A Review of The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck
This was a great read so as I went along I tried to make mental notes about what the author was trying to do and why I found the book so engaging.
The story is the lifetime from early adulthood to old age of a Chinese peasant, Wang Lung, in the first half of the 20th century, and of his family, especially his long-suffering wife O-Lan. Wang Lung’s insular background gives us a perspective on how certain modernizing innovations appear to his uninitiated eyes. There is a great juxtaposition, for example, of two new ways of thinking, both of which Wang Lung understands are presented as being life-changing. One is an incomplete and puzzling presentation of the gospel. Another is a series of urgent messages in favor of communist revolution. Both are discarded by him in favor of a desire to simply return to the land and to hard work for riches and prestige; ordinary things of this world.
I should say that these influences on Wang Lung early in the book also showcased wisdom on the part of the author. We come to understand, better than does the lead character, that the way of revolution was led by those who would rather agitate for radical change than to do the hard work and mindful living necessary to succeed personally. For those fellows the revolution would be a substitute for all that. That was not the way for Wang Lung, however. His way forward would be hard work and right living, though we see he wanders morally.
What else might the author be trying to say? She clearly doesn’t approve of the way girls and women were regarded, in pre-revolution China. It wasn’t obvious that this was a polemical feminist device, however. It seemed more like an accurate portrayal of culture in a particular class in a certain place and time. Nor was there a pro-Christian or pro-pagan or pro-communist or pro-anything-else message, to my mind. The author skillfully rendered an unfamiliar (to modern westerners) place and time, that’s all.
The delivery was consistent and not over-stated. I found myself comparing her writing style to Hemingway’s: dense and spare at the same time. The characters are deftly rendered, so much so that you willingly follow the protagonist through a season in which you just don’t like him much, due to his moral failings. Or what we would regard as moral failings, at any rate.
The good earth of the title is the desire for land and the living it provides. Wang Lung and O-Lan are entirely devoted to the land as their means of living but also as a self-identifier. You wonder if they would have self-identity at all, without the land to work. Throughout, they satisfy superstitious leanings by burning incense to gods of the earth, but these are demiurge household gods, more like pagan ancestor-gods. In fact Wang Lung feels free enough to repudiate them altogether, from time to time, depending on how well they seem to provide for him.
One way I imagine the impact of a book is to ask myself whether I’m a better person for having read it. As to this one: yes. Having finished living Wang Lung’s life alongside him, watching his false steps and triumphs and weaknesses and passions, I see him following a path that is not really of his own making. He puts one foot ahead of the other with only a few overarching principles to guide him: devotion to the land, prosperity, prestige. What about me? In what ways are my days hemmed in by the operating assumptions of daily life that I just can’t see, because I don’t live outside of it? Do I hoe the earth every day without looking up for the meaning of it all, like Wang Lung?