for the first time when he gives a ride to an American woman in his rickshaw.
In the city, food is plentiful, but Wang Lung and his family cannot escape their poverty. When the younger son steals pork from a butcher, Wang Lung beats him. He decides he must get back to his land as soon as possible. But he has nothing to sell that would finance the move back, and he refuses to entertain his wife's idea that he should sell their daughter into slavery.
When spring comes, Wang Lung still longs to return to his land. He does not understand city life. Sometimes men hand him papers with writing on them, but since he cannot read, he does not understand the message. One such paper has a picture of a man hanging on a cross; another shows a fat man stabbing a man who is already dead. A man tells Wang Lung that this depicts a rich capitalist killing the poor. Wang Lung is mystified; he does not understand this way of seeing the world.
One day Wang Lung sees several men seized by soldiers, and a shopkeeper informs him that there is war somewhere, and the soldiers need people to carry their supplies. Wang Lung narrowly escapes being seized himself. Frightened, he stops going out in the day and takes a night job pulling wagonloads of boxes through the streets.
The city is filled with fear, and there are rumors that the enemy is approaching. Wang Lung loses his job and runs out of money. He is desperate. Then comes the news that the enemy has arrived in the city. In the violence that follows, a mob breaks into the rich house that adjoins Wang Lung's hut. Wang Lung is swept up into the action but, unlike the others, does not steal anything. But then he finds himself alone in an inner room with a man who has been in hiding. The frightened man thinks Wang Lung will kill him and offers him money. Wang Lung takes the man's silver.
The next day Wang Lung and his family return to their land, where he buys seeds, grain, and an ox. He is visited by his neighbor Ching, who fared badly during the famine. Wang Lung gives him seeds and offers to plough his land. Wang Lung is pleased to hear that his uncle has left the village, and no one knows where he is.
Back on his land, Wang Lung is happy again. One night he discovers that O-lan had stolen some jewels from the rich person's house. He insists that he must have all but two pearls so he can buy more land from the House of Hwang.
On visiting the formerly great house, he learns that bandits have stolen all the remaining wealth and that only two people still live there, the Old Lord and a former female slave named Cuckoo. Cuckoo tells him there is land available for sale, and Wang Lung purchases it with the jewels he took from O-lan.
Wang builds additional rooms to his house and buys Ching's land. Ching comes to live with him and helps on the land. Wang Lung hires laborers and builds another room for the house. O-lan gives birth to twins, a boy and a girl, and Wang Lung is happy. The only sad thing in his life is that his first daughter is mentally retarded and never learns to speak.
There are many years of good harvests. Wang Lung hires more laborers and builds another house. He no longer works in the fields but spends his time supervising his workers and marketing his produce. He sends his eldest son to school so the boy can learn to read and write and help him at the grain markets. Wang Lung also sends his younger son to school, and he is proud of them both.
One year there is a flood, and two-fifths of Wang Lung's land is under water. He is not worried, however, because his storerooms are filled. But he is restless. Now he has money, but he is not as happy as he was before. He is aware that he now occupies a higher social status, and he starts to patronize a more sophisticated tea house in town than the one he has been going to for years. In the evening, he hears women's voices coming from the upper floor of the tea house. One night, with the help of Cuckoo, whom he encounters by chance in the tea house, he is shown to the room of one of the women, whose name is Lotus. Captivated by the slender Lotus, Wang Lung visits her every night and does not return home until dawn. He is infatuated with Lotus all summer and buys her expensive gifts. He even takes O-lan's pearls and gives them to Lotus.
Wang Lung's uncle returns. He knows how wealthy his nephew is, so he decides that he and his wife and son will move in with him. Wang Lung is appalled, but tradition demands that he cannot reject his uncle. His uncle's wife soon discovers that Wang Lung has a mistress and informs O-lan. Wang Lung decides to move Lotus into his house, and he builds a new court with three rooms to accommodate her. Lotus agrees to come in exchange for many expensive gifts.
After Lotus arrives, Wang Lung spends his time with Lotus rather than O-lan. While O-lan accepts the presence of Lotus, she does not accept the presence of Cuckoo, because when they were both slaves in the House of Hwang, Cuckoo did not treat her well. Wang Lung builds a new kitchen so the two women can stay apart. But there is little peace for Wang Lung. He tires of Lotus's petulance and the fact that she does not like his children. After Lotus becomes angry with them one day, Wang Lung's love for her cools. In the fall, he turns again to the earth, which has always nourished his life. As he works in the fields, he no longer feels so attached to Lotus.
Wang Lung's eldest son has learned to read and write and helps his father at the grain market. Wang Lung decides he must find a wife for his son, but he has difficulty finding a suitable match. His son becomes moody and plays truant from school, for which Wang Lung beats him with a stick.
Lotus and Cuckoo tell Wang Lung that a wealthy grain dealer named Liu has a young daughter who would make a suitable wife for his son. Wang Lung hesitates to agree to this idea, but after he finds that his son has been visiting a prostitute in town, he tells Cuckoo to negotiate the match.
Wang Lung confronts his uncle, who has been constantly abusing Wang Lung's hospitality. He tells him that he must leave the house. But his uncle shows him the lining of his coat, in which there is a false beard of red hair and a length of red cloth. Wang Lung then realizes that his uncle is one of the Redbeards, a gang of robbers that has been marauding in the area. He realizes that he cannot throw his uncle out of the house for fear of reprisals.
Wang Lung is upset because Liu refuses to allow his fourteen-year-old daughter to marry for another three years.
Wang Lung's son, now nearly eighteen, says he wants to study in one of the great schools in the south. Wang Lung angrily refuses permission. But after O-lan tells him that his son has been visiting Lotus, Wang Lung goes unexpectedly one night to Lotus's court. Finding the two of them together, he beats his son severely. Lotus claims that she and the young man only talk; he has never been in her bed. But the next day, Wang tells his son to leave for the south. Then he turns his attention to his second and third sons. He apprentices the former in the grain market and decides that the latter will become a farmer. He then thinks of O-lan and notices she is sick. He summons a doctor who says that O-lan will die.
For many months, O-lan lies in bed, slowly dying, and her future daughter-in-law comes to the house to look after her. O-lan says she will not die until she sees her eldest son married. The son returns, and the night of the wedding feast, O-lan finally dies.
After her death, Wang Lung moves into the court where Lotus lives. Within a few days, Wang Lung's father dies, and he and O-lan are buried at the same time.
In the summer, there is a catastrophic flood. Wang Lung's land is under water, but his house, which is on higher ground, survives. There is a severe famine in the village because there are no harvests, and people starve. There is no harvest the following year either, and Wang Lung has to conserve his dwindling resources. To add to his troubles, his uncle and his family are always complaining, demanding money, and reminding Wang Lung that were it not for their protection, his house would long ago have been attacked by the Redbeards. Not only this, his uncle's son lusts after the wife of Wang Lung's son. Wang Lung decides to ply his uncle and his wife with opium that will dull their minds and make them less troublesome.
After the flood recedes and the villagers return to their homes, Wang Lung lends them money to restore their property. The trouble between Wang Lung's eldest son and his cousin continues, and at his son's suggestion, Wang Lung decides to move his family into the empty inner courts of the House of Hwang.
While the rest of the family moves, for a while Wang Lung remains on his land with his mentally retarded daughter and his youngest son. Wang Lung's uncle's son leaves to join in a war in the north, to Wang Lung's relief. He starts to spend more time at the house in town and is proud when his daughter-in-law gives birth to a son.
Wang Lung's faithful steward, Ching dies, and Wang Lung buries him near the family plot. Lonely without Ching and tired of all his labor, Wang Lung takes his son and daughter and lives permanently in the house in town. Persuaded by his eldest son, Wang Lung buys the outer courts of the house as well. The son ensures that the rents are raised, forcing the tenants out. Wang Lung then spends lavishly, restoring the house to its former splendor. Some time after this, he employs a tutor for his youngest son and puts his second son in charge of managing his land.
Over the next five years, Wang Lung has four grandsons and three grand-daughters. Also, his uncle dies.
One day a horde of soldiers, one of whom is the son of Wang Lung's uncle, descends on the town. They are rough and violent, and some of them take up residence in Wang Lung's courts. The son of Wang Lung's uncle behaves especially badly and comes into conflict once again with Wang Lung's eldest son. Anxious to placate him, Wang Lung gives him a female slave named Pear Blossom.
Wang Lung is nearly sixty-five years old, but he can find no peace. The wife of his eldest son and the wife of his second son quarrel; the eldest and the second son dislike each other; the youngest son says he want to become a soldier, which displeases Wang Lung, and Lotus is angry with Wang Lung when he takes Pear Blossom as a mistress. His passion for Pear Blossom does not last long, however, although he still spends time with her.
Wang Lung now has eleven grandsons and eight granddaughters. He thinks of his life as nearly over, and he decides to return to his land, with Pear Blossom and his daughter, to live out the remainder of his days.
In the fall, he overhears his first two sons discussing a plan to sell the land after his death. He is angry, and they try to reassure him that the land will not be sold, but unseen by him they exchange a knowing smile, indicating they have no intention of keeping this promise.
Ching is a farmer and neighbor of Wang Lung. He is a small and quiet man with a face "like an ape's." Honest and decent, Ching is ashamed of the fact that during the famine he joined with the mob that went to Wang Lung's house to steal. He took a handful of Wang Lung's beans, but only because his child was starving. A short while later, Ching gives Wang Lung some dried red beans to atone for his actions. During the famine, Ching's wife dies, and he is forced to sell his daughter to a soldier to save her life. When Wang Lung returns from the city, he helps Ching. He later buys Ching's land and employs Ching to help him manage all his land. Ching becomes a loyal employee, and there is mutual respect between the two men. When Ching dies, Wang Lung grieves for him even more than he did for his father.
Cuckoo is a sharp-voiced, shrewd woman who for much of her life is a slave at the House of Hwang. But after the old mistress dies and the house is sacked by bandits, she becomes the mistress of the Old Master and manages his affairs. She also acts as intermediary for Wang Lung to meet Lotus. When Lotus moves to Wang Lung's house, Cuckoo attends her as a servant. This arrangement causes friction in the house because O-lan dislikes Cuckoo and will not speak to her. As the years go by, Cuckoo and Lotus develop a more equal relationship and become friends. Cuckoo is very skilled at looking after Lotus's interests.
Old Master Hwang
Old Master Hwang, the patriarch of the Hwang family, allows his family to decline into poverty and ruin. He insists on taking in new concubines every year, even when he cannot afford to do so, and he seems to exert little control over his sons.
Old Mistress Hwang
Old Mistress Hwang is the matriarch of the Hwang family. When Wang Lung goes to her house to fetch his bride, Old Mistress is rather stern and haughty. She is addicted to opium. When the family fortunes go into decline, Old Mistress sells much of the family land. She dies of shock when bandits raid the house and tie her to a chair and gag her.
