7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Classic tale of change in pre-revolutionary China,
This review is from: The Good Earth (Paperback)
I also came to Pearl Buck via Hilary Spurling's excellent biography, Burying The Bones: Pearl Buck in China, and for those interested in Buck's life and experiences in China, it makes for a perfect counterpart to this novel. The novel reading experience is enhanced, I think, by a more detailed knowledge of China at the time.
The Good Earth is, on the surface, a simple novel about simple people. A small cast of characters and the development of a family through several generations are revealed through the eyes of farmer Wang Lung. The earth of the title is the lifeblood of the farmer: "this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods.... Each had his turn at this earth." In times of flood and drought, the cyclical disasters that revisit Wang Lung, he is forced to give up everything and must even abandon his home and move his family south; but he will not relinquish his land. Bands of marauders may strip his home bare, yet the land is "that which cannot be taken away ... it is mine."
O-Lan is Wang Lung's wife, a servant purchased from a town family: the only bride a poor farmer could hope for. She is, to Wang Lung, a "faithful, speechless serving maid ... he was ashamed of his own curiosity and of his interest in her. She was, after all, only a woman." The reader will perceive her as a power of goodness, honesty and silent strength. She is thrifty, adept, and hard-working, hoeing the fields side by side with her husband, bearing her children alone, and never complaining. Together with their land, prudence and hard work, the couple raise a family and slowly become rich.
The material comfort that money brings the family is cold. As Wang Lung hires labourers to work on his fields, presiding as an overseer, and eventually rents out the land altogether, his disconnection with the land leaves a gap that can never be satiated, though he tries his hand at the pleasures of the rich. Able to send his children to school, he raises 2 fine male heirs, the oldest of whom, by marrying above his humble origins will always scorn and despise the land that made him.
The "peace" that Wang Lung is searching for in his life, and home, will never come. Though the natural disasters that affect those who work the land cease to trouble him, a wealth of other problems arrive to take their place, from war to familial disharmony. He has moments of satisfaction - happiness would be too strong a word - that come like sunshine and warm wine into his blood, but they are fleeting. Family tensions increase, exacerbated by rigid (Confucian) notions of honour, meaning that Wang Lung must house and feed his despised uncle, whose lazy wife and impudent son are equally poisonous presences.
Buck writes with a detached prose, and renders her characters sympathetic through observations made from a life lived among them; it works precisely because it is an insider's view written with an outsider's freedom. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and has been credited with creating a sea-change in American attitudes towards China at that time. It remains a work with huge relevance in a world where developing nations are experiencing an influx of wealth unparalleled, and unequal. How their societies will deal with this remains to be seen, but novels like The Good Earth inspire our empathy for the human face of these changes.