September 1, 2009

1932 - The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck


Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth takes place in a small village of China immediately before the Chinese Civil War. There were a few foreigners in the book, although they were not identified as American. Throughout the book I half expected the characters to leave and head to America, but this never occurred. This makes the book a curious choice for the Pulitzer Prize, as it does not directly address the requirement of representing the “wholesome atmosphere of American life” mentioned in my Arrowsmith essay.

The novel’s theme of money leading to corruption and destructive idleness could be equated to the risks of the American dream, but this idea is too universal. History is riddled with examples of a nation or a person losing their influence through such idleness. The only varying detail is whether it was their corruption or another’s that led to their downfall. The story of power's ruinous effect is one of the oldest and most repetitious of mankind.

Pearl S. Buck deals with the corruption of the existing social structure and the structure that would form following the civil war. Perhaps in 1931, the novel could have been seen as a portrait of Chinese culture. If read narrowly, the book could be seen as a condemnation of the roots of Communism. Maybe it was Buck’s understanding and sympathy with the poor farmer that elevated her book to the Pulitzer Prize Board’s standard of excellence.

America has a love of the farmer and a disdain for the leisurely rich, so conceivably, these themes helped the book win the award. Likely it was only because Pearl S. Buck was an American and the book was a success.

As with most Pulitzer Prize winners, a film was made from the novel. Despite the initial wishes of the director, no Chinese actors were used (due to the discriminating culture of Hollywood at the time). Instead, the American actors wore make-up to make them appear Chinese. The ending was also changed to include reconciliation and forgiveness, which was absent in the book.

A movie in 1937 with white actors made-up to appear a different race and an alternative happy ending seems to me to be more characteristically American than the novel. The movie won several Academy Awards, but is probably not as satisfying as the novel. Buck’s simple tale has enough moral ambiguity that the real world is truthfully represented, where the film was likely just passable entertainment.

Plot Summary

Wang Lung lived and worked on the family farm with his father. The farm had been in his family for countless generations. The land was always treasured, although never more than by Wang Lung.

His father purchased the slave of a wealthy family to be Wang Lung's wife. O-lan, the woman, was very adept at the many tasks of a farm, but she lacked any physical beauty. When pregnant with their first child, she continued to work the fields with Wang Lung, up to the minute of birth. She locked herself in her room until the child was delivered, exiting only once she and the child were clean.

Wang Lung had always put any money he earned back into the land, but only with the arrival of his first child did he begin to see the potential value and power of wealth.
Wang Lung sat smoking, thinking of the silver as it had lain upon the table. It had come out of the earth, this silver, out of his earth that he ploughed and turned and spent himself upon. He took his life from this earth; drop by drop by his sweat he wrung food from it and from the food, silver. Each time before this that he had taken the silver out to give to anyone, it had been like taking a piece of his life and giving it to someone carelessly. But now for the first time such giving was not pain. He saw, not the silver in the alien hand of a merchant in the town; he saw the silver transmuted into something worth even more than itself – clothes upon the body of his son. And this strange woman of his, who worked about, saying nothing, seemed to see nothing. She had first seen the child thus clothed!
Wang Lung and O-lan conceived four more children, including several daughters. At first Wang Lung took the birth of the girls as a sign of bad luck. Only over time did he grow to cherish them (perhaps more than his sons).

Bad luck eventually did come, first reaching the great house from which O-lan was purchased. The house was in such want (for opium) that Wang Lung purchased a portion of their good land at a cheap price. The profits from both fields allowed Wang Lung to easily provide for his ever-growing family.

The bad luck spread to the farmers when the rain they expected and relied upon did not come. The people of the town were starved and nourished themselves on everything from stray animals to insects to tree bark. Soil was eaten to feign a digestible mass in the stomach.

Wang Lung and his family were robbed by bandits, including his uncle, who did not know their wealth had been nearly exhausted on the now arid land. Without money or food, Wang Lung took his family to a distant city, where death was not a guarantee, as it was on his farm.

Wang Lung spent his last pieces of silver purchasing a train ticket for his family, who would not have survived the walk south.

In the city, Wang Lung and his family were able to survive. Rice was sold cheaply by several of the philanthropic great houses. O-lan assembled a small shelter using mats propped against a wall. While his father, wife, and children begged (and stole), Wang Lung pulled a jinrikisha around town, learning the streets and witnessing the uneasy political climate of the city.

