The Good Earth was written by Pearl S. Buck in 1931. It received the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. It tells the story of Wang Lung, a poor farmer in a small Chinese village in the early 1900s. He marries a slave woman in the wealthy House of Hwang, O-lan, and her hard work and good sense helps him build his family and his prosperity, even through very hard times. Lung is passionate about the land and puts all of his money and time into buying more land and producing more crops.
Pearl S. Buck was born in the United States but raised in China by missionary parents. She returned to the U.S. in 1911 to attend college, and later returned to China as a Presbyterian missionary. She married John Lossing Buck in 1917, adopted a daughter and later had another daughter, Carol. In 1924, she returned to the U.S. with her husband and received her masters from Cornell.
Buck’s life was fascinating. She was a noted humanitarian on a diverse variety of topics including women’s rights, Asian cultures, immigration, adoption, missionary work, and war. In 1927 she and her family were caught up in the capture of Nanjing by the National Revolutionary Army, and they ended up being rescued by American ships and spent the next year living in Japan. Buck returned to Nanjing and began her career as a writer. Her marriage ended in divorce in 1935 and she married her editor, Richard Walsh.
It is said that The Good Earth humanized the Chinese for Americans, and helped Americans to see the Chinese as allies in World War II. Certainly, it explains a very different culture from ours, although not always in positive terms. There is slavery, war, poverty, and very harsh treatment of women (including the selling of daughters and foot-binding).
In 1938, the Nobel Prize Committee explained: “By awarding this year’s Prize to Pearl Buck for the notable works which pave the way to a human sympathy passing over widely separated racial boundaries and for the studies of human ideals which are a great and living art of portraiture, the Swedish Academy feels that it acts in harmony and accord with the aim of Alfred Nobel’s dreams for the future.”
While The Good Earth is the story of a peasant family’s hard work and rise in fortune, it was also a complex picture of the corrupting influence of wealth, particularly the impact of wealth on multiple generations. As such, it is not only a picture of Chinese culture, but very relevant to other cultures as well. Lung begins this story as morally upright, hard-working, and respectful to those around him (at least those who also work hard and treat others with respect). He is particularly dedicated to his elderly father, and he is a good husband to his “simple” but hard-working wife.
But during the course of his life, Lung’s principles are challenged and compromised. He does not want his family to beg, but in a time of dire poverty he accepts that begging means surviving. He works as hard as he can but his wife and children are forced to beg just to stay alive. Later, as conditions worsen, he is forced to consider selling his daughter into slavery. He is also forced to threaten and steal from the wealthy. But throughout these hard times, he does only what he absolutely must to protect his family.
As his fortunes grow, Lung slowly becomes proud of his status, and this leads him to begin looking at his wife with disdain. She is still a good wife and mother, but she is ugly in his eyes, and he falls in love with a prostitute. He treats O-lan very badly but of course she stands by him.
Lung spends his older years arranging the marriages of his three sons and daughter, and caring for his older daughter, who is severely mentally disabled (probably due to starvation as a child). Sadly, Lung has little in common with his sons, who are uninterested in working the land, and have never experienced the poverty he has (or they remember little of it). I was fascinated by this portrayal of wealth across generations, because as Lung sees his fortunes rise, he sees strife and dissatisfaction in his sons. When Lung was a young man, he was happy simply to marry the woman his father told him to. But his sons want to choose their wives and their careers. They fight with each other over the family fortunes, and when they marry, their wives fight with each other as well. The more Lung’s wealth grows, the more he finds unhappiness within his family.
Also fascinating – and disturbing – was the treatment of women in this novel. Not only are female children less desired, they are considered “slaves” even in well off families (because they will eventually have to be “sold off” to a husband). In times of poverty they can be sold, as O-lan herself was. If pretty, they can expect to become prostitutes or handed around to the men of wealthy house. Wealthy daughters have their feet painfully deformed in order to be attractive to their future husbands. Lung has to think about whether this is right for his daughter. Wives have no rights and men can take as many wives as they want.
While the treatment of women is harsh in this book, and the characters have to address these issues, there is no evidence that this book is intended as a commentary on the rights of women in China. Still, Buck is clearly expressing some concerns.
The last thing I thought was really interesting about this book was the cyclical and transitional nature of wealth. The fortunes of the wealthy rise and fall just as the poor, and there’s sort of an Animal Farm moment in this book where Lung’s family becomes a mirror image of the House of Hwang, the corrupt wealthy family in the beginning of the book.
This book meets the Classics Club Challenge, the Around the World Challenge, and the TBR Pile Challenge.