Liu is a wealthy, good-hearted grain dealer with whom Wang Lung does business. The two men also arrange for their families to be linked through marriage. Liu's daughter marries Wang Lung's eldest son, and Wang Lung's second daughter is promised to Liu's second son. Also, Wang Lung's second son is apprenticed to Liu.
Lotus is a courtesan who entertains men on the upper floor of the tea shop that Wang Lung frequents. She is slender and alluring, with tiny hands and feet. When he first meets Lotus, Wang Lung is captivated by her charm and falls under her spell. He does whatever she asks of him, and he also brings her expensive gifts. Eventually, Wang Lung moves Lotus into his own house, so that he does not have to share her with others, and he builds new rooms for her. Wang Lung's uncle's wife comments that Lotus "reeks of perfume and paint" and is not as young as she looks, but Wang Lung does not seem to care. An idle woman, Lotus lies around on her bed all day, nibbling at food and being bathed and oiled by Cuckoo. In the evenings, she decks herself out in her fine clothes. For Wang Lung, "there was nothing so wonderful for beauty in the world as her pointed little feet and her curling helpless hands." Lotus can also be bad-tempered, especially with Wang Lung's children, and eventually Wang Lung's love for her cools.
O-lan is Wang Lung's wife. Before she is given to him in marriage, she spent ten years as a slave at the House of Hwang. O-lan is a plain, taciturn woman who accepts her lot in life without complaint. She makes a good wife for Wang Lung, since she is a competent housekeeper, an excellent cook, and a hard worker in the fields. She also has a lot of common sense. When Wang Lung complains about having his uncle's family living with them, she says it cannot be helped, so they must make the best of it. But Wang Lung does not love his wife. He treats her cruelly when he insists on taking the jewels she cherishes and using them to buy land. When Wang Lung becomes wealthy, he becomes dissatisfied with O-lan's appearance. He thinks of her as "a dull and common creature, who plodded in silence without thought of how she appeared to others." He starts to criticize her, and she bears his reproaches silently. She knows he does not love her. After Wang Lung acquires Lotus as a mistress, he no longer sleeps with O-lan. O-lan dies after a long illness, the night of her eldest son's wedding feast.
Pear Blossom is a young slave. Wang Lung bought her during a famine, when she was half-starved. She is small and delicate and helps Cuckoo and Lotus. Later, even though Wang Lung is old enough to be her grandfather, he takes Pear Blossom as his mistress.
Son of Wang Lung's uncle
The son of Wang Lung's uncle is a worthless young man who is nothing but trouble from the beginning. He is the only son of his father but contributes nothing to the family's welfare. He is a bad influence on Wang Lung's eldest son, who is younger than he, and he takes him into town to visit prostitutes. The two young men later quarrel, and the son of Wang Lung's uncle reveals another of his faults: he is a womanizer who has designs on the wife of Wang Lung's son. Later, he leaves to become a soldier, although he has no intention of ever taking part in a battle. Some years later, he is one of the horde of soldiers that descend on Wang Lung's town and stay in the inner courts of the former House of Hwang. He is hated and feared, and Wang Lung gives him the slave Pear Blossom to satisfy his lusts so that he will not harm the other women.
When the story begins, Wang Lung is a young farmer eking out a precarious living from his small amount of land. He is a hardworking, dutiful man who looks after his old father. Because Wang Lung is poor, he can only acquire a former slave as a wife. When he goes to the great House of Hwang to claim his bride, he is terrified. A humble man from the fields, he knows nothing of city life. He is accustomed to frugal habits and is shocked at how much everything costs.
After he acquires a wife, Wang Lung begins to prosper. He fathers two sons, his harvests are good, he saves money and buys more land. The only adversity he suffers is from things over which he has no control. When drought leads to famine, he takes his family to a big city in the south, just so they can survive. But Wang Lung is still a man from the country, and he never adjusts to city life. He misses his land. Working on the land gives him peace and contentment, and whenever he is away from it, he suffers.
Wang Lung is an honest man, but he falls prey to temptation when he takes silver from a frightened man as a mob runs through the rich house in the city. The money enables him to return to his land, and once more, he prospers, winning the respect of others in the village; he has become a man of substance. But as he gets more wealthy, he forgets some of the values that enabled him to succeed. He no longer works on the land and is sometimes idle, and he thinks his humble wife is not good enough for a wealthy man such as he. His former humility is replaced by a certain amount of pride at the fact that when he goes into the tea shop, people whisper about him, pointing him out as a rich landowner. He starts to patronize another tea shop which he had formerly despised because there was gambling there as well as "evil women." But soon he gets smitten by one of those very "evil women," the courtesan Lotus, and for a while he loses his moorings altogether, lavishing gifts on her and becoming vain about his own appearance. He eventually frees himself from this obsession by going back to work on the land. His life is not entirely peaceful, however, since he spends much of his time worrying about his sons and other family matters. When he is very old, he leaves his house in the town and returns to live in the old earthen house on his land.
Wang Lung's father
Wang Lung's father is an old man who lives with his son. Wang Lung looks after him and makes sure he has enough food, even during the famine. He seems to remain cheerful and says he has seen worse days. The old man travels south with the family but refuses to beg on the streets with O-lan and the boys. He just trusts that he will somehow receive enough food.
Wang Lung's first daughter
Wang Lung's first daughter is mentally retarded, perhaps because during her first year of life there was little food for her to eat. She never learns to speak but sits around with a sweet, empty smile on her face. Wang Lung takes good care of her, calling her "my poor little fool."
Wang Lung's first son
Wang Lung's first son is sent to school at age twelve so he will be able to help his father, who cannot read or write, in his dealings at the grain market. He proves himself to be an able scholar, and later, when he is nearly eighteen, he continues his education at a prestigious school in the south. He returns when his mother dies, and he marries a girl from a wealthy family. As a young man, he is quite different from the way his father was at the same age. He is accustomed not to poverty but to wealth, and he does not have his father's love of the land. He spends money lavishly to renovate the former House of Hwang because he thinks that his family should live in a style commensurate with their wealth.
Wang Lung's second daughter
Wang Lung's second daughter, the twin of his third son, is a pretty child. Wang Lung and O-lan decide to bind her feet so it will be easier for her to find a husband. The girl is later betrothed to the son of Liu. When she is thirteen, to escape the undesirable attentions of the son of Wang Lung's uncle, she is sent to live with Liu.
Wang Lung's second son
Wang Lung's second son is apprenticed to Liu, the grain dealer. Unlike his elder brother, this middle son is a competent, careful businessman, and Wang Lung trusts him with the financial management of his land. But the son turns out to be too parsimonious. He provides the slaves and servants with the least he can give them, causing Cuckoo to sneer at him in protest; he complains to Wang Lung that so much money is being spent on restoring the former House of Hwang that it will eat up his inheritance, and he even complains that his own wedding costs too much.
Wang Lung's third son
Wang Lung's third son is a quiet boy, and Wang Lung does not know much about what interests him. Wang Lung's plan is for the boy to become a farmer, but the boy says he wants to learn to read. Wang Lung thinks this is unnecessary for a future farmer, but he accedes to his son's request and employs a tutor. After the band of unruly soldiers come to the village, the boy listens to their stories and says he wants to be a soldier. The boy is fond of Pear Blossom and disappears from home after his father takes Pear Blossom for himself.
Wang Lung's uncle
Wang Lung's uncle is a lazy good-for-nothing who fails to cultivate his lands and look after his family. Instead, he persuades Wang Lung to give him money. Eventually, when Wang Lung has become wealthy, his uncle insists on moving into his nephew's house, along with his wife and son. Once there, they all make nuisances of themselves and contribute nothing to the household. The uncle takes advantage of Wang Lung's unwillingness to behave harshly to a relative and cements his position at the house by revealing that he is a member of the Redbeards, a gang of robbers, and claiming that it is only his presence in the house that prevents the Redbeards from robbing it. Wang Lung solves the problem presented by his uncle by getting him addicted to opium, after which the old man lies around smoking all day and no longer creates trouble.
Wife of Wang Lung's first son
The wife of Wang Lung's first son is the daughter of Liu. She tends to O-lan in her final illness and then marries the son when she is sixteen. O-lan and Wang Lung think highly of her. However, she is not so popular with Wang Lung's second son and his wife. The two women hate each other, and the second son tells Wang Lung that the wife of the eldest son talks all the time about all the luxury in her father's house and encourages her husband to spend too much money on unnecessary things.
Wife of Wang Lung's second son
The wife of Wang Lung's second son comes from a good family in a nearby village. She quarrels constantly with the wife of Wang Lung's eldest son, who regards her as ill-bred.
Wife of Wang Lung's uncle
The wife of Wang Lung's uncle is a self-pitying, lazy woman who never bothers to clean her house. She has seven children, six of whom are girls. When Wang Lung becomes wealthy, she moves into his house, with her husband and son. She abuses Wang Lung's hospitality, eating the expensive foods that Cuckoo brings for Lotus and complaining a lot. Like her husband, she eventually becomes addicted to opium, which makes her passive and manageable.
Love of the Land
Throughout the novel, the land is the "good earth"; it nourishes Wang Lung, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. When he toils in the fields, he is happy; as a farmer, he knows his true place to be on the land, as it has been for many generations of his family before him. When he is forced by famine to go south to the city, he is out of his element, cut off from what sustains his life, and this contrast between country and city occurs repeatedly throughout the novel. When Wang Lung hears that the young lords of the House of Hwang no longer have any direct contact with the land, he immediately decides that he will start his two young sons working in the fields, "where they would early take into their bones and their blood the feel of the soil under their feet, and the feel of the hoe hard in their hands." Working on the land restores Wang Lung's spirits at crucial moments in his life. Whenever he is troubled, physical labor on the land restores him. It liberates him from his unhealthy infatuation with Lotus and has the same effect after the plague of locusts has gone: "For seven days he thought of nothing but his land, and he was healed of his troubles and his fears." While all else in life may fluctuate, the land alone remains. Even when Wang Lung is old and rich and living in a town house, his link with the land cannot be broken—"his roots were in the land"—and every spring he feels the call to return to it, even though he no longer has the strength to hold a plow. To lose connection to the land is to lose connection to life. This is why he says to his sons, when he hears that they are planning to sell the land, "If you sell the land, it is the end."
The Corrupting Influence of Wealth
The theme that wealth corrupts occurs repeatedly and is connected to the theme of losing connection to the land. At the beginning of the novel, the House of Hwang is a symbol of great wealth and luxury. When Wang Lung arrives with the meat he has bought for the wedding feast that night, the gateman tells him that in this house, they feed such meat to the dogs. Arriving in the main hall, Wang Lung is so overawed by its size and splendor that he almost falls over. The wealth of the House of Hwang has been built up over the generations simply because of their ownership of land. But over time, they have forgotten the source of their wealth. The young lords of the House go abroad and spend money wastefully; they never go to the land and see it for themselves. Instead, they rely on agents to handle affairs for them, and they simply collect the money. Eventually, the House of Hwang falls. As Cuckoo tells Wang Lung, "And in these generations the strength of the land has gone from them and bit by bit the land has begun to go also."