His neighbors often spoke of what was to happen in China, although Wang Lung did not understand it.
He saw nothing of the way which the man spoke when he said, "There is a way, when the rich are too rich."
One of the few times Wang Lung attempted to challenge one of the street speakers, the conversation was turned against him.
"Sir, is there any way whereby the rich who oppress us can make it rain so that I can work on the land?"At this the young man turned on him with scorn and replied, "Now how ignorant you are, you who still wear your hair in a long tail! No one can make it rain when it will not, but what has this to do with us? If the rich would share with us what they have, rain or not would matter none, because we would all have money and food."
Even if unaware of the greater meaning, Wang Lung and O-lan participated in the beginnings of the civil war. One night there was a commotion in the great house their shelters were propped against. Wang Lung went to investigate, although O-lan silently knew what was occurring. People had gathered and were looting the house. Wang Lung and O-lan were swept up in the crowd until Wang Lung was finally able to escape, coming upon a terrified resident. Wang Lung used the resident’s fear to extract several pieces of gold from him. O-lan, knowing her way around a great house, recognized the meaning of a loose brick, and quickly and secretly took the hidden jewels inside. With this ill-gotten money they were able to travel back to the farm, purchase more land, and firmly establish their family’s wealth.

Wang Lung grew confident through his money and sent his oldest sons to a town school. He bought land from his starving neighbors, and then rented it land back to them. He hired many people from the town to work on his ever growing property.

Wang Lung could also to afford to let his sinister uncle and family stay on the land. The addition of his uncle was a duty to his family and also a form of protection, as his uncle belonged to a group of feared bandits. As long as his uncle was present, the land and house would not be plundered. His uncle caused Wang Lung so much grief and worry that a solution was devised by Wang Lung and his eldest son. His uncle and aunt were offered as much free opium as they desired. They were quickly devoured by the addiction. The successful bribe left them sickly, idle, and placid until the end of their days.

Wang Lung’s wealth also led him to believe he should dine at finer restaurants, which included a tea shop in town. At the tea shop were paintings of beautiful women. When he found out they were real women, he was astounded. He did not believe such women could exist. Not only were the women real, but they could be paid for. The price was not above Wang Lung's means, and he was soon visiting the tea shop to visit one particular woman named Lotus regularly. However, this luxury did not bring him any sort of lasting joy.
Now Wang Lung became sick with the sickness which greater than any a man can have. He suffered under labor in the sun and he suffered under the dry icy winds of the bitter desert and he suffered from the despair of laboring without hope upon the streets of a southern city. But under none of these did he suffer as he now did under this slight girl’s hand.

Every day he went to the tea shop; every evening he waited until she would receive him, and every night he went in to her. Each night he went in and each night again he was the country fellow who knew nothing, trembling at the door, sitting stiffly beside her, waiting for her signal of laughter, and then fevered, filled with a sickening hunger, he followed slavishly, bit by bit, her unfolding, until the moment of crisis, when, like a flower that is ripe for plucking, she was willing that he should grasp her wholly.

Yet he could never grasp her wholly, and this it was which kept him fevered and thirsty, even if she gave him his will of her. When O-lan had come to his house it was health to his flesh and he lusted for her robustly as a beast for its mate and he took her and was satisfied and he forgot her and did his work content. But there was no such content now in his love for this girl, and there was no health in her for him. At night when she would have no more of him, pushing him out of the door petulantly, with her small hands suddenly strong on his shoulders, his silver thrust into her bosom, he went away hungry as he came. It was as though a man, dying of thirst, drank the salt water of the sea which, though it is water, yet dries his blood into thirst and yet greater thirst so that in the end he dies, maddened by his very drinking. He went into her and he had his will of her again and again and he came away unsatisfied.
Wang Lung found a solution for his dissatisfaction. He purchased Lotus from the tea shop and built an addition on his house for her. O-lan was devastated by this, as the mother of Wang Lung’s children, his loyal wife, and a plain woman.

Not long after, O-lan fell ill and knew she was to die. Her only wish was to see her second son be wed, which she was able to. Otherwise, she passed in confusion and sadness.

With the passing of O-lan, Wang Lung and his family moved into the great house in town. They did not own the house, but rented it from the original family. The farm was left to be managed by the townspeople who Wang Lung trusted.

