A Guide to Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth

Introduction

When her second novel, The Good Earth, was published in 1931, Pearl S. Buck (1892-1993) became famous throughout the world for her moving story of the joys and tragedies of the Chinese peasant farmer Wang Lung and his family. The novel was a best seller in the United States, and it was soon translated into more than thirty foreign languages; it has appeared in Chinese alone in at least seven different translations. The Good Earth was made into a Broadway play and a motion picture. For this book, Pearl Buck received the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and the William Dean Howells Medal for Distinguished Fiction in 1935. Her international reputation was established when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, primarily in recognition of her masterpiece novel, The Good Earth, and two biographies of her parents, The Exile and Fighting Angel, both published in 1936.

Though it may seem problematic to choose a book written by an American, rather than a work of authentic Chinese literature, to introduce American students to Chinese customs, there are several reasons for using The Good Earth. First, it is popular and many students read it anyway, so a critical discussion of it is important. Second, Chinese writers in the twentieth century have been primarily concerned with China's political fate and their works are often more didactic than realistic. Pearl Buck, on the other hand, was mainly committed to describing the Chinese people she knew and to presenting her American audience with the details of Chinese life, customs and attitudes. Pearl Buck's standpoint is finally that of an outsider who is particularly sensitive to aspects of Chinese life that are different from what Westerners are accustomed to. Therefore, she takes pains to record many details that a Chinese writer might take for granted. The Good Earth gives an accurate and well-informed depiction of traditional Chinese culture in the early twentieth century.

About Pearl S. Buck

The daughter of Absalom and Caroline Sydenstricker, Pearl Buck was born on June 26, 1892, in Hillsboro, West Virginia, while her parents were on leave from their missionary duties in China. But when she was only a few months old, her parents returned to China with Buck, and she lived in China until she was seventeen years old. Buck felt that she belonged to both cultures, American and Chinese. She always preferred Chinese food, and her first language was Chinese. However, the first language she learned to write was English, and in the mornings her mother tutored her in American subjects while her father read to her from the Bible at night and on Sundays. Yet in the afternoons Buck had a traditional Chinese tutor who taught her Chinese reading, writing, and Confucian principles. She also learned from her Chinese nurse, who told her Buddhist and Daoist stories and took Buck to worship in a local temple. Buck played with Chinese children and visited their homes.

When she was seventeen, Pearl Buck returned to the United States to attend Randolph-Macon Women's College (1910-1914). Soon after her return to China, she married John Lossing Buck, an American agricultural specialist employed by the Presbyterian Mission Board to teach American farming methods to the Chinese. While living with her husband in North China for several years, Pearl got to know the farm families there and carefully observed their lives. She spent the next ten years (1921-1931) living in Nanjing, a stay interrupted only for a year of study for the M.A. degree in English at Cornell while her daughter, who suffered from developmental disabilities due to a genetic disorder, received American medical treatment. The Chinese in Nanjing were much more influenced by Western ideas than the Northern farmers, and Pearl Buck began to write both essays and fiction about the young people's conflicts between old and new ways. Her first book, East Wind: West Wind, published in 1930, describes two marriages: a traditional girl named Kwei-lan is unhappy in her arranged marriage to a man who believes in modern Western practices; and Kwei-lan's brother defiantly marries an American girl in spite of his parents' objections. The Good Earth was published in 1931, and in 1935 republished as a one-volume trilogy entitled House of Earth, with its sequels Sons (1933), and A House Divided (1935).

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A Summary of The Good Earth

The story begins on the day of Wang Lung's wedding. Wang Lung is a poor young peasant who lives in an earthen brick house with his father, who has arranged for him to marry a slave girl named O-lan from the great family of the House of Hwang. After Wang Lung brings his quiet but diligent new wife home, she works side by side with him in the fields until their first child is born. They are delighted with their son, and at the New Year O-lan dresses him up and proudly takes him to the House of Hwang to show him off. She discovers that due to ostentatious waste and decadence, the Hwang household has squandered their fortune and is now poor enough to be willing to sell off their land. Since Wang Lung, with the help of O-lan who continues to join him in the fields, has had a relatively good year, he determines to extend his prosperity and better his position by buying some land from the House of Hwang. Although they must work harder with more land, Wang Lung and O-lan continue to produce good harvests; they also produce a second son and a daughter.

But soon Wang Lung encounters difficulties. His selfish and unprincipled uncle is jealous, and demands a portion of Wang Lung's new wealth, while Wang Lung, obsessed with his desire to acquire more land, spends all the family savings; a drought causes a poor harvest and the family suffers from lack of food and from their envious, starving neighbors' looting of the little dried beans and corn they have left. O-lan has to strangle their fourth child as soon as she is born because otherwise she would die of starvation. Desperately poor and hungry, Wang Lung sells his furniture for a bit of silver to take his family south, though he refuses to sell his land. They ride a firewagon to a southern city, where they live in a makeshift hut on the street. They survive by O-lan, the grandfather, and the children begging for food and Wang Lung pulling a jinrickshaw (or rickshaw) for the rich, or pulling wagonloads of cargo at night.

