Book Review: The Good Earth

Book Name: The Good Earth
Author: Pearl S. Buck
First Published: 1931
Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1932

Born in 1892, Pearl Sydenstricker was the fourth of seven children to Southern Presbyterian missionaries Absalom and Caroline Sydenstricker. Her birth was at the end of their furlough in the United States and when Pearl was three months old, the family returned to China and it was there that the author would spend the majority of the first forty years of her life. The family lived in Zhenjiang, in Jiangsu province, and then in a small city lying at the junction of the Yangtze River and the Grand Canal. Her father was away from home most of the time, in search of new Christian converts, and her mother spent her time raising her children and ministering to the local Chinese women in a small dispensary that she had established.

In her memoir, Pearl S Buck recalled that she lived in “several worlds,” one was the “small, white, clean Presbyterian world of my parents,” and this was surrounded by the “big, loving, merry, not-too-clean, Chinese world.” There was little connection between these two cultures as she grew up. Pearl was taught western customs and English by her mother, classic Chinese by a hired tutor, and learned the local dialect from her Chinese friends. A few years later, Pearl was enrolled in a local western school and was dismayed by the attitudes of her fellow students, who could not speak Chinese and did not view the Chinese people as equals. This dismay would stay with her and influence much of her writing in later years. She took a fancy to the novels of Charles Dickens, which her father disapproved of, and included a reading of his novels once a year in addition to the other books she read.

When Pearl S. Buck was of college age, she returned to the United States and enrolled in Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia and graduated there in 1914. She had intended to remain in the United States, but was given word that her mother was ill and so returned to be with her in China. In 1915, Pearl met a young agricultural economist named John Lossing Buck and they married in 1917. The couple moved to an impoverished village in rural Anhui province. It was in this community that the author gathered the material that would later serve as the foundation research for her novel The Good Earth and other stories that she would write about Chinese culture.

Pearl and Lossing’s marriage was rocky from the start, but they remained together for eighteen years before divorcing. Their daughter Carol was born in 1921. The child was diagnosed with PKU and retarded. In addition, during Carol’s delivery, a uterine tumor was discovered in Pearl and she was forced to undergo a hysterectomy. Several years later, Pearl and Lossing would adopt a baby girl named Janice, but would continue to care for Carol as best they could.

From 1920 through 1933, Pearl and Lossing lived on the campus of Nanking University where both were teachers. When Pearl’s mother died, her father came to live with them. Tensions both inside their family and the outside world came to a head in 1927 during the “Nanking Incident” where a battle involving Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist troops, communist forces, assorted warlords and several westerners were murdered. The Buck family spent a chilling day in hiding until they were rescued by American gunboats. The Americans took them to Japan where they remained in safety until they were able to return to Nanking.

It was during this frenzied time that Pearl had begun to publish essays and short stories in magazines such as Nation, The Chinese Recorder, Asia, and Atlantic Monthly. In 1931, her second novel, The Good Earth, would be published by the John Day Company. It would become a best-selling novel, win the Pulitzer Prize and Howells Medal in 1935, be adapted as a major MGM film starring Paul Muni and Luise Rainer in 1937, and be instrumental in her gaining the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was the first American woman to claim that honor.

As Pearl’s first marriage crumbled and the circumstances in China deteriorated, she decided to return to the United States on a permanent basis. She was now married to Richard Walsh, the editor that handled her books at the John Day Company, and she wanted to be closer to him and to her daughter Carol, whom had been placed in an New Jersey institution. Pearl and Richard bought an old farmhouse called Green Hills Farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The couple adopted six children together. Pearl founded “Welcome House”, the first international, inter-racial adoption agency that helped Amerasian children who would otherwise not be eligible for adoption. She also established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation which helps children in Asian countries. Pearl S. Buck lived to be 81 years of age and is buried at Green Hills Farm.