None of Wang Lung’s children were taught to farm. He felt that his high position was above this obligation. His oldest son was highly educated, but did not have any discernible or marketable skill. His days were passed spending his father’s money to make their house match the glory of the previous great house. His second son was trained as a merchant and was the only one of Wang Lung’s children to have a sustainable career. One daughter was married off to another successful family, and was not heard from again. The other daughter, whom Wang Lung referred to as his “Poor Fool,” only sat about, smiling and twisting a piece of cloth. The youngest son was always brooding and angry.

When the aging Wang Lung questioned his youngest son about his temperament, the boy spoke passionately of war and was irritated at his family’s idle wealth.
"There is to be a war such as we have never heard of –there is to be a revolution and fighting and war such as never was, and our land is to be free!"
Wang Lung did not understand him, as he still considered himself only a land owner, whose land was freely passed down through the generations.

Wang Lung aged as his father did, understanding less and less of the growing complexities of the world. His only thoughts were of his land.

The novel ends with Wang Lung overhearing his sons discussing the finances of the family. They were considering selling the land (their only source of income) to maintain their wealth.
The old man heard only these words, "sell the land," and he cried out and he could not keep his voice from breaking and trembling with anger,

"Now, evil, idle sons –sell the land!"
Notable Characters

Wang Lung’s wife O-lan was unendingly loyal and useful to him. Her introduction at the great house summarizes her unchanging character.
"This woman came into our house when she was a child of ten and here she has lived until now, when she is twenty years old. I bought her in a year of famine when her parents came south because they had nothing to eat. They were from the north in Shantung and there they returned, and I know nothing further of them. You see she has the strong body and the square cheeks of her kind. She will work well for you in the field and drawing water and all else that you wish. She is not beautiful but that you do not need. Only men of leisure have the need for beautiful women to divert them. Neither is she clever. But she does well what she is told and she has a good temper. So far as I know she is virgin. She has not beauty enough to tempt my sons and grandsons even if she had not been in the kitchen. If there has been anything it has been only a serving man. But with the innumerable and petty slaves running freely about the courts, I doubt if there has been anyone. Take her and use her well. She is a good slave, although somewhat slow and stupid, and had I not wished to acquire merit at the temple for my future existence by bringing more life into the world I should have kept her, for she is good enough for the kitchen. But I marry my slaves off if any will have them and the lords do not want them."
While O-lan excelled in usefulness, she completely lacked in beauty. This went unnoticed by Wang Lung until his infatuation with Lotus began.
And it seemed to Wang Lung that he looked upon O-lan for the first time in his life and he saw for the first time that she was a woman whom no man could call other than she was, a dull and common creature, who plodded in silence without thought of how she appeared to others. He saw for the first time that her hair was rough and brown and unoiled and that her face was large and flat and course-skinned, and her features too large altogether and without any sort of beauty or light. Her eyebrows were scattered and the hairs too few, and her lips were too wide, and her hands and feet were large and spreading.
Wang Lung only noticed O-lan's feet because Lotus’s feet were bound. O-lan was able to work in the fields, prepare meals in the kitchen, and look after her children because of her unbound feet. When Lotus grew older and fatter she could only move about with a pronounced waddle. Lotus also never conceived for Wang Lung, where O-lan provided five children for him, including 3 sons. However, even at her death, Wang Lung could only act out of duty towards O-lan.
When he took this stiff dying hand he did not love it, and even his pity was spoiled with repulsion towards it.
When O-lan found the jewels in the great house, she piteously begged Wang Lung that she may keep two of the pearls she found. Wang Lung was surprised at this, but he allowed her to keep the pearls, which were well hidden on her person.

O-lan never explained why she treasured the pearls. Her begging of Wang Lung was that of a child pleading to a parent for a needless treasure. She was raised a slave, and as a wife to a wealthy land owner she was still without property, much less anything beautiful. The pearls were a desire for a beautiful ownership, and a grasp of personal freedom. She, who never had anything in her entire life, wanted to have beauty, even if to just hold.

When Wang Lung began his tryst with Lotus, he callously demanded the pearls of her. Lotus made them into a set of earrings (one among many), never knowing or appreciating their true value.

In the film version, Wang Lung returns the pearls to O-lan on her deathbed and the two are reconciled. In the novel, his taking of her pearls is his largest regret.

O-lan dies a cheated woman. Whatever childhood she could have had was taken away when her parents sold her to slavery. Whatever joy as a wife and mother she could have was taken away by Lotus. She remained loyal to Wang Lung, but in the last of her life she was deeply wounded by losing the few joys she was permitted.

