Monday, March 27, 2017

Classics Club 44:The Good Earth

Pearl Buck's The Good Earth opens with the marriage of peasant farmer Wang- Lung to O-Lan, a slave girl from the big house nearby. Over the years, and through much hard work their family rises in both wealth and stature. They also suffer many hardships and setbacks along the way. A drought and subsequent famine force them to move south, where it is O-Lan's resourcefulness, knowledge and practicality that allow them to survive and eventually return to their land richer than when they left. Floods, pestilence and political upheaval all negatively impact the family over the years, yet through diligently working the land and living prudently they are able to buy more land from the once powerful House of Hwang whose fortunes are declining. As the family fortunes rise Wang-Lung in particular begins to expect more. He wants his sons to be become scholars, while he himself starts visiting brothels, takes a mistress and turns his back on his loyal, hard-working wife. In one of the novel's most heartbreaking moments he forces O-Lan to give up two pearls, the only things she had ever asked for and which she clearly valued dearly, so he could gift them to his mistress.

Despite this Wang-Lung is not all bad. His obvious love for and care of his disabled daughter is evidence of that. Rather he is a flawed human being, undoubtedly hardened by the hardships life has forced him to endure, trying to improve his lot and that of his family. As his wealth increases he struggles between his love of the land and his desire to be taken seriously and respected as a man of standing in his community. It is when he pursues status at the expense of working the land that he is at his worst. The land is good, not only because it allows the family to survive and thrive but because it enables Wang-Lung to be his best self.

Despite valuing the land and recognizing that it is the key to his wealth and survival, he doesn't always act accordingly. His actions, and more frequently his inactions, in this regard will clearly contribute to the family's eventual fall in fortunes which is foreshadowed at the novel's end when the sons indicate they will sell the land as soon as their father dies.

The Good Earth has been criticized since it is written from the point of view of a Chinese man while actually being written by a white woman. Not being a Chinese man myself it is impossible to say whether or not the representation is accurate. What I will say is that the themes of this novel - such as the power of the earth, man's connection to the earth, the status of women, and the way wealth counters traditional values  - are universal and that it is worth being read by anyone, regardless of their gender or ethnicity. The literary world's powers-that-be agree. The Good Earth won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 while, largely on the strength of this novel, Pearl Buck was awarded the  Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.

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