Although Wang Lung takes this observation to heart, he also goes through a phase in which wealth makes him forget the principles of thrift and hard work on which his life is based. He also forgets his origins and becomes quite a snob. The old tea shop he has frequented for years is no longer good enough for him, and neither is his wife, or so he decides. When he meets Lotus, she makes him ashamed of smelling like a country fellow, and he starts to have his clothes specially made in a fashionable cut by a tailor in town. He also wears velvet shoes such as those worn by the Old Master Hwang. In a telling moment, O-lan says that he reminds her of the young lords in the House of Hwang. Wang Lung mistakenly takes this as a compliment. It appears that he is in danger of going down the same path trodden by the young lords. Even after he recovers from his infatuation with Lotus, he still thinks of himself as a cut above the common man. When he goes into one of the poorer areas of town and sees the common people, he despises them as "filthy" and walks past them "with his nose up and breathing lightly because of the stink they made." He forgets that not too long ago he was a common man himself and rarely washed until he met Lotus, thinking "the clean sweat of his labor washing enough for ordinary times."
The third example of the corruption of wealth is Wang Lung's eldest son. He has never lived as close to the land as his father and has been raised in a wealthy house. He is contemptuous of the common people, and they laugh at him for his snobbish attitude, saying that he has forgotten the smell of manure on his father's farm. He is always spending money lavishly and does not seem aware that all the wealth comes from the land. O-lan remarks, just as she had done to Wang Lung, that the behavior of her eldest son reminds her of the young lords in the House of Hwang. The desire of both the eldest and the second son to sell the land after Wang Lung's death suggests that they may indeed be following in the path of those who so catastrophically mismanaged the House of Hwang.
Topics For Further Study
- Closely examine the brief incident described in chapter 14, in which Wang Lung encounters a Christian missionary. What image does it present of Christianity? Does the passage suggest that Christian missionary work in China is positive or negative? What reasons might Buck have had for presenting Christian missionary work in this light? Write an essay in which you present your analysis.
- Obtain a copy of the 1937 movie version of The Good Earth and make a class presentation, with video clips if possible, of the main differences between the book and the movie. Take especial note of how O-lan is portrayed. Also consider why all the leading parts were taken by white rather than Chinese actors.
- Consider some of the stereotypical ways in which Chinese and other Asian people were viewed by Americans during the twentieth century. Consider films and television programs. Why did the West cultivate such negative views of non-Western cultures? Make a class presentation in which you discuss such stereotypes and show how portrayals of Asians and Asian-Americans in the media today are more positive than in former times.
- Team up with another student and make a class presentation in which you compare John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939) to The Good Earth. What themes do the two books have in common? Does Steinbeck's book suggest a reason why The Good Earth was received so enthusiastically by American readers during the 1930s?
Inferior Status of Women
In the society depicted in the novel, women occupy an inferior position. O-lan is a slave before she marries and is accustomed to working from dawn until midnight. As a wife to Wang Lung, she becomes almost a domestic slave. She is expected to do all the cooking and housekeeping and to work alongside her husband in the fields as well. She knows her place and accepts the conditions of her life without complaint, even though Wang Lung has little respect for her. Once, early in the marriage, Wang Lung finds himself wondering about her former life as a slave. But then he is ashamed of his own curiosity; "She was, after all, only a woman."
A revealing moment comes when O-lan gives birth to her first daughter. It is a disappointment to both her and her husband. "It is only a slave this time—not worth mentioning," she says, and Wang Lung, preoccupied with dealing with his uncle, does not even look at the newborn. He thinks of the birth almost as a curse ("the birth of daughters had begun for him"). A female child is not even considered part of the family into which she is born, for as soon as she is of child-bearing age she will marry and become part of another family.
The undervaluing of women can also be seen in the fact that during harsh times, the daughters of the poor are often sold into slavery, so that the other members of the family can survive. When O-lan smothers her second daughter, who is born during the famine, she is merely acting on a culture-wide devaluation of female life. It is more than unlikely that her actions would have been the same had the child been a boy.
Imagery and Symbolism
The novel is a realistic one but also on occasions employs imagery and symbolism. The traditional Chinese practice of foot-binding, for example, is used as a symbol of Wang Lung's desire to improve the social status of his family. The binding of girls' feet over a period of years resulted in a deformed foot that sometimes was no longer than three inches. Foot-binding was a painful process, but a small foot was considered desirable. Wang Lung finds Lotus alluring because she has tiny feet. Also, if a girl had bound feet it was easier for the family to find her a husband. The practice was not common amongst the poor, however, because poor women had to work; they could not afford to be merely decorative objects. Since O-lan is a kitchen slave, her feet were not bound. However, when Wang Lung acquires wealth and determines that his wife is not good enough for him, what repels him most are her "big feet," and he looks at them angrily. To appease him, she offers to bind the feet of their younger daughter. O-lan does this successfully, and the result is that the girl "moved about with small graceful steps."
Wang Lung's braided hair is also used as a symbol. It represents the traditional way of life. When as a young man Wang Lung visits a barber on his way to collect his bride, the barber wants to cut off the braid to make him look more fashionable, but Wang Lung will not hear of it. He says he would need his father's permission to have it cut—another indication of his adherence to traditional customs. However, when Wang Lung meets Lotus, he forgets all about the values that have sustained his life, and when she mocks him for having what she calls a "monkey's tail," he has it cut off straightaway, so he can look fashionable. But when he gets home, O-lan is horrified by what he has done. "You have cut off your life!" she says, thus establishing a symbolic link between the way a man's hair is worn and the traditional ways of life.
Revolutionary Change in China
During the period covered by the novel, China went through dramatic political change. Although The Good Earth focuses mostly on rural existence, which was resistant to change, on two occasions Wang Lung comes into contact with wider social forces. The first occurs when he is in the city of Kiangsu (Nanking), and he hears all the revolutionary talk and sees soldiers in the city, recruiting for a war. Then a revolutionary army arrives, and mob violence breaks out. The atmosphere and events described in these sections of the novel are based on the growing social unrest in China during the first decade of the twentieth century. For decades, the political institutions of Chinese imperial rulers had become increasingly corrupt and incompetent, failing for example to defend China from foreign invasions. The social discontent thus generated culminated in the Revolution of 1911, in which the Ch'ing dynasty collapsed. The trigger for the revolution was an uprising that broke out in October of 1911, between nationalist revolutionaries and the military in the city of Wuhan. For four months, many provinces rose up against imperial rule. There was heavy fighting in Nanking. Buck's parents, the Christian missionaries Absalom and Carie Sydenstricker, were in Nanking at the time and were advised to evacuate, but they refused to do so.
On February 12, 1912, a Chinese Republic was established with revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen as its first president. He proclaimed the goals of the republic as nationalism, democracy, and socialism. But he soon came under pressure and resigned in favor of Yuan Shi-k'ai, a revolutionary general. Yuan Shi-k'ai declared himself emperor in 1915, but he died the following year before he could advance his imperial ambitions. His death severely weakened the republican government and led to the period known as the Warlord Era (1916-1927), in which provincial armies vied for power, often producing devastating results for local populations. It is this period that is referred to in chapter 31 of The Good Earth, when the horde of soldiers descend on Wang Lung's town and tyrannize the local people. This action signifies the widespread chaos in China during this period, which was not finally resolved until the triumph of the communists in 1949.
Foot-binding and the Role of Women in China
In traditional, pre-twentieth century Chinese society, women were assigned a position inferior to that of men. The qualities that were valued in women were obedience and loyalty. As is apparent from The Good Earth, the birth of a girl was not greeted by the family with as much pleasure as that of a boy. As Xiongya Gao explains in Pearl S. Buck's Chinese Women Characters, if a couple's first child was a girl, this was considered a disappointment; if the second was a girl also, it was cause for grief; and a third girl was considered a tragedy. The wife would be blamed for her failure to produce a son. It was not unusual for an infant girl in a poor family to be smothered or sold into slavery (as The Good Earth demonstrates).
Compare & Contrast
- 1930s: In the Chinese city of Nanking, invading Japanese troops kill an estimated 369,366 Chinese civilians and prisoners of war between December 1937 and March 1938. About 80,000 women and girls are raped; many are then mutilated and murdered.
Today: For decades Japan refused to apologize to China for atrocities committed during World War II. In 2005, Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi apologizes for the fact that Japan caused grief and pain to many people in Asian nations during the war. But he does not mention Nanking by name.
- 1930s: China is under the rule of the Nationalist Party, led by Chiang Kai-shek. The Chinese Communist Party opposes the nationalists but in the 1930s is on the defensive. In 1934, the communists begin their famous 6,000-mile Long March from Hunan to northwest China, where they establish a base.
Today: China is ruled by the Communist Party, but economic reforms over the past twenty years have introduced many capitalistic practices. The private sector of the economy is growing fast as China develops into a major world power.
- 1930s: In Shanghai, a Chinese city subject to many international influences, educated, sophisticated women forge new roles for themselves that leave old ideas about appropriate gender roles behind. They regard themselves as free and liberated, but traditionalists see in them the dangers of modernity and foreign influences. The lives of Chinese women in rural areas and less modern cities, however, remain hard, with few recognized rights.
Today: The Chinese government makes great strides in protecting women's rights and advancing women's political and social status. Gains have been made in education, health care and employment, although discrimination still exists in the workplace, and women from poor areas frequently have their rights violated, especially in matters of family and marriage.
Young girls in traditional Chinese families faced other hazards growing up, including having their feet bound. The practice of binding the feet began among the aristocracy in the tenth century and spread throughout China. Foot-binding was started when a girl was between the age of four and six and would continue for over a decade. The feet would be bound tightly with bandages so that the toes were bent under the sole of the foot and the arch pushed upward. The procedure, which resulted in broken and misshapen bones, was extremely painful and resulted in deformed feet. Such feet were subject to infection and disease; after some years of binding, the foot would be virtually dead and would smell. But the tiny, crippled foot was looked on by Chinese men as a most desirable thing. As Gao puts it, "Such a product of cruelty, of women's tears and suffering, had come to be greatly admired, played with, and worshiped by men. It [the foot] became the most erotic organ of the female body." In other words, women were deliberately crippled in the name of beauty and eroticism.
For the cruelty of the practice, one need look no further than the description in The Good Earth, when the daughter of Wang Lung tells her father that she weeps "because my mother binds a cloth about my feet more tightly every day and I cannot sleep at night" The bandages on the foot were usually changed every two days, and rebound more tightly, causing greater pain.