Favorite Passages

The Cultural Revolution of China was still 40 years away, but the overthrow of the corrupt wealthy was foreshadowed in the novel. This passage briefly tells of the reliance of the poor on the rich, the rich’s thoughtless abuse of the poor, and the poor’s satisfied sense of justice when the rich were punished.
The river to the north burst its dykes, its furthermost dykes first, and when men saw what had happened, they hurried from this place to that to collect money to mend it, and every man gave as he was able, for it was to the interest of each to keep the river within its bounds. The money they entrusted, then, to the magistrate in the district, a man new and just come. Now this magistrate was a poor man and had not seen so much money in his lifetime before, being only newly risen to his position through the bounty of his father, who had put all the money he had and could borrow to buy this place for his son, so that from it the family might acquire some wealth. When the river burst again the people went howling and clamoring to the magistrate’s house, because he had not done what he promised and mended the dykes, and he ran and hid himself because the money he had spent in his own house, even three thousand pieces of silver. And the common people burst into his house howling and demanding his life for what he had done, and when he saw he would be killed he ran and jumped into the water and drowned himself, and thus the people were appeased.
The Chinese Civil War and Cultural Revolution are alluded to but never realized in the novel. "The way when the rich become too rich" never comes to be on a grand scale. Small incidents, such as the one above and the robbery of the great house, portray a poor class beyond hope or reason. Their empty stomachs drove them to petty and life-sustaining robbery, but the arrogant injustice of the rich drove them to pine for murder.

Wang Lung began as the men in the above quote, but increased his affluence so that he was not unlike the ignorant magistrate’s father, and his sons as the greedy and crooked magistrate.


During his work using the jinrikisha, Wang Lung was given a Christian tract, depicting a crucified Jesus. Unable to read it, he was terrified at the image and his neighbors could offer no assistance. This scene could be contrasted to the moving scene of Amistad, where the prisoners figure out the Easter story by flipping through a pictorial version of the Bible. The missionary in China must have been unaware of the low literacy rates amongst the poor. It also may have helped to include more than one picture.

The novel often used asides, such as the magistrate’s death or the ineffective missionary, to portray subtle themes of cultural details and the rising revolution in China. The primary plot, involving Wang Lung, represented the larger, more universal theme, of corrupting wealth.

When Wang Lung’s sons were attending school they were given names which were rooted in “whose wealth is from the earth.” Although his wealth was expanded through the earth, the initial investment was stolen. Wang Lung had always tried to remain honest, up until the point when he faced a pleading and desperate resident at the great house in the city. He had chided his children for stealing corn from carts, and now he was in a position to take much more than survival rations. His family may have survived in the city, but it is doubtful they would have made enough money to return to his land.

The seeds of his wealth were not sewn in the earth. His stolen prosperity altered him. His position caused discontent, and he spent the remainder of his life searching for peace. This peace never came and restlessness only escalated. The troubles of wanting Lotus, providing for his uncle, and placating his emotional and idle sons only grew more complex.

The peace Wang Lung desired was the simplicity of a farmer. A farmer did not have time to grow restless or greedy. When Wang Lung was a poor farmer, his uncle did not trouble him. It was clear that there was only enough to provide for his immediate family. Only Wang Lung’s father did not work on the land. He enjoyed his earned retirement, demanding only hot water to soothe his morning coughs. As soon as the jewels were stolen, Wang Lung and his family entered an unearned retirement.

There was no peace for Wang Lung because honesty and justice were so quickly discarded. If his wealth had been obtained over time, he may not have lost his moral standing. The initial purchase of the small tract of land from the great house is an example of this gradual, non-corrupting growth. His swift and dishonest rise led to him abusing his neighbors, neglecting his wife, spoiling his children, and securing his family’s ruin by passing on few survival skills.

If Wang Lung were wise or thoughtful, then his corruption may have been avoided. O-lan was likely the wisest character in the novel. She was the one to secure the diamonds to help her family escape from the stagnant poverty of the city. However, even in riches her work never ceased. Wang Lung would occasionally work the fields and briefly discover the peace of his old life. This peace could not last, however, since the dishonest and demanding life he had built for himself could not be avoided.

In trying to improve his societal position, Wang Lung unknowingly lost the simple peace in his life and his family’s future life. He did not know the importance of such peace until he had irretrievably discarded it.

Coming up next - 1944 A Bell for Adano by John Hersey