In the southern city, Wang Lung perceives the extraordinary wealth of westerners and Chinese aristocrats and capitalists, and he is interested in the revolutionaries' protests of the oppression of the poor. He watches soldiers seize innocent men and force them to carry equipment for their armies. Yet Wang Lung's overriding concern is to get back to his beloved land. He gets his chance when the enemy invades the city and the rich people flee; Wang Lung and O-lan join the throng of poor people who loot the nearby rich man's house and get enough gold and jewels to enable them to return north. They repair their house and plough the fields, having bought seeds, an ox, new furniture and farm tools, and finally more land from the bankrupt House of Hwang.

There follow seven years of prosperity, during which the sons grow and begin school; a third son is born with a twin sister, and the harvest is so plentiful that Wang Lung hires laborers and his loyal neighbor, Ching, as a steward. When a flood causes a general famine in the seventh year, Wang Lung is rich enough not to worry about survival yet, while his lands are under water, he becomes restless in his idleness. Bored with his plain and coarse wife, he ventures into a tea shop in town operated by a man from the south where the rich and idle spend their time drinking, gambling, and visiting prostitutes. There he begins an affair with Lotus, a delicately beautiful but manipulatively demanding courtesan whom he desires obsessively. Wang Lung is cruel to his wife and children and spends his fortune on Lotus, finally using up much of his savings to purchase her and build an adjacent courtyard for her to live in as his second wife. Here Lotus indolently lies around in silks, eating expensive delicacies, and gossiping with the deceitful and opportunistic wife of Wang Lung's uncle.

But discord arises immediately. O-lan is deeply hurt and angry, which makes Wang Lung defensively guilty and cold with her; there are conflicts between O-lan and Lotus' maid Cuckoo who had mistreated O-lan when she was a concubine of the old master in the House of Hwang. Wang Lung's old father protests the decadence of catering to a "harlot" in the house. Finally, Lotus is intolerant of Wang Lung's children, especially his favorite daughter who had become mentally disabled due to malnutrition during the famine. As a result, Wang Lung's passion for Lotus eventually cools, and when the flood recedes and he returns to his farming work, he is no longer obsessed with love.

In the last third of the book, Wang Lung experiences a succession of joys and sorrows in his family relationships and in his farming. Seasons of good harvests are punctuated by occasional bad years, due to a heavy flood, a severe winter freeze, and a scourge of locusts. Yet on the whole Wang Lung continues to prosper. His wealth, however, also brings a series of discontents. His first son is idle and interested only in women; Wang Lung is furious when he finds the son has visited first a local prostitute and then his own Lotus, so he arranges a marriage for him. Moreover, Wang Lung's good-for-nothing uncle, with his wife and son, force themselves on the family with their demands for money and their morally corrupting influence; Wang Lung must be kind to them because the uncle is a leader of a band of robbers, from which Wang Lung's prosperous household is protected for as long as he provides for the uncle. He eventually renders the uncle and his wife harmless by making them addicted to opium.

Family affairs continue to have ups and downs. O-lan's sickness finally overpowers her, and Wang Lung's tender solicitousness to her on her deathbed cannot fully compensate for the insults she received when Lotus moved into the house. She is content to die only after her first son's marriage is consummated, so she can expect a grandson. Wang Lung's father dies immediately after O-lan, and the faithful steward Ching is buried next. But these losses are accompanied by new joys: the first son produces grandsons and granddaughters, and the second son — a successful grain merchant — and the second daughter are also married and have children.

As Wang Lung ages, he rents out his farm land to tenants. His eldest son persuades him to buy the old estate of the House of Hwang in town, both as a means of moving out from the place where the disgraceful uncle and his wife live, and as a symbol of Wang Lung's elevated social position. Wang Lung is gratified that now he can take the place of the Old Master of Hwang who once intimidated him so much. But although Wang Lung is head of a three generation extended family who live in luxury with numerous servants, he cannot find peace. The two older brothers and their wives quarrel; the youngest son refuses to become a farmer as Wang Lung had intended and instead joins the army. The uncle's malicious son causes more trouble when he brings his military regiment to camp for six weeks in Wang Lung's elegant house. And Wang Lung, long tired of the aging Lotus, finds some comfort in taking the young slave Pear Blossom as his concubine.

Finally, Wang Lung returns to the earthen house of his land to die. Material prosperity has brought him superficial social satisfaction, but only his land can provide peace and security. Even his final days are troubled, when he overhears his two older sons planning to sell the land as soon as he dies.

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Discussion Questions

  1. Which characters represent decadence in the novel? What makes them decadent? Can they be reformed? How?
  2. Who are the good characters in the novel? What is the source of their virtue? Can they be corrupted? How?
  3. What does Wang Lung most believe in, and in what order would he rank these values: money, the gods, the land, the family, social status, the government, etc. How would you rank these values in your own life?

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