The Good Earth begins when Chinese Farmer Wang Lung walks to the noble house of Hwang in a nearby town to procure the slave that his father has arranged to be his wife. He arrives with peaches as a wedding gift and buys a little pork for their meager wedding feast. O-Lan proves to be a supportive and hardworking wife, joining Wang Lung out in the fields, and providing him with sons and a daughter. While they are poor, the couple is content. They work hard on their farm and slowly, Wang Lung earns enough to be able to buy some of the land from the House of Hwang. The desire to own land is the one thing that sets Wang Lung apart from the other farmers. Part of this desire is from pride, but he also realizes that owning good farm land is key to his providing the necessary cushion to keep himself and his family from starvation during lean years. As a man, he loves working his crops and bringing them to harvest and this fierce love of the land is the one constant in his life.

A famine comes and wipes out everything that they have. Wang Lung and his family must flee to the south in order to find food. He sells everything that he has left except for his land and house. In the southern city, O-Lan and the children beg and Wang Lung pulls a rickshaw. While they do not stave, they remain in poverty, and have little hope of returning to their house and farm. Wang Lung also lives in fear of being conscripted into the army. During this time his eldest daughter becomes mentally handicapped as a result of severe malnutrition. Wang Lung calls her his “little fool”. Their second daughter is born and she is killed to spare her the misery of living in hardship. This allows the resources they have to help the others survive.

When food riots break out in the city, Wang Lung joins a mob that loots a rich man’s house. He confronts the owner of the home and the man offers him all his money in exchange for mercy. At the same time, O-lan finds jewels in another house and hides them on her person. The money that Wang Lung is given is enough to take his family back home to the farm. He is able to buy a new ox, farm tools and a few workers to help him on the land. Later, O-lan confesses to the possession of the jewels, and Wang Lung takes them from her, except for a pair of seed pearls that she coveted. With the money from the jewels, Wang Lung buys all of the land of the House of Hwang.

Wang Lung now is a prosperous man, but while his income is secure, inter-family problems begin to surface and take him away from his former work ethic and honesty. His sons, who he worked hard to send to school, now do not wish to work the land. Wang Lung himself suffers a mid-life crisis. He falls for a younger woman named Lotus and takes her on as a mistress. He ignores the wife that stood by him during the hard times, calling her plain. One day, he removes the pair of seed pearls that O-Lan had asked to keep and makes them into earrings for his mistress. This breaks his wife’s heart and she sickens with illness and eventually dies. Only when she is gone does Wang Lung realize what she means to him.

As an old man, Wang Lung seeks to find peace. His first and second sons are constantly arguing, and their wives do not get along. They talk about selling the land and do not have the same values as their father. Wang Lung’s third son runs away to join the army. There is no one left but his “little fool” and the land. The old man tries to warn his sons that to lose the land is to lose everything. They assure him that they will never sell the farm, but over his head they smile knowingly at each other.

The Good Earth works on many levels. It is a depiction of a culture that little was known of when the book was first published, showing how these people chose to live without making comments or passing judgment on their customs, such as selling girls into slavery or binding their feet which we would find horrifying today. Instead Buck portrays what happens as the way these people live and lets the facts speak for themselves. The story also works as a family drama with all the interpersonal relationships and the cyclic nature of their rags to riches story. Despite that the novel is set in a time and place that is foreign to many of us in the modern world, the characters are real and are easy to relate to, even with the cultural differences. Wang Lung is not all that different from any modern American farmer, except he walks to the local tea house to shoot the breeze instead of driving his truck to the local bar in Oklahoma. This classic novel is one of my personal favorites and I highly recommend adding it to your reading list.

The Good Earth Book CoverThe House of Earth Series:

The Good Earth (1931)
Sons (1932)
A House Divided (1935)

8 thoughts on “Book Review: The Good Earth”

  1. This sounds like a remarkable book. I love the post. Well done. I watch many foreign films and find the films made in China are breathtakingly beautiful. Reading this post made a movie play out for me. I have added this to my ‘to read’ list. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I finally read it this year also, after finishing a fictional tale based off of Pearl’s life growing up in China by Anchee Min called “Pearl of China: A Novel.” It was heartbreaking and lovely. I need to read more of her work!

    1. I think that The Good Earth was on the Oprah Winfrey book club list around a year ago, so the book is getting a second look these days. I haven’t read the book on the author’s life, but based on what I’ve read in her biographies, much of what happened in The Good Earth is based on personal experience. I will have to look up Pearl of China. Looks interesting. :)

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