Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth snagged the Pulitzer in 1932, one year after it was published. While the win is well-deserved (the novel is impossible to put down), The Good Earth is lacking in places. I’m stating up front that I’m rating it 4.5 (out of 5), because some of this review will sound harsh.
I procrastinated with this review, because I was at a loss to describe how I ever became so invested in such flat characters whose struggles were portrayed via bland language. Perhaps Buck stumbled into a foolproof story that could not be derailed by errors in execution. ‘Errors’ is a strong word. The writing is clear (if repetitive) and the characters are compelling (if cardboard). Note: you do not need a prior understanding of Chinese history (though it couldn’t hurt) as the novel provides ample context to understand differences between urban and rural areas in China. There are no clear dates for the novel’s events, but it is assumed that the uprising in the South is the 1911 Revolution in Shanghai.
The Good Earth follows Wang Lung from his marriage until he is near death. When he meets his bride, O-lan, on their wedding day in the opulent House of Hwang where she was a slave, he is sorry to see her feet are unbound. Despite her homeliness and slow speech, she proves her worth by running his house, caring for his aged father, and working alongside him in the field. She delivers their first child herself (and alone) after a morning in the fields. Wang Lung remains at work, and when he returns home to see O-lan and their child:
When he reached the house he found his supper hot on the table and the old man eating. She had stopped in her labor to prepare them food! He said to himself that she was a woman such as is not commonly found. (36)
Through their shared efforts, they make modest improvements to their life and this attracts the jealous eye of Wang Lung’s uncle. While O-lan is diligent, uncomplaining, and approaches an absurd sainthood, Wang Lung’s uncle is lazy, wasteful, and cruel without a redemptive feature. Adding to his faceless villainy is the fact that he is unnamed. Few family members, apart from Wang Lung and O-lan, are referred to by name. Their children are called “first son” and “second son” — their wives become “wife of first son” and “wife of second son”. Wang Lung sees little in his sons beyond their markers as “first” and “second” that designate their places in his family, and their roles in society.
The novel’s limited vocabulary further limits characterizations. Buck’s favorite adjective is “good” and she uses it when food is good, clothes are good, earth is good… everything is “good” unless it is lacking. I know what Buck is trying to communicate and in some ways, “good” /is/ the ideal word. She has found the most neutral of positive words and uses it to describe things that are common and plain. Wang Lung and O-lan, for as hard as they work, are incredibly poor at the novel’s outset. That their food and clothing is “good” means that it checks in at the bare minimum to accomplish its function. As Wang Lung’s wealth fluctuates, the writing does open up, but not as much as I hoped it might. Things are still “good”, but they earn a more emphatic “good” through context.
The surrounding characters do not develop as people, they only become more established in their designated roles: the hard worker, the concubine, the drunk, the villain, and so on. How can you feel joy/worry/suspense in their stories if there is no question how they will handle any given situation? The only surprise I felt towards them was the surprise that they truly were so very rigid. Wang Lung is the only wild card, and even he is not terribly wild.
This is all so bad, really: generic characters, repetitive writing… I’ve ranted here over less and I still can’t justify giving this book less than a 4.5 (out of five). Have I gone soft in my time away? You must read this book. It’s impossible to put down. To hell with the predictability of the supporting cast!–you will still want to see events unfold, you will still want to see Wang Lung’s reactions. This book kept me up until 3am, because I read it in a single sitting. Then it kept my husband up late, then a friend of mine, and so on.
There is something about seeing two hardworking people struggling to climb up the social ladder while beset by changing times/ideals that is unbelievably compelling. The intensity of the first part of the book, when everything seems to run smoothly, is the fear that their life will crumble. When things fall to pieces, you’ll be kept up late wondering how this poor family will crawl from their desperate circumstances. Oh, and there is a section of the book during which you will want to smack Wang Lung upside the head with a 2×4 (you’ll know it when you see it–trust me).
Despite limits in the writing, Wang Lung and O-lan do develop personalities. They work so hard, it is impossible not to cheer for them. They do everything they can to scrape by and provide for their family and name, but there is fear at the edge of every success:
A slow smile spread over her face and Wang Lung laughed aloud and he held the child tenderly against him. How well he had done—how well he had done! And then as he exulted he was smitten with fear. What foolish thing was he doing, walking like this under an open sky, with a beautiful man child for any evil spirit passing by chance through the air to see! He opened his coat hastily and thrust the child’s head into his bosom and he said in a loud voice,
‘What a pity our child is a female whom no one could want and covered with smallpox as well! Let us pray it may die.’
‘Yes–yes–‘ said his wife as quickly as she could, understanding dimly what a thing they had done.’ (51)
Overall: 4.5 (out of 5).
Translation: Read it.