Pearl S. Buck‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Good Earth (1931), is the remarkable story of a farmer’s reversal of fortune in rural China in the early 1900’s. Wang Lung is the son of a poor, simple, farmer, but his luck starts to change when his father buys a bride for him, O-Lan, a former slave of the wealthiest family in their small town. Though nothing to look at, O-Lan is hardworking, proper, and knows her place; she is expected to cook, clean, take care of her husband and his elderly father; to take care of the household, to spend silver wisely, to make do with what little they had, and most importantly, to bear Wang Lung sons.
Belonging to a generation of farmers, Wang Lung knows nothing else except to work the land. He finds pride and pleasure in working with his hands – planting and harvesting year in and year out. With O-Lan by his side, is able to dedicate himself to his land and his crops, leaving the care of his household and his elderly father to his new wife.
The Good Earth follows the life of Wang Lung, starting from the day he marries O-Lan, and of the family they eventually have – their hopes and dreams for themselves and for their children and grandchildren. It chronicles the family’s ups and downs, successes and tragedies, from years of plenty to years of famine, and back again; as Wang Lung’s family becomes bigger and as he himself changes during his lifetime. The drastic changes in Wang Lung’s life bring forth good and bad fortune alike, proving that being money can’t buy happiness, and being wealthy has its own set of problems.
More than once, I found it difficult to continue reading this novel, not wanting to read about the characters’ suffering, or knowing that their good fortunes are short lived, with the inevitable arrival of tragedy. It’s not easy to read about O-Lan’s sad life and unappreciated sacrifices as a woman, not only in Wang Lung’s household, but also in China, where women were seen either as slaves or fools to be given away to other families to worry about. I was touched by O-Lan’s suffering brought about by Wang Lung despite her years of service, toiling for her family. And though Wang Lung is far from being the ideal husband and father, I was frustrated by his grown-up sons’ decisions to give up everything that Wang Lung believed in and worked so hard for. Difficult as it was to read at times, due to its narrative style, as well as its content, The Good Earth moved me in ways that no other book has in a long time.
Though written in the 1930’s, much of what Pearl S. Buck described in The Good Earth is still relevant today, not only in Asia, but in other developing countries. Her depiction of the beliefs, mindset, and practices of rural, poor families regarding sacrifices, crab mentality, the loss of faith, the evils of money, and the price of progress is familiar and common even at this day and age.
The Good Earth is a novel about a Chinese family written by an American missionary. Though Pearl S. Buck grew up in China, it can’t be ignored that her background as a foreigner, and as a missionary may have influenced the characters and plot of her novel. Certainly, The Good Earth shouldn’t be taken as a definitive portrait of the rural Chinese family, but only as an interpretation of an outsider looking in. Nevertheless, the glimpse, however brief or tainted, the novel provides into the hard life of rural China and the emotions contained within it make it a great piece of literature that shouldn’t be missed.
The Good Earth (1931) – Pearl S. Buck
Simon and Schuster; 357 pages
Personal rating: 3/5