Originally published in 1931, The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck delivers a problematic (for oh so many reasons) portrait of a family that rises and falls and rises again in the years before the 1911 revolution. Buck lived in China for years, working as a missionary (though she later gave speeches against missionary work), and appears to have fallen in love with the culture. I daresay The Good Earth contains much of what Buck learned about everyday life in rural China—though I have a lot of questions about how much is true and how much is stereotype. I was worried when I started the book that I would see a lot of racism. I was wrong on that front. Instead, I should have worried about misogyny and sexism.
Wang Lung, at the outset of The Good Earth is a humble farmer. He has his patch of land. He can support himself and his father in a good year, but there aren’t a lot of extras. On the day we meet him, Wang Lung is splurging with a hot bath and some delicacies from the markets because it is the day he goes to claim his wife from the Hwang family. O-lan is a slave (having been sold by her destitute father when she was a child) for the family and, for a price, the family have released her to be Wang Lung’s wife. She is not pretty, but Wang Lung is content. He knows that she can work and a farmer doesn’t need anything fancy.
The first days of their marriage set the pattern for the rest of O-lan’s life and most of Wang Lung’s. He works in the fields. She works in the house. Apart from conceiving children, Wang Lung doesn’t pay much attention to her. In fact, he frequently describes her as dumb and dim. He’s not overtly cruel, but his lack of affection and consideration wear on O-lan over the years. Over the course of the novel, we will learn how much O-lan sacrifices for her husband and family. We also see how little she expects from her husband in return, though it never occurs to him that he owes her anything other than a roof over her head and the means to feed and cloth herself.
The Good Earth shows us Wang Lung in poverty and in wealth. He’s not a good person in either extreme. When the family are poor, Wang Lung makes drastic decisions and only purest luck changes their fortunes. When the family are rich, Wang Lung is even worse. He becomes just like the rich Hwangs he simultaneously envied and despised at the beginning of the book. He becomes a petty tyrant to his family (except for his uncle’s family, who he can’t get rid of because the village would judge him).
If ever there was a story crying out for a retelling from another character’s perspective, it’s The Good Earth. The more I read of Wang Lung and his increasing selfishness, the more I wanted to hear from O-lan. I wanted to know what she was thinking. She rarely speaks. Everything we know about her comes from her husband, who doesn’t know her at all. Wang Lung views the women in his life as either servants (O-lan, his daughters), as objects of pleasure (his mistress), or as trouble (his aunt). At one point, Wang Lung tells us:
So these two women took their place in his house: Lotus for his toy and his pleasure and to satisfy his delight in beauty and in smallness and in the joy of her pure sex, and O-lan for his woman of work and the mother who had borne his sons and who kept his house and fed him and his father and his children. (186*)
Over and over I was reminded how little women counted for in Wang Lung’s world. I wanted to roar at him through the pages to treat O-lan with the respect she deserves. He only treats her with kindness when he learns she is dying. Otherwise, he is annoyed with her or ignores her. I felt so badly for her.
Another thought that struck me while reading The Good Earth was the idea of land enduring after one’s lifetime, which I also saw in Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum. People come and go, these books show us, but the land is always there to sustain whoever owns it and cares for it. Land is one of the few things Wang Lung is prudent about. In the second half of the novel, land supports Wang Lung’s growing wealth. As he grows richer he becomes more and more removed from the land and, consequently, falls prey to the worse of his character flaws. It is only when he returns to the land and his original house to die that Wang Lung starts to redeem himself (though it’s far too late for him to apologize to O-lan, the bastard).
The Good Earth is the Wang Lung show. He fills the narrative, leaving nary a crack for other characters. (It doesn’t help that there are so few named characters in this book. Wang Lung’s sons are referred to by number, for example.) In comparison, O-lan is so hardworking and virtuous that I longed for a respite from Wang Lung’s selfishness and autocratic ways. Against her husband’s poor boy made good tale, O-lan’s tragedy stands out. She moved me just like Thomas Hardy’s Tess did. I hoped against hope that she would find happiness, only to be thwarted when her long death from cancer did little more than make Wang Lung feel “remorseful” for a few months.
I anticipate a lively discussion on Friday when the book group gets together. In addition to my comments here, I have a veritable list of things that I took issue with in The Good Earth to talk about. I may even froth at the mouth.
* Quote is from the 1944 Modern Library edition.