If a girl did not submit to foot-binding the chances of her finding a husband were slim. She was told that she had to have her feet bound in order to be pleasing to men. Part of the attraction for men was that a woman with bound feet was physically weak and could more easily be controlled. Such women were kept secluded in the home. They could not walk far or sometimes at all without leaning on a man. Having a girl with bound feet was a sign of the family's social status. It meant they could afford to have an unproductive female in the house. Big, unbound feet (like O-lan's in the novel) were a sign of poverty and low status.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, voices were raised in China against the inferior status of women and the practice of footbinding. Jonathan Spence, in The Gate of Heavenly Peace, quotes from an essay published in 1904 by a young woman named Qiu Jin, who protested about the oppression of women in Chinese culture. Her description of the prevailing attitude toward the birth of a daughter recalls a number of passages in The Good Earth. The father will
immediately start spewing out phrases like "Oh what an ill-omened day, here's another useless one…. He keeps repeating, "She will be in someone else's family later on," and looks at us with cold or disdainful eyes.
Qui Jin also protested against foot-binding:
They take out a pair of snow-white bands and bind them around our feet, tightening them with strips of white cotton; even when we go to bed at night we are not allowed to loosen them the least bit, with the result that the flesh peels away and the bones buckle under.
Foot-binding was banned by the Chinese government in 1911. During this period, also, as Spence reports, Chinese society was starting to address the issue of the status of women. The number of girls' schools increased, and magazines and newspapers were published that focussed on women's issues. Christian missionaries and Chinese reformists were also influential. In 1919, the first girls were admitted to Peking National University.
On publication in 1931, The Good Earth was a huge critical and popular success. It was chosen for the Book of the Month Club, which in the 1930s was a guaranteed way to generate high sales for a book. In fact, The Good Earth was the bestselling book in the United States in 1931 and 1932. It was reviewed in all the major newspapers and magazines and received near universal acclaim. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. Over the years it was translated into thirty languages.
What reviewers most liked about the novel was that it was the first book to give Western readers insight into what Chinese society was really like. It was not a fanciful portrait of China as seen through the distant gaze of a Westerner, and it did not present the Chinese in terms of the unflattering stereotypes that were common in the West at that time. For example, a reviewer for the New York Times comments that the country portrayed in the book is "a China in which, happily, there is no hint of mystery or exoticism. There is very little in [Buck's] book of the quality we are accustomed to label, ‘Oriental’ " (quoted in Peter Conn, Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography). In The Nation, Eda Lou Walton comments that Buck's "complete familiarity with her material allows her to present her characters as very human and very real, as people who engage our sympathies." H. C. Harwood, in Saturday Review, remarks: "The opening chapters of The Good Earth are so lovely that one forgets the Far East, one forgets everything but humanity." Harwood also commented on how
[W]ithout effort or anger an alien civilization is quietly presented. It is so easy to be funny about China, and so easy to be funny about the collisions of alien cultures. Mrs. Buck turns away from all that and explains Wang Lung.
The novel was also well reviewed in a number of Chinese journals, although some Chinese intellectuals professed to dislike it. Buck's defenders felt this was because she had revealed a side of Chinese life (poverty, inequality) that the Chinese educated class would sooner not have exposed.
In the early 2000s, there was a revival of interest in The Good Earth among contemporary readers because the book was selected for Oprah Winfrey's Book Club.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth century literature. In this essay, he discusses the religious beliefs of the society depicted in the novel and how Wang Lung's attitude toward religion gradually changes.
In The Good Earth, Buck's saga of rural Chinese life over several generations, the three great religions of China—Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism—make almost no appearance. In Chinese history, there has generally been a distinction between the religious beliefs and practices of the educated classes and those of the peasantry. Over the centuries, the common people have known little of the intellectual or devotional practices of these great faiths. Instead, as Ninian Smart explains in The Religious Experience of Mankind, "religion, interwoven with magic, had an immediate practical significance in the struggle for worldly benefits and in the common round of agricultural and family festivals." It is these early religious beliefs and superstitions, which seem to have remained unchanged for many hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, that are presented in The Good Earth, against the background of Wang Lung's changing attitude towards them.
The first insight into the religious beliefs and practices that govern life in the small village in which Wang Lung lives comes when, as a young man, he returns from the House of Hwang with his bride, O-lan. The first thing he does is take her to the western field on his property, where a tiny earthen "temple" stands. It was built by Wang Lung's grandfather, and Wang Lung's father tends to it with great care. It is part of their family tradition. Inside stand two earthen figures depicting a male and a female god. They are covered in robes of red and gilt paper which Wang Lung's father makes for them every New Year. Wang Lung burns incense to these gods of the fields, in whom all the townspeople believe, so that they will bless his marriage and make it fruitful. Although at this stage Wang Lung appears to believe in these gods and their power, the author gives a hint that they may not be as all-powerful as he believes. The gods look spruced up in their new robes, but this will not last, because "each year rain and snow beat in and the sun of summer shone in and spoiled their robes." These are gods who are damaged by the very things they supposedly control.
In addition to believing in the power of the gods, Wang Lung also believes in omens and evil spirits. He is relieved to find that the sticks of incense he has brought with him to the temple are not broken, for that would be an evil omen. Then later, when he comes home with O-lan and his baby son from the House of Hwang, he shows his superstitious nature. He boasts about how beautiful the baby is, but then he is fearful because he is walking under an open sky with his baby and any evil spirit could see the child, and, presumably, cause him harm. So Wang Lung covers the child's head and speaks out loud to confuse any lurking evil spirit, saying it is a pity the child is a female and has smallpox and that he and O-lan should pray that it may die. It appears that this is a world in which malicious spirits practice trickery and must be outwitted by human ingenuity.
Such are the basic religious beliefs of this late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Chinese peasant society. But as the novel continues, it becomes apparent that Wang Lung is not a slave to ancient beliefs about the gods. He is at heart a practical, down-to-earth man who learns to look for comfort, solace, and peace not to the capricious gods but to the earth, the land, the bringer of sustenance and the giver of life. He is quite willing to reject the gods, but he never rejects the land.
It is during the famine that Wang Lung's attitude to the gods starts to undergo a radical change. Like Job in the Bible, when suffering comes Wang Lung expresses his frustration with God. But he goes further even than Job, directly accusing the "Old Man in Heaven" of being wicked, although he does feel a twinge of fear at doing so. When he goes to the temple, instead of burning incense, he spits on the face of the god. But the god and his consort "sat there unmoved by anything and Wang Lung gnashed his teeth at them." Wang Lung repeats these sentiments when the famine is over and he has returned from the city. Peering into the temple, he sees that the statues of the gods have fallen into ruin. No one has been paying them any attention; their faces have been washed away by the rain and their paper clothes are in tatters. These are impotent gods, indeed, and Wang Lung seems to relish the feeling of revenge that the sight of them produces in him: "Thus it is with gods who do evil to men!" he says.
Wang Lung's religious skepticism sees him through into middle age and beyond. When he is getting on in years and Ching warns him of an approaching flood, he repeats his earlier sentiments with even greater vehemence: "I have never had any good from that old man in heaven yet. Incense or no incense, he is the same in evil." He even tells Ching that he thinks God enjoys looking down and seeing men drowning and starving. Not surprisingly, the humble Ching is shocked and asks that his employer not talk in such a way. But Wang Lung just walks off, muttering to himself. It appears that a prosperous, successful man has no need for religion.
What Do I Read Next?
- Buck's novel Sons (1932) is the second volume in the trilogy that begins with The Good Earth. Beginning where the previous volume ends, Sons is about the lives of Wang Lung's three sons, the eldest (the landlord), the second (the merchant), and especially the youngest son, who becomes a warlord. None of the sons respects the father's legacy. As literature, Sons is not considered the equal of The Good Earth; nonetheless, it is a tale well told.
- Splendid Slippers: A Thousand Years of an Erotic Tradition (1998), by Beverley Jackson, is an account of the Chinese practice of footbinding. Jackson describes the history of footbinding, what the procedure involved, and the erotic fascination associated with bound feet. She also compares foot-binding to other exotic practices supposedly aimed at enhancing female beauty, such as the custom of the women of Burma who appear to stretch their necks by wearing a series of heavy necklaces. (Actually, the collar bone collapses toward the rib cage as x rays have proven.)
- John Henry Gray's China: A History of the Laws, Manners, and Customs of the People, published by Dover Books on Literature and Drama in 2003, is a reprint of the original book that was published in 1878. Gray was the archdeacon of Hong Kong, and this readable history covers the period when Wang Lung, in The Good Earth, was a young man. It covers topics such government, prisons, religion, Confucian philosophy, marriage, servants and slaves, sports, funerals, and commercial activities such as agriculture and tea and silk production. It includes 140 illustrations of scenes from daily life.
- The Cambridge Illustrated History of China (1999), by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, is a much praised, scholarly work that covers with pictures and text some four millennia of Chinese history and culture.
But often in crises or moments of emotional intensity, people suddenly return to the beliefs they think they have outgrown. So it is with Wang Lung—although with a twist. Some years after the flood, he is awaiting the birth of his grandson. When he hears from Cuckoo that it will be a long and difficult birth, he gets frightened and feels the need for spiritual support. He buys incense and goes to the temple in the town, "where the goddess of mercy dwells in her gilded alcove." He summons a priest to make the offering. But then a thought strikes him: what if the grandchild is a girl not a boy? To offset this possibility, he strikes a more assertive note in his newly recovered piety: "If it is a grandson I will pay for a new red robe for the goddess, but nothing will I do if it is a girl!" Then he goes to the small temple on his own land, burns incense as an offering and says much the same thing to the two gods there "who watched over fields and land." In his old age, then, Wang Lung shows that he has not quite renounced the religious beliefs and customs that are observed as a matter of course in his society. But the years have changed him. As a young man he respected the gods and was submissive to them; as a mature man, he railed against the malevolence and injustice of the gods; now, as an old man, he is willing to take them into partnership, to deal with these vexing gods as an equal, as if they were bargaining partners and he were negotiating the price of purchasing new land or selling his goods. They may be gods, but he is Wang Lung, man of substance and not to be trifled with. Over the years, he has learned his lessons; that life is hard and unpredictable; that the gods may have little care for human happiness, that he must make his own way and cleave to the land, which he venerates with the kind of fervor that others reserve for those inscrutable gods.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on The Good Earth, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following excerpt, Gao considers Buck's depiction of the sympathetic character O-Lan, a "representative of the Chinese peasant women," and expounds on how the author "humanizes the Chinese people."
The Good Earth, upon its publication, caught the reader's attention immediately. About its realism, Florence Ayscough wrote (1931):
I have lived for many years in such a country and among such people as Mrs. Buck describes, and as I read her pages I smell once more the sweet scent of bean flowers opening in the spring … all as it was and is there in the Yangtze Valley.
