I knew I would love The Good Earth when I first came across it. It did not disappoint. A book I could recommend to anyone, it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932, its author won the Nobel Prize just six years later, and it is now a safe favourite with me.
Wang Lung is a young man living in a small village in rural China in the early 20th century with his elderly father. Though not poor for a peasant, real poverty and starvation is only one bad harvest away. Fortunately, Wang has a few advantages to him. The first is his immensely strong work ethic, deeply instilled within him by the only way of life he has ever known. He rises early, cares for his father, tends the land, works late and, under the watchful eye of his father, is extremely frugal and does not indulge any luxury.
Secondly, Wang is very ambitious, though his ambitions remain modest at this stage in his life. He wishes for little more in addition to his current life than a family with sons to continue his line after him. But his greatest advantage is that he has his own land. As long as he has land he has hope. Hope that, with good rain, he can work for his own food and avoid starvation. Hope that, if there is a little spare, he can save money as a second security against poverty. Hope that, if his savings can accumulate, he can even increase his holdings and become relatively wealthy.
Wang is about to add another advantage to his life – a wife. Being poor, he cannot marry a beautiful woman or for love.
“And what will we do with a pretty woman? We must have a woman who will tend the house and bear children as she works in the fields, and will a pretty woman do these things? She will be forever thinking about clothes to go with her face! No, not a pretty woman in our house. We are farmers. Moreover, who has heard of a pretty slave who was a virgin in a wealthy house? All the young lords have had their fill of her. It is better to be first with an ugly woman than the hundredth with a beauty. Do you imagine a pretty woman will think your farmer’s hands as pleasing as the soft hands of a rich man’s son, and your sunblack face as beautiful as the golden skin of the others who have had her for their pleasure?”
Wang Lung knew his father spoke well.
Instead, he is to marry a house-slave, chosen by his father, from the local great house – the House of Hwang. This aristocratic family, who reside in a huge mansion, hold much of the farmland around the village. But the House has fallen into decline as the older generations indulge their opium addiction and the younger generations seem to understand little of how to manage wealth; with ill-disciplined spending, unrestrained borrowing and no conception of generating income.
Though she barely says a word, Wang’s new wife, O-lan, is more than a match for his work ethic. As well as managing the house and caring for her father-in-law, O-lan has enough left to help Wang with the farm work even when heavily pregnant. She even manages birthing her child alone, without any assistance, and still gets dinner made.
One day when Wang Lung was hard pressed with the swelling wheat and was cultivating it with his hoe, day after day, until his back throbbed with weariness, her shadow fell across the furrow over which he bent himself, and there she stood, with a hoe across her shoulder.
“There is nothing in the house until nightfall,” she said briefly, and without speech she took the furrow to the left of him and fell into steady hoeing.
The sun beat down upon them, for it was early summer, and her face was soon dripping with sweat. Wang Lung had his coat off and his back bare, but she worked with her thin garment covering her shoulders and it grew wet and clung to her like skin. Moving together in perfect rhythm, without a word, hour after hour, he fell into a union with her which took the pain from his labour. He had no articulate thought of anything; there was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods. The earth lay rich and dark, and fell apart lightly under the points of their hoes. Sometimes they turned up a bit of brick a splinter of wood. It was nothing. Some time, some age, bodies of men and women had been buried 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. They worked on, moving together – together – producing the fruit of this earth – speechless in their movement together.
Their first child is a boy and the harvest is a good one. Their second child is also a boy and, with another good harvest, Wang is able to buy land from the declining House of Hwang. It seems as if Wang’s every wish is coming true.
It seemed to him as he walked into the sharp sunshine of the dusty street that there was never a man so filled with good fortune as he.
He thought of this at first with joy and then with a pang of fear. It did not do in this life to be too fortunate. The air and the earth were filled with malignant spirits who could not endure the happiness of mortals, especially of such as are poor.
His growing wealth begins attracting unwanted attention. Wang’s uncle is a lazy, irresponsible spendthrift who leeches off his family, feigning bad luck and taking advantage. Wang’s plans for further growth are stalled as he is obliged to support his uncle. Then the rains fail and famine reaches the village. Wang gains the courage to turn away his uncle who spreads vicious rumours about him. Soon angry villagers are bursting into his house expecting to find a cache of food or money the family have been hoarding, only to find nothing and leave remorseful.
Things soon turn dire. There are no animals left in the village and villagers are resorting to eating bark and grass. There are even rumours of cannibalism. With his elderly father, two boys and now a baby daughter and a wife who is pregnant again, Wang has difficult choices to make. One thing he will absolutely not consider is to sell his land.
They cannot take the land from me. The labour of my body and the fruit of the fields I have put into that which cannot be taken away. If I had the silver, they would have taken it. If I had bought with the silver to store it, they would have taken it all. I have the land still, and it is mine.
To the south is a city where they may be able to find work or at least can beg for scraps. Getting there will be arduous. Wang and O-lan will have to carry his father and their children and they are already skeletal. But to stay in the village will mean death.
