Saturday, November 20, 2010

Decades 2010 Challenge: The Good Earth



The difference between these two covers says it all. I was expecting the first book. What I found was the second one.

The lodestar of this novel is the intense love the main character, Wang Lung, feels for the land. This is not "the land" in the abstract but real, productive earth that absorbs Wang Lung's attention almost completely. The land is not only a means to prosperity, wealth and security, but a solid foundation, rich and beneficent, upon which to build a better life. Wang Lung's dedication and hard work take him through many hardships, from poor peasant to rich landowner, and his literal, visceral connection to the land sustains and motivates him. He would sooner sell a member of his family than the earth he loves.

Family ties are brutal in the culture of pre-revolutionary China where this novel is set. Life, particularly female life, is cheap in this world. During a famine, some of Wang Lung's uncle's numerous children disappear, while the remaining family members appear well-fed; whether the missing children were sold off or cannibalized is unclear. Wang Lung's wife O-lan strangles one of her babies at birth to avoid giving the impoverished family another mouth to feed. O-lan is a dull, homely, taciturn workhorse (the only wife Wang Lung could afford to buy) whose role in the family's success is never fully appreciated. Female destiny is sealed by physical appearance: tiny, pretty girls are valuable commodities, while large, ugly girls bring less money because they are only suitable as slaves or the wives of poor peasants. Wang Lung doesn't hesitate to buy himself a younger, ornamental concubine (more a pet than a partner) when he becomes prosperous, and to take up with an even younger slave to warm his bones in his old age. The status of women is a particularly difficult aspect of this story.

And yet, it's hard to see that anyone in this story has any real choices. Wang Lung is born poor and that means manual labor. Supporting a family means struggling along. When floods or famine come and the land does not produce, that means going to the city to beg for food, or steal it. Recovering and becoming wealthy means hard work and worry: about continuing to make money as you spend it, about how your sons will turn out, about whether your daughters-in-law will ever stop squabbling, about what will happen to the land after you're gone. Beyond the tale of one man's passion for the land, the reader can see the corrupting influence of wealth, the risky allure of urbanization, and the challenge of transmitting traditional values to the next generation.

Excerpt (Wang Lung is wealthy enough to hire laborers to work his land):

As he had been healed of his sickness of heart when he came from the southern city and comforted by the bitterness he had endured there, so now again Wang Lung was healed of his sickness of love by the good dark earth of his fields and he felt the moist soil on his feet and he smelled the earthy fragrance rising up out of the furrows he turned for the wheat. . . . [H]e himself took a hoe and broke up the soil into fine loamy stuff, soft as black sugar, and still dark with the wetness of the land upon it. This he did for the sheer joy he had in it and not for any necessity, and when he was weary he lay down upon his land and he slept and the health of the earth spread into his flesh and he was healed of his sickness.

8 comments:

  1. I have to confess, I put this one down. It was excruciating. Knew where it was going to go largely, and didn't feel like taking the ride.

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  2. Can't say that I blame you, Oreneta. Despite the universality of its themes, there's something about it that hasn't aged well.

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  3. What an interesting review. His intense love for the land, and the quote you provide is so meaningful. I can identify with the outdoors, with gardening, with the pursuit amidst nature which centers and balances my life.

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  4. I read this book back when I was a teenager. It was on my mother's bookshelf and had the top cover version. I was so drawn to that picture. I loved the story then; I found it moving and exotic. I wonder if I would now?

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  5. Paul C, Wang Lung's bond with the land is indeed intense. And he loves it for itself, somehow, not just for what it can do or give him. It's quite moving.

    Stephanie, I'm willing to bet you wouldn't have quite the same reaction now. It's hard to read it for itself without our modern values intruding to color the impression. Maybe you'd be wise not to revisit it.

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  6. I can't imagine living a life with no choices. I imagine it was a difficult read!

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  7. Yes, Modern Mom, it was more gloomy than uplifting, overall. Although Wang Lung's love of the land was redemptive, others in his family didn't feel that love, so their experience was quite different.

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  8. I felt Pearl Buck captured so well the stifling quality of living without choice. It is one of her important legacies, I think, that she could portray the vivid intensity of the eastern mind—for western readers. As hard as it is to read, I value this novel and Pearl Buck's deeply compassionate anthropology. Have you read the recent biography of Buck?

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