Similarly, Paul Hutchinson (1931) pointed out that there had never been a novel that "looked more deeply and understandingly into actual Chinese life." The novel's greatest effect, however, is that it humanizes the Chinese people for the American public. The readers feel a kinship toward Buck's characters, who engage their sympathies and with whom they could easily identify. Thus Carl Van Doren, in The American Novel (1940), commented that "The Good Earth for the first time made the Chinese seem as familiar as neighbors." The writer of a review in New Statesman and Nation (1931) said:
I can recall no novel that frees the ordinary, flesh and blood, everyday Chineseman so satisfyingly from those screens and veils and mirrors of artistic and poetic convention which nearly always make him, to the Western reader's eye, a flat and unsubstantial figure of a pale-colored ballet.
Although Wang Lung is the main character, around whom the events in the novel revolve, O-lan seems able to gain more sympathy from the readers. A plain-looking, inarticulate, submissive, and enduring woman, O-lan plays a critical role in the ups and downs of Wang Lung and his family. Like the humble and wordless good earth, O-lan is rich in resources and silently produces and keeps life going. More than the good earth, O-lan is an intelligent, courageous, and capable woman, who makes the right decision at the right time for the family and keeps it going in health toward happiness.
In what follows, it will be shown that O-lan is a very individualized character while at the same time representative of the Chinese peasant women of her times. Like all other women, she is made aware of where her place is both in society and at home. She has also learned the principles of the Three Obediences and Four Virtues that society requires from a woman. However, it is important to see that, under such unfavorable situations, she is able to use her limited power to steer the fate of the family towards prosperity.
The first thing we notice of O-lan is her plain looks. Before we meet her for the first time, we already know from Wang Lung's father that she is not supposed to be a pretty woman, whom a poor house like theirs does not need. At first glance, she appears to be "a square, rather tall figure," with "neat and smooth" hair, and "clothed in clean blue cotton coat and trousers." And "He [Wang Lung] saw with an instant's disappointment that her feet were not bound." Looking more closely, Wang Lung finds out that:
She had a square, honest face, a short, broad nose with large black nostrils, and her mouth was wide as a gash in her face. Her eyes were small and of a dull black in color, and were filled with some sadness that was not clearly expressed. It was a face that seemed habitually silent and unspeaking, as though it could not speak if it would … there was not beauty of any kind in her face—a brown, common, patient face.
The only thing Wang Lung can comfort himself with is that she has no pockmarks on her dark skin and her lips are not split.
As for O-lan's personality, Buck let us view her first through the eyes of the Old Mistress of the House of Hwang. According to the Old Mistress, O-lan is a "good slave, although somewhat slow and stupid," "does well what she is told to do and she has a good temper." Next, Buck has Wang Lung, who is naturally eager and curious to find out what his bride is really like, watch her closely for the next few months after their marriage.
To Wang Lung, O-lan seems to be dull and slow. For instance, when Wang Lung wants to know if there is a side gate on their way out of the House of Hwang, "she nodded after a little thought, as though she did not understand too quickly what he said." All the way out of the house, where she has been a slave for ten years, her face is expressionless, and her eyes "dumb" when she looks at him. Above all, the reader is constantly struck by O-lan's silence. "She never talked … except for the brief necessities of life." She does everything in her submissive ways, a virtue she has been forced to adopt. When Wang Lung shows her the box and the basket to take home, she places the heavy box on her shoulder without a word. When Wang Lung changes his mind and commands her to take the basket instead, she simply obeys, "still speechless." Once a wife, she does her daily chores without a word; she works with Wang Lung in the fields quietly. Even in childbirth, she is silent. She appears so inarticulate that one wonders if she is capable of thinking. Wang Lung could make nothing of her. So he contents himself with the thought that she is, after all, only a woman.
However, this seemingly ordinary peasant wife surprises the reader more and more as the story goes on. As we observe more of her, especially after she is out of the House of Hwang, we find that the Old Mistress is not altogether right about her. Even Wang Lung has quite a few surprises from O-lan's intelligence and ability. He admits to himself that "she was a woman such as not commonly found."
We find, as the story reveals little by little, that O-lan is not only hardworking, dutiful, enduring, but also intelligent, competent, and has a practical mind to get things done toward good. Silent or inarticulate though she may be, she carries with her a quiet dignity that catches the reader's heart.
Evidence of O-lan's good qualities is bountiful throughout the novel. Her image as a hardworking, dutiful, and enduring woman who always serves as a provider is set from the very first day of the wedding. According to Chinese custom, even a girl from a poor family gets to wear red, has the day off from daily chores, and is waited upon on her wedding day. O-lan, however, never gets to enjoy what a wife is normally entitled to. She has no wedding clothes and no formal wedding ceremony. Out of the House of Hwang, on their way toward the small earthen house of his ancestors, they stop to burn incense before the gods in the wayside temple to the earth, which is supposedly the moment of their marriage. She has to start working hard to fulfill her duty as a wife as soon as she steps into Wang Lung's house. The only celebration they have is the wedding "feast," but O-lan is the one who prepares it and stays in the kitchen, working the entire time until all the guests are gone. Through the wedding feast, O-lan not only proves her own capability but also brings Wang Lung the pride he has never had among his folks, for with what little meat she has, she has "skillfully brought forth all the force of the meat itself, so that Wang Lung himself had never tasted such dishes upon the tables of his friends."
As the wedding feast symbolizes, O-lan, in the days to come, takes what little life has to offer her and makes the best of it. Rather than just doing well what she is told to do, as the Old Mistress says about her, she does the daily chores "without a word and without being commanded to do them." Every day, she is the first one to arise at dawn to light the stove and the last one to go to bed at midnight after making sure every household matter has been well taken care of. Furthermore, she goes to work with Wang Lung in the fields. Thus, she actually works much harder than Wang Lung, for she has the extra housework to do, meals to prepare, and the ox to be fed after a whole tiresome day's work in the fields. She never stops working, even when she is heavy with child. Except for the firstborn. O-lan will stop working in the fields only when she had to go back to deliver. Right afterward, she would come back to work at Wang Lung's side as if she had done nothing extraordinary. Even for the first childbirth, she surprises Wang Lung by stopping in her labor to prepare food for him and his father. When her family becomes rich, she refuses to use a slave and insists on doing everything by herself until too sick to work anymore.
It is interesting to note that O-lan's diligence is both typical of Chinese peasant women and unique to herself. The Chinese people are noted for their willingness to work hard, and Chinese women are even more capable of doing so simply because they have more responsibilities than men. However, O-lan's diligence seems to exceed that of peasant women in general. For example, we can safely say that very few women are able to prepare food for their family during childbirth labor. This interdependence of typicality and individualization well illustrates Buck's skill in characterization: individualization, although seemingly the opposite to typicality, grows out of typicality rather than running counter to it.
O-lan never complains, seldom asks anything for herself for all the work she has done, and endures quietly any hardship that comes her way, both physically and emotionally. For her endurance, the reader can hardly forget the vivid scenes of her child delivering. Once critic, Barbara LeBar (1988), rightly points out that O-lan makes mockery of modern "natural" child-birth. O-lan "simply has a child. And she bears it along—without a doctor, without a midwife, without even her husband", and, I would like to add, without scream. Furthermore, she goes back to work beside her husband without a word right after she gives birth to their second son, thinking not about herself but that the rice has to be gathered into sheaves before the rain.
During the year of famine, the entire family starves, but O-lan is the one who suffers most. Here is what Wang Lung sees after O-lan kills the infant girl to avoid another mouth to feed:
Her eyes were closed and the color of her flesh was the color of ashes and her bones stuck under the skin—a poor silent face that lay there, having endured to the utmost, and there was nothing he [Wang Lung] could say. After all, during these months he had only his own body to drag about. But this woman had endured what agony of starvation with the starved creature gnawing at her from within, desperate for its own life!
Apart from physical hardships, O-lan endures much emotional pain. When Wang Lung gets tired of O-lan and becomes infatuated with Lotus, he reproaches her for not dressing properly and having feet too big to be fit for a landowner's wife. O-lan takes the reproach humbly and hides her feet under the bench. At Wang lung's anger, she only says in a whisper: "My mother did not bind them, since I was sold so young. But the little girl's feet I will bind."
The most unbearable thing that O-lan confronts is the time when Wang Lung forces her to give up the two pearls, which she wants to keep not for her own sake, but as a future wedding gift for her younger daughter. When Wang Lung laughs at the sight of the pearls O-lan puts in the hands,
O-lan returned to the beating of his clothes and when tears dropped slowly and heavily from her eyes she did not put up her hand to wipe them away; only she beat the more steadily with her wooden stick upon the clothes spread over the stones.
When Wang Lung takes Lotus into the house, O-lan goes to work in the fields and comes back silently, saying nothing to anyone, and goes into the kitchen to do her duty as she always does. At night, she sleeps alone by herself, burying her sorrow all in her heart.
One wonders how O-lan could endure so much in silence. Is she really dull and not capable of thinking? Wang Lung cannot make anything of her, thus giving up his attempt to understand her. However, the discerning reader would find that O-lan is anything but dull.
O-lan's silent endurance of hardship and pain has its roots in the mistratement women of her times received from society. As indicated in chapter 2, Chinese society offered women so little that they had learned to expect little from life. Even to gain that little, they had to make much effort and to endure the kind of suffering that their male counterparts did not. This is especially true for a woman like O-lan, who comes from the bottom of society as a slave girl. Having been freed from slavery and becoming a landowner's wife is already more than she could expect; any hardship in this capacity would seem nothing compared with what she has had to endure as a slave.
O-lan's silence can also be explained by her miserable past experiences. Having been sold at the age of ten to the House of Hwang in times for famine, O-lan has been severely oppressed and mistreated for ten years. From her habitual slavegirl gesture of raising her arms as if to defend herself from a blow, and her brief unconscious words in her last hours, we gather that she has been forced to accept the fact that she is ugly and therefore not to be loved. Even among the slaves, she is at the bottom, not even allowed to appear before the great lord of the house. She has been beaten for the smallest mistake she makes and anyone can scold her for no fault of her own. There is no place for her to speak. Besides, women were viewed as inferior and supposed to be submissive to men. So, once married to Wang Lung, she tries to do all in her silent obedience. Her silence is therefore one of her trademarks, indicating her personality, her background, and her effort to make her behavior acceptable.
Despite the oppression, O-lan, like other women, "has her joys and sorrows and experiences a full range of human emotions" (Li 1989, 99). In her silence we see her pride, desire, stubbornness, and temper. She is proud of the fact that she is doing well as Wang Lung's wife, for there is "not one slave with a new coat like mine" in the House of Hwang; she is proud of her first son because "there was not even a child among the concubines of the Old Master himself to compare to him in beauty and in dress." She is also proud of having been a mother, who has produced so many sons for the family. Such pride, as Doyle (1980) comments, "is particularly touching because O-lan wants and expects so little from life."
O-lan has a love for beauty. When she hands all the jewels to Wang Lung, she asks to keep two smooth white pearls for herself. At this,
Wang Lung, without comprehending it, looked for an instant for an instant into the heart of this dull and faithful creature, who had labored all her life at some task at which she won no reward and who in the great house had seen others wearing jewels which she never even felt in her had once.