Again, the land, the good earth, means hope. If they can survive the drought in the city, the land, and all of its promise, will still be waiting for them when they return.
Of all the literally hundreds of books on my shelves that are still to-be-read, The Good Earth is one that has haunted me the most. I felt certain from the moment I first came across it that it would one day become a favourite of mine. Occasionally I would steal it from its shelf and read the first chapter as if to pacify my impatience. Only a stubborn sense of duty towards those ahead of it on my TBR lists held me back.
Reading it has proven to be everything I had hoped it would be and I think it is the first fiction book that I can safely call an all-time favourite probably since reading We Need to Talk About Kevin some four years ago.
The first thing that must be said about The Good Earth is how incredibly evocative it is. From the first page Buck is able to transport you to the time and place. That she is able to do this with a real economy of words and a lack of long descriptive pieces is something magical. I was able to fill in the blanks quite easily with my mind’s eye and even now, unusually for me, I feel I can still go back there at will.
The pace of the novel is special as well. The story moves quite quickly and there is continual action and drama. Despite the literary quality of its subject matter, its simple writing, quick pace and ample story gives it all the page-turning appeal of the best popular fiction.
And the power of the drama is not to be dismissed either. I am not one to cry from reading, but I imagine many a reader would when reading of the despair of life with a young family during a famine and of what they witness. There is much more emotional engagement elsewhere in the story, whether it is the despair of poverty; the frustration of the inequities between rich and poor, men and women, workers and freeloaders; the fear of violence and disappointment in the character’s choices.
The Good Earth is mostly a plot and character-driven story. While there are themes worth exploring, I do not believe they necessarily played a large role in the creation of the story.
The major theme for me is the link between life/social experience and character. Wang has known nothing other than the hardworking, precarious, life of a peasant. The life within the House of Hwang is as alien to him as the life of a Westerner. He does not consider how different his life might have been if he had been born into privilege. Nor does he realise, since upward financial and social mobility is his dream, how, if he were to succeed, it would change the way he feels about his wife, the way he would raise his sons or the life he would choose to lead. The thought that his sons might grow up in a completely different environment to himself, with personalities, opportunities, ambitions and wants completely foreign to his own would baffle him.
A minor related theme in the book is that of superstition and scepticism and its relation to his rising and falling social station. Wang does not show much participation in organised religion, but he does give passing recognition to traditionally worshipped local idols. This too rises and falls with his fortunes and when famine strikes, it deals a blow to his faith from which recovery seems remote.
The novels also explores the contrast between city and country, rich and poor. The city provides much more opportunity than the country, but only for some. Those below the poverty line are kept there in a poverty trap, something that the hardworking, honest and ambitious Wang can only find incredibly frustrating. Only the fact that he possesses his own land can offer escape from poverty.
The novel contains only passing reference to events going on elsewhere in greater China. There is only a sniff of foreign influence, of revolution and of civil war. Having read Jung Chang’s Wild Swans last year, and read this book alongside Chang’s biography of Mao, it puts this novel into perspective. The trials and struggles of this one family, immense and empathising are they are, are tiny in this vast country where everything will soon be turned upside down. It makes you wonder what, in the end, their struggles will amount to.
As his fortunes move up and down, Wang’s character, the restrictions on his behaviour, change as well. Readers may not find him as likeable at the end of his trials as they did the simple, earnest man at the beginning. Wang’s daughter is mentally handicapped, perhaps due to malnutrition from the famine of her infancy. At a time when many families might have abandoned such a child, Wang cannot bear to and affectionately calls her ‘his fool’. With everything he experiences, she remains a centre of innocence in a world full of sin, evil and hardship.
The Good Earth was a best-seller when first published and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. Pearl S Buck would go on to become the first American women to win a Nobel Prize for Literature for her canon which consisted of much non-fiction and short stories as well as her novels of rural Chinese peasantry.
I can’t help but wonder how Buck would be appraised if she were writing today. Given the current climate towards assigning writers ‘identities’ – usually based on race, gender and sexuality – and insisting they write no fiction beyond their personal experience, which effectively makes fiction impermissible, I wonder how today’s audience would react to a white American woman writing novels about rural Chinese?
Buck spent most of the first half of her life in China, the daughter of missionaries. The authenticity of her work has repeatedly stood up to the test. Surely that is what matters most when judging this aspect of the work rather than the identity of the author?
I knew The Good Earth would become a favourite of mine and it did not disappoint. It is evocative, tragic, powerful and beautifully written. Despite how much I enjoyed The Good Earth, and the high ratings her other novels have, I had no strong intention of reading more of her work – there is so much else to read. But I had not realised until I finished, that she wrote two sequels to The Good Earth. I may have to at least read those.
Often we have to add qualifiers when we recommend books – ‘you may like this, if you like…’. The Good Earth can be urged on others without qualification. It is a book anyone who reads can love.