This is a few days late, but here we go: as my reading binge continues, I have finally finished Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. Now, as far as classics go, The Good Earth is up there with The Scarlet Letter and The Grapes of Wrath as required reading for nearly every American high school student. It seems that with any world history or literature class, Buck’s story of pre-revolutionary China is high on the reading list. And why not: it’s easy to read, its metaphors are relatively simple (spoiler alert: the “earth” is a major player), and its historical significance is clear from the get-go. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make it a literary masterpiece and I was mildly disappointed upon finally finishing it.
As many of you probably already know, The Good Earth is the story of Wang Lung, a simple farmer who loves his land. After marrying an ugly but hardworking woman, Olan, he sets to work shaping his destiny around the earth. During the course of the novel, Wang Lung’s family goes through hard times (drought, starvation, near-destitution) and really good times, but everything revolves around his relationship with his land. Even when his family is driven to beg in the streets after a drought wipes out their crops, Wang Lung refuses to sell his land in the hopes that one day he’ll return. And it is the land that earns him his riches later in life, making him one of the most successful, important men in town. Like I said, you can’t miss the metaphors. In this respect, Wang Lung and his story is somewhat inspiring; if anything, Wang Lung is determined and he works hard. His meager existence can make anyone feel better about their own lives, and his success can convince anyone that with enough hard work, anything is possible.
The historical and political significance of the story is hard to miss as well, and is paramount to Buck’s message. Wang Lung earns his riches by working his own land. In pre-revolutionary China, this was the norm. But communism severely endangered, if not eradicated, this type of lifestyle and it’s clear that Buck is mourning its passing. The next generation is clearly lacking the self-determination that defines Wang Lung’s life, and as Wang Lung nears the end of his own life, he overhears his sons’ plans to sell the land. There are hints at the communism revolution occurring many miles away-Wang Lung admits he was simply too busy to pay much attention to it-and it’s clear things will soon change.
Of course, I recognized this message almost immediately (it helps that I read the lengthy introduction to my copy). Unfortunately, I couldn’t muster up much sympathy for it. I mean, communism and China are a big deal. I get that. But novels that are purely political tend to go in one ear, and immediately out the other. I need more than politics for my taste, I need human drama. Of course, some of the best political novels interweave politics and humanity so skillfully you forget what you’re reading.
The Good Earth did not do this for me, and I blame Wang Lung. Yes, he worked really hard at creating a life for himself and family. But he had his chance to cultivate his relationship with Olan, and Buck had a similar chance to lend this relationship some narrative depth; in my opinion, each failed at their respective efforts. This could probably be up for debate–on one hand, one could argue that relationships between men and women during pre-revolutionary China were so different from modern conceptions of marriage, it’s impossible to compare the two. For goodness sake, little girls are called “slaves” by their own families. But I just can’t help but feel that Wang Lung lost any and all of my sympathy and respect because of his treatment of Olan. I mean, this woman is dedicated. Olan works in the fields alongside Wang Lung, silently taking care of him and his aging father. She gives birth in a room by herself, squatting over a tub to catch the blood, then drags herself and the child back to bed. At one point, she works in the fields pregnant, starts going into labor, goes inside and gives birth by herself, and then returns to the fields later that day. Wang Lung is appreciative of Olan’s efforts, and definitely respects her in his own way. But no matter what she does, he can’t get over her physical appearance. When he starts making a little money, he becomes restless and starts patronizing a tea house (where the women live right upstairs). When he falls in love with one of the concubines and brings her home as his second wife, I became incensed. In his callousness, he even takes the only two nice things Olan ever asked for–two pearls she keeps between her breasts–to make earrings for his new mistress. It’s disgusting, and after that, I couldn’t forgive Wang Lung. When Olan finally passes away, Wang Lung’s mistreatment of her somewhat catches up with him, and he seems to exhibit some remorse. But I didn’t feel like his attentive bedside manner and one brief crying stint was enough to make up for how he treated her during their life together.
The last third of the novel occurs after Olan’s death, and while it’s necessary in order to track the rest of Wang Lung’s life, I felt it lacked the “earthiness” of the early two-thirds, when Olan was present. It was also here that I felt the metaphor deviated a bit. As an earlier example, Wang Lung has his affair during a summer when a flood covers most of his fields, making work impossible. He’s idle and bored, and so is distracted by “love.” When the waters recede, he stops acting like a jerk and is happy to start working again. This all makes sense. Now, I would think that since Olan was associated so closely with the earth, when she dies Wang Lung’s success would begin to wane. Buck describes the complete opposite. Wang Lung becomes more successful than ever, even moving into the great house in town. Like I said, this argument is up to debate. One could say that once Olan died, Wang Lung separated himself from his land and his priorities. He becomes idle, and so when his cosmopolitan sons discuss selling the land at the end, one could say Wang Lung got his just desserts. But I was so angry at Wang Lung for his treatment of Olan, I wanted to see him suffer. I wanted his decline to be more than metaphoric–I wanted him and his bratty sons to physically realize it. After all, how can we mourn the loss of the individualistic lifestyle when cosmopolitanism and the incringing political movement seems to win in the end?