To his puzzled eyes, O-lan only says: "I could hold them in my hand sometimes." Later, when Wang Lung cruelly takes them from her to give to Lotus, O-lan said nothing, but her tears, which have been seldom shed, suggest that she is heartbroken.
The quiet O-lan also possesses self-dignity. For instance, while she tolerates Lotus for Wang Lung's sake, she refuses to serve or speak to Cuckoo, who, when a superior in the House of Hwang, was cruel and picky. She protest to Wang Lung, which she seldom does, against the presence of Cuckoo in her house and shows her disdain by ignoring Cuckoo's existence. She says, "with a sullenness deeper than ever upon her face, ‘I am not slave of slaves in this house at least.’"
O-lan is in fact very intelligent, thoughtful, and much more practical than Wang Lung—qualities that seem to have been lost in her silence. She is like a pond of still water that runs deep. Buck only occasionally offers her reader the opportunity to glance at her depth. For instance, before she and her husband return to visit the House of Hwang with their firstborn, O-lan astonishes Wang Lung with her careful planning. He has not expected her, with the way she has gone about her work, to have thought about their unborn child and what she will do when she returns to the house where she used to be a slave. But he finds the child fully clothed and the mother in a new coat also. It turns out that, although she says nothing a while working by his side in the fields, she has been making plans for the event by herself all along.
O-lan's intelligence is shown in many cases—not only in terms of the way she sees things, but also in terms of how she expresses her own opinion and gets things done while still seeming to remain obedient and submissive. When Wang Lung first thinks of buying land from Hwang, she responds with much shrewdness. Though, at first, she does not think that buying land from Huang is a good idea, she does not immediately state her opinion against Wang Lung. Instead, she makes it clear that she supports his idea of buying land, for she thinks it better than putting money into a mud wall. Meanwhile, she shows more consideration for the practicality of buying land from Hwang, pointing out that the land is too far away and they would have to walk the whole morning to reach it. Seeing that Wang Lung's mind is set on buying it, however, she submits to his decision, again thinking about it in more practical terms: "rice land is good, and it is near the moat and we can get water every year."
During the famine, she helps Wang Lung to resist his uncle and two city slickers who have been pressing him to sell their land. She sees farsightedly that if they sold the land then, they would have nothing to feed themselves when they return from the south. She will sell the furniture since they have to move, but she will not sell the hoes and plows, which they will need to work on the land. In the city, it is O-lan who is shrewd enough to know what kind of mats are the best buy and clever enough to shape them into a comparatively comfortable hut, with a rounded roof and a matted floor, as a family shelter.
O-lan is also more practical than Wang Lung in many other ways. Wang Lung cannot bear to kill the ox and eat the meat, while O-lan sees an ox as an ox, which should be sacrificed to save human lives. Similarly, when their second son brings home some meat, Wang Lung throws it away because it is stolen. O-lan simply picks up the meat, washes the dirt off and puts it back into the boiling pot, for "Meat is meat," as she says quietly, and it is the time of famine.
However, in doing all this, O-lan never lets herself appear more intelligent than Wang Lung, never complains or criticizes Wang Lung for his improper behavior, and almost never openly speaks a word against him. When Wang Lung is incapable of carrying out a certain task, she takes things over in her own hands only as if simply to complete what Wang Lung has left unfinished. She knows that she ought to appear subordinate to her husband.
Though O-lan does not speak, she sees everything clearly. It is she who senses the incestuous relationship between their eldest son and Lotus and suggests sending him away to the south to avoid a family scandal. She also discerns that Wang Lung is more and more like the lords in the great house and that what has happened in the House of Hwang would happen in their family. However, she is now helpless, as Wang Lung has forsaken her. She knows that Wang Lung does not love her, a fact that Wang Lung later learns from his daughter. Wang Lung feels sad "because with all her dimness O-lan had seen the truth in him."
When O-lan chooses to speak, she does it logically and forcefully. Here is what she says to the villagers who come to loot their house:
It is not yet time to take our table and the benches and the bed from our house. You have all our food. But out of your own houses you have not sold yet your table and your benches. Leave us ours. We are even. We have not a bean or a grain of corn more than you—no, you have more than we, now, for you have all of ours. Heaven will strike you if you take more. Now, we will go out together and hunt for grass to eat and bark from the trees, you for your children, and we for our three children, and for this fourth who is to be born in such times.
When she marries Wang Lung, O-lan knows what is expected of her and, compared to being a slave, her social status is instantly elevated. Therefore, she does not mind the hard work as a wife and takes a submissive position to her husband. Besides, she cares very much for Wang Lung, to whom she gives all her devotion and for whose happiness she will do anything. The reason for her silence is not that she does not know how to speak, but because she has deliberately chosen not to speak and has long formed such a habit. Though we know that she is often more shrewd than Wang Lung, she never shows it off and is always supportive and submissive to Wang Lung's will. Only when compelled by crises, when Wang Lung is too weak-minded to deal with the situation, does she come forward. When this happens, she is still supportive to her husband, never making him feel embarrassed. She does what has to be done or says what has to be said when needed.
Putting all these good qualities—endurance, silence, intelligence, resourcefulness, and practicality—together, we see in O-lan a very individualized character. Her individuality, it should be noted, is believable as well, because it embodies the typical characteristics of the Chinese peasant women in her times and reflects the actual social conditions under which she lives.
O-lan manages not only to achieve some measure of happiness and autonomy for herself, but also brings love, warmth, and comfort into Wang Lung's house and steers Wang Lung's life toward success, wealth, and happiness. Before O-lan's coming to the house, Wang Lung has to take care of the house and his old father besides working daily in the fields. Life is miserable for him. With O-lan's coming, his life turns dramatically from the first day of his wedding, when O-lan takes all the household chores over to herself. Wang Lung begins to enjoy "this luxury of living" he has never had before. Now, he can afford to lie "in his bed warm and satisfied," "tasting and savoring in his mind and flesh his luxury of idleness" "while in the kitchen the woman fed the fire and boiled the water." Even hard work in the fields becomes a luxury, because when it is done he can go back to his house, which O-lan has made clean and comfortable, and where food is always ready and delicious for his appetite.
With O-lan's diligence, thriftiness, and skillful management, the family's livelihood is much improved. Before marrying O-lan, no matter how hard Wang Lung worked, they were poor. Now they are able to save money on fuel and fertilizer, for O-lan gathers them herself. With O-lan working with him in the fields, he is even able to have some extra money at the harvest time to buy a piece of land. More importantly, O-lan has produced children, especially sons, one after another, rendering the house full of life.
Apart from the physical changes O-lan has brought to Wang Lung's life, she gives Wang Lung pride, happiness, and confidence. Just look how proud Wang Lung is at the wedding feast, how delighted when their first son is born, and how happy when he gives the red eggs to his friends and the villagers to celebrate the "big happiness." "Wang Lung felt his heart fit to burst with pride. There was no other woman in the village able to do what his had done, to make cakes such as only the rich ate at the feast." When they go to House of Hwang, with his whole family dressed in new clothes O-lan has made and the cakes O-lan has prepared, Wang Lung, for the first time in his life, holds his head high with self-esteem.
These are enough to illustrate O-lan's importance in Wang Lung's life. But O-lan does more. If any ordinary wife can accomplish what O-lan has done to make the life of the family better, O-lan is quite extraordinary for her crucial actions at critical times to steer her husband's and the family's fate.
The first extraordinary act of O-lan is the killing of the ox in the time of famine. It is not that O-lan has a harder heart, but that she knows that, with nothing else to eat, the ox must be killed for the family to survive. Besides, as she sees it: "Eat, for there will be another one day and far better than this one." The meat of the ox saves the family from starving to death.
Another critical moment is when the villagers, driven by hunger and desperation, come to loot Wang Lung's house. It is O-lan who, with her pregnant belly, brings them back to their senses. Later, by selling these bits of furniture O-lan has saved, they are able to make the trip to the south.
When Wang Lung, in a moment of weakness, is about to agree to sell their land for a little money to feed the family, O-lan comes forward to prevent it. When she is talking, "There was some calmness in her voice which carried more strength than Wang Lung's anger." Afterward, O-lan helps Wang Lung to make up his mind to go south.
The most shocking thing O-lan does, especially to the Western eye, may be the killing of her second infant girl at its birth. However, her "reasons for so acting," as Ms. LeBar says (1988), "are as compelling as any in fact or fiction." Firstly, they could not afford to feed another mouth when the whole family is already starved. Secondly, in her condition, she herself cannot possibly feed the new baby, who, therefore, cannot survive for long anyway. Thirdly, O-lan does it so that they can have less worry and difficulty to make the trip to the south, which, as it later turns out, will save the life of the whole family. Weighing the pros and cons, knowing Wang Lung does not want this girl at such a time, O-lan makes the decision to do the unimaginable and takes the guilt all to herself. LeBar thinks that O-lan "terminated an unwanted pregnancy in a way not too much different from the way it is done in modern times at local abortion clinics." To explain this seemingly cruel action, Pearl Buck says, in My Several Worlds (1954):
It was inevitable that the very reality of their lives made them sometimes cruel. A farm woman could strangle her own newborn girl baby if she were desperate enough at the thought of another mouth added to the family, but she wept while she did it and the weeping was raw sorrow, not simply at what she did, but far deeper, over the necessity she felt to do it.
Wang Lung's rise to wealth owes much to O-lan, particularly to the jewelry O-lan discovers in a rich man's house during a looting. Taking the jewelry may suggest dishonesty on O-lan's part, but the situation O-lan is placed in seems to justify her act. First, this is something O-lan would not normally do if she were not swept into the mass looting. Second, having been a slave in a rich man's house before, she knows how extravagantly the rich live. When her family faces starvation, it is only human for her to take whatever comes her way. Besides, as Li Bo noted (1989),
It was not an uncommon thing in China during the 1920s and 1930s for the poor people to break into rich people's houses and seize their properties because they regarded the rich as their oppressors and exploiters. O-lan never felt guilty about her robbery because it was not considered a bad thing in her time.
The jewels O-lan gets enables Wang Lung to buy more and more land and finally takes Wang Lung to the position he has never dreamed of reaching. Wang Lung himself knows in his heart that all the riches he has gotten would have been impossible if O-lan had not found the jewels and had not given them to him when he commanded her.
What is more important, O-lan is the central good force of the family, serving as a cohesive tie to hold the family together. With O-lan as the wife and mother, there is plenty of love, warmth, comfort, and a healthy atmosphere in the house, which, as Doan (1965) points out, "are essential for family happiness." The old father becomes healthy and contented; the children are well cared for, among whom the retarded daughter receives special attention; Wang Lung himself is satisfied and happy, at least for the first several years.
