Friday, January 29, 2010
"The Good Earth" by Pearl S. Buck
Musings: The Good Earth is my first book for the Books of the Century Challenge. The novel was the number one fiction bestseller in 1931, the year of its publication, and it also appears under the "critically acclaimed and historically significant" category for that year. Although my husband read the novel in high school, I was never exposed to it and picked it up because the title sounded familiar, even though I had no idea what the book was about. I think I had some vague notion of it being along the lines of a Barbara Kingsolver novel (oops), so I was surprised when it was instead about the rise and fall of a Chinese farmer.
The novel has an interesting place in history. Buck, a white woman born in West Virginia, spent the majority of her life, including her childhood, in China. That she wrote a novel from the point of view of a Chinese man caused some controversy at the time, and I tried to keep its authorial origin in mind as I read. In the '30s this novel was most Americans' only glimpse into life in China, and undoubtedly Buck has only portrayed one view of Chinese life at the time. Nonetheless, I did not find the characters to be caricatures, although I wonder what effect some of the practices (polygamy, feet binding, the favoring of male children) would have had on the American audience. In any case, the novel must be more evenhanded than the movie version, made in 1937, which has a white cast playing the Chinese characters.
Wang Lung, the protagonist, is a serious and committed man, and he is largely successful in life through his diligence and luck. He is to be admired for his dedication and achievements where others have failed, but his greatness weakness is his pride. Shame over his low-bred country origins cause him to lose sight of what he truly loves, which is his land. In turn, the pride, but not the love of the soil, is passed on to his sons. He leaves a legacy behind, but not one that he most wants.
O-Lan is a significantly less-explored character than Wang Lung, primarily because the story is told from Wang-Lung's point of view. Despite economically managing the household, bearing him three sons, and famously returning to work in the fields hours after giving birth, O-Lan is given little thought by Wang Lung. Her diligence and thriftiness when they are starving and her quick stealing are largely the reasons for Wang Lung's future success, but he is blinded by social expectations of women at that time and fails to see his wife. He praises himself for not beating or berating her as others do, but she is never granted a place as a person. The reader, for the most part, fails to see her as more than an extraordinarily capable, but overlooked, wife.
The deeply rooted and pervasive sexism evidenced by the characters is present throughout the novel, and very little is done by the characters to challenge it, although Buck clearly is sympathetic to the women. Another teacher I know has a great term for judging texts of a certain era by modern standards--retrojecting--and, truthfully, I had a difficult time balancing recognizing the realities of the time with my personal sense of injustice for the ways in which many women suffered.
The novel is written surprisingly simply. The book is clearly famous for the story it tells, rather than any particular strength of writing style or depth of meaning. Although set in China, its themes are largely universal: sexism, inter-generational conflict, class conflict, the effects of pride and shame. Although I felt little connection to any of the characters, the narrative swept me quickly along.
I know this was a high school classic for many years, but I don't know how regularly it is taught today. I would imagine there are stronger options now, but it would be interesting to compare the novel to one written by a Chinese author set in the same time period. The Good Earth might also be an interesting way to explore Americans' views of China during the early part of the 20th century.
***This book qualifies for the Books of the Century Challenge, the POC Reading Challenge, and the TwentyTen Reading Challenge ("Older Than You" category).