From this, we see that it is O-lan who sees the family through all the crises; it is O-lan who gets done what has to be done; it is O-lan who holds the family together; and it is O-lan on whom Wang Lung's wealth and fate rest. No wonder that, to Buck, O-lan, with her almost inexhaustible resource of life, symbolizes the good earth which has borne and sustained the life of the Chinese peasants for more than two thousand years:
The woman [O-lan] and the child were as brown as the soil and they sat there like figures made of earth…. But out of the woman's great brown breast the milk gushed forth for the child … if flowed like a fountain … life enough for many children, and she let it flow out carelessly, conscious of her abundance.
The crucial role O-lan plays in the family is significant in many ways. First, it adds much individuality to O-lan as a complex, dynamic character, making her unique and memorable. Second, it reflects Buck's feminist point of view. The Good Earth is considered an epic, telling the ups and downs of Wang Lung, but it is O-lan who is the driving force for his rise to prosperity and higher social status.
As if the events discussed thus far are not enough to suggest O-lan's importance, Buck sets up a contrast in Wang Lung's family between the time when he works with O-lan and the time when he turns away from her. During the former time, Wang Lung's family survives crisis one after another and gradually obtains prosperity. However, as soon as Wang Lung turns away from O-lan, love, warmth, and peace vanish from the house and lust, quarrelling, and sickness set in. Wang Lung's morality deteriorates greatly once he turns from O-lan to Lotus. He thinks himself entitled to frequenting the teahouse in town and having concubines, giving no consideration to O-lan's feelings. He becomes a brute, pouring all his anger upon O-lan because she is too common, too ugly to suit his new status.
Yet Lotus, whom Wang Lung feels he needs now as a rich man and later takes home to be his second wife, is nothing more than a sexual object for Wang Lung, a toy for him to play with. Once Wang Lung becomes infatuated with Lotus, he neglects O-lan entirely. He never notices that O-lan's health has greatly deteriorated and "he had not thought why she had been willing at last to stay in the house and why she moved slowly and more slowly about." O-lan finally dies of a stomach illness, due to much hardship, fatigue, and a long time of neglect of her disease.
Without O-lan, the house falls apart: "for the first time Wang Lung and his children knew what she had been in the house, and how she made comfort for them all and they had not known it." No one seems to know how to light the stove and how to cook and no one bothers to clean the house. The retarded girl is once left outside in the cold the whole night and almost dies from the illness she gets as a result. The old father is neglected and dies soon after O-lan's death. There are plenty of women in the house, but Wang Lung knows in his heart that there will never be the kind of love and care O-lan once gave him and his children. The house is divided and declining.
As a representative of the old-fashioned Chinese country women, a Confucian model of a caring mother and a faithful wife, O-lan's qualities are more appreciated when compared to other, minor characters in the novel: Wang Laung's concubines Lotus and Pear Blossom, and Cuckoo, Lotus's slave.
Lotus is everything O-lan is not. She entices Wang Lung because she loves his money. It is there no surprise that she contributes nothing to the family but jealousy and turmoil. While O-lan is the central force that unites the family, Lotus is a bad disease, infecting and weakening it. Every time Wang Lung is with Lotus, he comes home illtempered toward everyone. With her, Wang Lung does not only part from O-lan, but is also shunned by his children. To make it worse, Lotus develops an incestuous relationship with Wang Lung's eldest son, bringing shame and pain to the family.
Pear Blossom, a young girl whom Wang Lung takes as a third wife in his old age, shares some similarity with O-lan. She remains faithful to Wang Lung and takes care of the retarded daughter for O-lan until the end of her days. However, she lacks the kind of courage and ability we have seen in O-lan.
Cuckoo, a slave, cannot compare to O-lan, a former slave herself. She is a snob, bullying fellow slave girls below her position but fawning on her superiors and the rich, from whom she thinks she can benefit. When her master is rich, she tries to entice him. Once his family's wealth collapses, she betrays him. She uses the money she has taken from the old master to run a teahouse, but when she sees less work and more comfort and security to be gained in going into Wang Lung's house with Lotus, she chooses to be a slave again. Her behavior is even despised by O-lan who, as we have seen, seldom thinks ill of others: "You may have lived in the courts of the Old Lord, and you were accounted beautiful, but I have been a man's wife and I have borne him sons, and you are still a slave."
It is also interesting to compare O-lan with Madame Wu, in Pavilion of Women. At first sight, we see primarily differences. O-lan is quiet and inarticulate; Madame Wu is eloquent. O-lan does not come forward unless in some crisis that Wang Lung cannot handle; Madame Wu is always in the forefront of every family affair. O-lan does not have much control over the family decisions; Madame Wu is the maker of all decisions in the House of Wu. They even differ in appearance: While O-lan is plain-looking, Madame Wu is beautiful.
All these differences are, however, only superficial. They have many commonalities between
them. They are both intelligent, courageous, hardworking, capable, and dignified; they both play crucial roles in the fate of their respective families.
How can we explain these differences on the one hand and similarities on the other, then? Such an explanation, in fact, is not hard to obtain. It can be sought in the origins of the two characters and the socioeconomic conditions they find themselves in. In terms of origin, O-lan's is humble whereas Madame Wu's is not. Having been a slave makes O-lan short of words and submissive. Being born and bred in a family of wealth provides Madame Wu the opportunity to be educated, thus becoming eloquent and dominant. In terms of socioeconomic conditions, O-lan is married into a poor peasant family, which means that her life will be characterized by hardship and submissiveness to her husband, whereas Madame Wu is wedded to a wealthy husband with a big family, which means that she will have the responsibility to oversee all affairs of the house, providing her with a stage to display all her intelligence and ability.
However, these differences do not necessarily prevent them from sharing positive qualities, qualities that can only be found in their very being. In other words, Buck may have offered the two characters different stages to perform and allowed them to act in different ways toward similar events in their respective lives, but she has bestowed on them the same nobility and admirability, hence the same credibility as literary characters.
O-lan possesses better qualities than her husband. O-lan, like many of Buck's Chinese women characters, is shown to have "more integrity, more steadfastness, more endurance in the crises and affairs of life", while Wang Lung displays weakness in such situations. As he changes from a poor peasant to a wealthy landlord, he completely loses his integrity. He no longer works hard, and instead forsakes the land, takes concubines, betrays his wife, and lives and idle and corrupted life. In times of difficulty, he is happy and grateful to have O-lan as his wife. When he rises to prosperity, he deplores her ugliness and thinks that O-lan no longer fits his position.
Portraying Wang Lung as such does not only reveal Buck's conviction that Chinese women are better than men, but also that men's corruption has been caused, in part at least, by society. Buck tells us, through the narration, that Wang Lung is only doing what other men of wealth and leisure are supposed to do. Therefore, O-lan is, as Charles W. Hayford (1992) points out, "betrayed (but not broken) as much by her husband's weak character as by social attitudes."
Through O-lan, Buck seems to suggest that, although oppressed, Chinese women, even the peasant women, have the same fine qualities as women elsewhere in the world. They have strength, courage, and insight as well as a practical mind to steer the fate and future of a family and to struggle for dignity and happiness.
Source: Xiongya Gao, "Peasant Women: The Good Earth," in Pearl S. Buck's Chinese Women Characters, Associated University Presses, 2000, pp. 91-106.
Pradyumna S. Chauhan
In the following essay, Chauhan illuminates the epic qualities in Buck's novels.
It was certainly the power of Pearl S. Buck's fiction that brought her to the tables of presidents and into the counsels of ambassadors. It was the enchantment of her stories that captivated millions around the globe and won her the Nobel Prize, making her the first woman recipient of both the Pulitzer and the Nobel awards for literature. And yet the keepers of academic gates have hardly shown much zeal for her work. When they have praised her, as did Henry Seidel Canby in his 1938 review of The Good Earth, or Carl Van Doren in his 1940 study The American Novel, 1789-1939, the compliment has been as stinted as it has been patronizing. Confronted by such critical climate, one scans the academic skies, but, like Wang Lung in the years of drought, sees not a sign of a fertilizing cloud, not a mention of Pearl S. Buck in academic journals or critical debates in the country, not even when popular fiction receives rising scholarly attention and when multiculturalism happens to be the rallying cry on quite a few campuses.
In view of such general timidity, I find a special reason to commend the faculty and the administration of Randolph-Macon Woman's College for their having opted to stir up some critical and academic dialogue about Buck's stature as a writer while they could as well have had a party to celebrate the glorious career of their distinguished alumna.
The neglect of Pearl S. Buck's fiction, even if benign, is, to an observer, a matter of cultural bafflement. Today, while women writers of smaller talents are avidly read, little notice is taken of the substantial work that Pearl S. Buck produced, and the best of it excellent by many critical standards. Whether it is some critical orthodoxy, or a popular prejudice against her chosen subject, or an aspect of her life that keeps Buck's work from being assimilated as part of our intellectual heritage is an issue that belongs, I think, to another topic. I shall, therefore, forbear from speculating about the causes of her exclusion from the academy.
I shall only indicate why she read, rather than explain why she is not being read, especially at universities and colleges where her work has the potential of doing much social good.
Unlike Thomas Lask, who regards her books as "facile" and "slick," or Paul A. Doyle, who finds her stories improbable and simplistic, I find in Buck's tales the compelling power, and in her style the touches of sublimity, which, as in the case of all great literature, release the readers from the numbing round of their daily life and transport them to new regions of thought and feelings. To read her trilogy House of Earth is to confront in all its fullness the part of humanity that had, by and large, gone unrepresented in Western literature. Not only does Buck install at the world's banquet table a guest frequently heard of but seldom seen there; she also confers human decency and literary dignity upon peasants and slaves, upon the disinherited of the earth who seldom had their portrait taken. The peasants who had been granted only entrances and exits—except in Hardy's, Hauptmann's, or Brecht's fiction—are now allowed the whole stage to themselves. Pearl S. Buck enfranchises the mute and the inarticulate half of humanity simply by creating a literary space where they can enact the sheer truths of their impoverished existence. Nowhere is a better proof of this daughter of America's commitment to democracy to be found than in her trilogy. And if her work is infinitely gentler than Soviet writing, where a worker falls in love with his tractor and lives happily thereafter, it is because the human spirit is dearer than any ideology.
To take Pearl S. Buck's true measure, it may be necessary to recall that an average English novel tends to fasten itself on a particular scene, attend to a set of characters, and see them through a course of action by the time the curtain is ready to come down. When we are done with the novel, if we remember it at all, what we turn over in our mind is some traits of a character, the nature of a locality, or the social and psychological issue from which the story evolved. Not so with the The Good Earth, however. What we are left with is a feeling of immensity, the sensation of having watched from space the life of earthlings, embroiled in a struggle for existence—ploughing, fighting, mating, dying—while the earth keeps turning and turning, sometimes parched by the sun, sometimes swept by floods, at times invaded by locusts and pestilence. Like Tennyson's gods looking down upon the Lotos land, then we watch from high
Blight and famine, plague and earthquake, roaring
deeps and fiery sands
Clanging fights, and flaming towns, and sinking
ships, and praying hands.
The reader reviews from the author's grandstand, again in Tennyson's words,
… an ill-used race of men that cleave the soil, Sow the seed, and reap the harvest with enduring toil.
Now such a capacity in the writer to wrest from the obscuring flux of life sharp patterns of human existence and to a project their ceaseless cavalcade through tumbling seasons of the earth is a rare gift indeed. And it is the gift, generally, of an epic writer, of one endowed with a macroscopic vision, of a writer who sees life and sees it whole. That hers was such a vision is borne out by passage after passage in The Good Earth. We are told what Wang Lung and O-lan encountered working in their field: "Sometimes they turned up a bit of brick, a splinter of wood. It was nothing. Some time, in some age, bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses has stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth. So would also their house, some time, return into the earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth." After reading this, the earth appears no strange place, nor death a terror. This couple but rehearses what generations of human ancestors have perpetually gone through.
Ezra Pound, summing up Henry James's achievement, remarked upon the latter's epic talent, which, according to him, consisted in James's capacity to "show race against race; immutable; the essential Americanness, or Englishness, or Frenchness." Buck's powerful narrative conveys to the reader not only the Chineseness of her characters, but also a feel of what it must have been like to be living in the era between the old dynasty and the modern state.
It conveys something else, too: the recurring scheme of life on the planet, caught amid the cycles of seasons and the alternating pattern of plenty and scarcity. Equipped, like an epic writer, with a prophet's vision that can not only see, but also reveal to others, the patterns that are embedded in human lives and Nature's kingdom, Buck brings all this to her readers, and without leaving them with any sense of despondence either. When we are told that "the woman and the child were as brown as the soil and they sat there like figures made of earth [and] there was dust of the fields upon the woman's hair and upon the child's soft black head", we find there is nothing for tears in their plight. Eternal like the earth, they are possessed of its strength. There is such vitality in their motion that nothing, it seems, can stop this fountain of life. If we begin Buck's novel with some curiosity, we end it with wisdom.
Now such an effect is rarely achieved by a realistic novel, which specializes in compiling a record of each fact like a police diary. Its chronicle can, at best, show us the root and branches of some trees, but never the shape of the entire wood. The latter effect is achieved by works like Homer's Odyssey, or a novel like Tolstoy's War and Peace, where the entire social fabric is rendered for our contemplation. The only two American novels that come close to this stature are Melville's Moby Dick (1851) and Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939). What makes Buck's achievement all the more remarkable is the fact that her novel arrived nine years before Steinback's and might well have served as a model for his work.
Let us briefly examine precisely how she goes about her work: she makes up a captivating tale, captivating not so much because its subject is exotic as because its appeal is universal. The story that opens with a young man's preparation for his marriage takes us through his contented years with his wife, his struggles against grinding poverty, and the virtual starvation of his family. Then, when the heavens relent, Wang Lung attains prosperity, reaches mid-life crisis, goes through certain flings, and is smitten by anxiety for his children, who embark on searches of their own. Things approach a closure with his wife's, then his father's death. Soon after his children have reached adulthood, we find him preparing to meet his death, after which, we know, his children will abandon the lands into which he had poured his sweat and blood and of which he had become a part. Thus, within the covers of a book, we see two generations pass away and the third ready to spring out on its own.
The reason her story is gripping and credible is that Buck, like a true epic writer, transplants details that are realistic to a plot that is both fantastic and mythic. Wang Lung, like all culture heroes—like a Theseus, a Moses, a Rama—leads his people on a frightening journey from "the Northern province of Anhwei" to the southern city of Nanjing. What they encounter in the urban ghetto is chronic deprivation, moral anarchy, and political lawlessness. Wang Lung, an Eastern Job, suffers physically and psychologically, yet never gives up either his courage or his dream.
On the contrary, he brings his people through, brings them not only home, but to a peak of prosperity, founding, in the bargain, a family which shall have to be reckoned with for a least another three generations. At its base, the plot is but a variation of the Cinderella story, of a rags-to-riches romance, all the more engaging because first we witness here human life stripped of all pretensions, in its bare essentials: in its hunger and cupidity, in its sexuality and self-centeredness. But we stay to witness, too, daring and noble self-sacrifices. For, of characters, there is God's plenty here. If we come across social leeches, like Cuckoo, we find here mothers, too, like O-lan, who is at once patient and courageous, pragmatic yet noble. If we are confronted by the bullying gateman at the ancient house of the north, the one who keeps twisting the three hairs of his mole, we meet, in the south, the crusty hot-water seller, the one who hides Wang Lung behind his cauldron when the soldiers come looking for the able-bodied in the shantytown. A garrulous old lord is balanced on Buck's canvas by a seductive young slave. A revolutionary finds, as a counterpoint, a missionary, who goes about distributing pictures of Christ on the cross to uncomprehending heathens. Faithful neighbors like Ching serve as a counter-balance to robbers like the rapacious uncle. The mob of a city and the laborers of the fields, all find their place in this gigantic portrait of humankind.
Similarly, all the enterprises of life, from courting through wedding to copulation, birth, and burial, are covered here. The pages of the novel, as a consequence, seem bristling with motion and vitality. What ennobles the narrative is the stature of Wang Lung, who, though a contemporary of Prufrock, is more like a Prometheus. O-lan, too, compels by her determination a comparison with the heroines of Greek Tragedies. By discovering for us innate nobility and willful tenacity among the poor peasants of China, Pearl S. Buck makes us realize the worth of the people written off as of no consequence unless they are acting as a mob.
The crowded canvas of the epic novel is accompanied by a comprehensive range. For what makes an epic different from any other genre is that it casts its net wide and captures the entire communal life of a people: their manners, their rituals, their customs; their food and dress and medicines; their forms of government and their ways of worship. The Good Earth shows us all: the rituals of the community, the social gestures, the superstitions, the New Year's feast, the wedding gifts, and the burial ceremonies. The earth gods, we realize, must be remembered at all crucial occasions—upon the marriage and the birth, at mournings and festivals—and they must be remembered even when they curse and afflict the people who adore them. The whole range of behaviors confronts us, thus, not only with the social picture of a people, but also with their "unconscious metaphysics," the ethos which defines them as a memorable entity.
What lends epic qualities to the novel, though, is not merely the mythos and the human crowd. At work here is, to use Longinus' words, in addition to "the faculty of grasping great conceptions," besides "dignified and spirited composition," a grand style, one forged under the mighty influence of the Bible.
If we look at the text closely, we notice the repetitive phrase and the recursive image of time so typical of Old Testament narrative. We may be running full tilt and, suddenly, we ram into expressions like "his heart pained him with longing for that which was passed." "Was passed," not the ordinary "had passed." We are reined in by phrases like "he was so amazed at what had come about", reminiscent of the suggestive grandeur of the simple, almost austere, phrasing of the King James version of the Bible. The mythical resonance of the plot, which speaks to our unconscious, is, in this novel, enhanced by a style whose dignified echoes have become part of our collective auditory imagination.
The larger picture of the novel is framed by a fearful symmetry: it opens with the coughing shadow of Wang Lung's father waiting for his boiled water, and closes with Wang Lung's occupying the spot where his father used to lean against the wall; it begins with the grandfather waiting for the warm bodies of his grandchildren, and ends with the father who is mocked by the cold stares of his sons plotting to sell the land he had acquired with heroic efforts. The land acquired, acre by acre, with blood and sweat, and preserved for posterity by an iron will, is sold off by the progeny for creature comforts. The grand human tale, subverted by a terrible irony, reveals life to be but vanitas vanitatum leading us to deep contemplation.
It is a mischief to equate Pearl S. Buck's fiction with popular romance. Even if we were to ignore the generosity and the decency of the novelist's conscience, her sensitivity to women's cruel situation, her quiet anger at social injustice, the aesthetics of the novel would have enough, besides its ethics, to keep the readers embroiled in a debate. Therefore when critics complain that Pearl S. Buck "lacks a Camus-like intellect" and that she suffers from a Victorian reserve in handling sexual material, one knows that they are asking for a pint of gin at a health shop. But the history of reading is filled with such misreadings. What is amusing in our situation is our inability to abandon old positions even after we have witnessed several critical revolutions. Some readers would slight The Good Earth because, they argue, historically it is inaccurate. But she was not writing a book of history; she was writing an epic, a story not merely of three generations but of entire China, of the human life itself. History, Aristotle warns us, "relates what has happened," and poetry/epic "what may happen." Buck's novel carries a greater truth than the chronicle of one-shot events. Its tale has a larger validity, for it can as well be read as an extended allegory of the fates of all families, Japanese, Indian, or American.
When we correct one angle of a square, all the angles of the square, we know, correct themselves. If we can but bring ourselves to read Buck's works as we read other received texts—exploring their verbal and thematic complexities—we may discover that the best of her work is what appears but once in the greatest of literary traditions—a powerful and abiding tale told by an untutored imagination.
One thing is very clear: if there is no one to fight for the turf, the turf will not be protected. And here rests a challenge for all those who believe that their lives and minds have been enriched by their contacts with Pearl S. Buck's work.
Source: Pradyumna S. Chauhan, "Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth: The Novel As Epic," in The Several Worlds of Pearl S. Buck: Essays Presented at a Centennial Symposium, Randolph-Macon Woman's College, March 26-28, 1992, edited by Elizabeth J. Lipscomb, Frances E. Webb, and Peter Conn, Greenwood Press, 1994, pp. 119-24.
Buck, Pearl, The Good Earth, John Day, 1965.
Conn, Peter, Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 126.
Gao, Xiongya, Pearl S. Buck's Chinese Women's Characters, Susquehanna University Press, 2000, p. 36.
Harwood, H. C., Review of The Good Earth, in Saturday Review, Vol. 151, No. 3942, May 16, 1931, p. 722.
Smart, Ninian, The Religious Experience of Mankind, Fontana, 1970, p. 218.
Spence, Jonathan D., The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895-1980, Viking Press, 1981, p. 51.
Walton, Eda Lou, "Another Epic of the Soil," in Nation, Vol. 132, No. 3, May 13, 1931, p. 534.
Doyle, Paul A., Pearl S. Buck, revised edition, United States Authors Series, No. 85, Twayne, 1980.
This is a concise and readable introduction to the entire range of Buck's work.
Harris, Theodore F., in consultation with Pearl S. Buck, Pearl S. Buck: A Biography, John Day, 1969-1971.
Written by her close friend and collaborator, this two-volume work is, as of 2006, the most comprehensive biography of Buck.
Leong explores American orientalism during the 1930s and 1940s, focusing on three women who were associated with China: Buck, Anna May Wong, and Mayling Soong. Leong shows how these women negotiated the cross-cultural experience of being American, Chinese American, and Chinese against the backdrop of the emergence of the United States as an international power and the growing participation of women in civic and consumer culture.
Liao, Kang, Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Bridge across the Pacific, Greenwood Press, 1997.
Liao analyzes the reasons for the success of Buck's early novels and the critical neglect of her later work. He argues that the social, historical, and cultural values of Buck's work exceed their aesthetic value.