The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck

goodearth-collageMy path to The Good Earth by the Nobel prize winner Pearl S Buck was one I almost did not take. I had asked two colleagues in Korea to suggest local authors. Their first choice sounded appealing –  it was a best seller called Please Look After Mom (click on the title to see my review).  I was less enthused by their second recommendation – The Good Earth – because it was set in China not Korea and was written by an American author.  My preference is to read native authors wherever possible but I was heartened subsequently to learn that Pearl S Buck was in fact very familiar with China’s rural life and traditions having spent much of her early life there as the daughter of missionaries.

My reservations about The Good Earth didn’t last for long. Right from chapter one I was hooked by this novel about the rising/falling fortunes of two families: the peasant farmer Wang Lung and his wife O-lan and the rich, wealthy House of Hwang headed by The Old Lord and the Old Mistress.

The book opens on Wang Lung’s wedding day and then charts their progress through successive years during which time their family grows, they enjoy plentiful harvests and manage to become landowners only to see it all disappear -and then astonishingly they get it back many times over.  Meanwhile the rich Hwangs, for whom O-lan once worked as a house servant, go through a reverse experience because of the Old Lord’s penchant for multiple concubines and his wife’s addiction to opium. Their fortunes dwindle to the point they can no longer remain in their large house with its lavish furnishings. Wang Lung seizes the opportunity to make his mark on local society and becomes the new owner.
It’s a story that has so many twists and turns it feels like a soap opera at times. What sustained my interest was Pearl Buck’s portrait of Wang Lung and his deeply rooted believe in the beneficial power of the earth.

He took his life from this earth; drop by drop by his sweat he wrung food from it and from the food, silver.

He enjoys the wealth his toil brings not simply because it brings peace of mind because he can now feed and sustain his family but as time goes on it brings him a new status in his community. “… everyone knew now that Wang Lung owned this land and in his village there was talk of making him the head.”

china-peasantBut of course such pride makes his fall even more acutely felt. When the harvests fail, when every grain of rice and wheat has been eaten and the ox killed for food and when he has used every coin he possesses, there is no other path open than to go south. Either he has to see his family die or he has to give up the land and find work and food in a more wealthy province.  to the city to try and find a new life.  There they are reduced to living in a makeshift hut while Wang Lung pulls a rickshaw, earning barely enough to buy rice for the next day. He gets a break and obtains enough money to take his family back to their native land where he begins to rebuild his life, so successfully he becomes one of the wealthiest men in the locality.

At times Wang Lung seems to feel the earth has mystical powers – early on in his married life in fact he erects two crude figures on his plot of land to which he regularly pays homage. Throughout the novel, the land is the “good earth”; providing Wang Lung, with physical, emotional and spiritual nourishment. He is at his happiest when he works in the fields, knowing he is following in the footsteps of many generations of his family. Whenever he is troubled, physical labor on the land restores him. Whenever he is away from it, he feels out of his element. Even when he is wealthy old man who is too weak to get behind the plough, the pull of the earth sustains him:

… of his land he thought no more what harvest it would bring or what seed would be planted or of anything except of the land itself, and he stooped sometimes and gathered some of the earth up in his hand and he sat thus and held it in his hand, and it seemed full of life between his fingers. And he was content, holding it thus, and he thought of it fitfully and of his good coffin that was there; and the kind earth waited without haste until he came to it.

I’m glad I laid my initial reservations about this book to one side because The Good Earth proved a fascinating insight into the culture of China in the years spanning the end of the nineteenth century and the outbreak of World War 1.


The Book: The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck was published in 1931. Its commercial and critical success was considered an influential factor in her award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. The Good Earth is the first book in a trilogy.

The Author:  Pearl S Buck was taken to China when she was five months old and lived there for much of her life as the daughter and then the wife of a missionary. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. After returning to the United States in 1935, she continued to write and became a prominent advocate of the rights of women and minority groups, and wrote widely on Asian cultures,

My edition: e-book

Why I read this: As part of my project to read more books by authors outside of the traditional western canon.


About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on December 31, 2016, in American authors, Book Reviews, Nobel Prize for Literature, Pulitzer Prize and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. I read this when I was 17, on a trip to Benin. Was superb

  2. I would like to recommend Hilary Spurling’s biography of Pearl S Buck, Burying the Bones: Pearl S Buck in China. This book reveals Buck as one of the best informed novelists there has ever been writing about a “foreign” culture and an admirable figure easy to underrate as a novelist.

  3. Very interested to read your review as I have this on my Classics Club Challenge list so now looking forward to it very much.

  4. This was a book I heard lauded for so many years and perversely resisted reading…then loved it when I finally gave in. I’m so glad you enjoyed it too.

    • what was it about the book that you were hesitant about – was it for the same reason I prevaricated too?

      • I’m not sure — I tend to have that reaction to many books everyone says you should read, especially those that were pushed on me during school. I think it’s more of a primitive response to authority than anything with a rational basis. There was perhaps a shade of doubt that Buck could write authentically about Chinese life. Whatever the reason, I’m so glad I got over it.

  5. I read this a long time ago and still remember it fondly for the reasons you have so eloquently described.
    Since reading it I have come across occasional revisionist critiques about how it idealises peasantry even while detailing its hardships and how the characters are racist stereotypes. I’d have to read it again to confront these charges, and I don’t want to. I’d rather keep my fond memories!

    • i can see how it borders on idealisation but at the same time it doesnt gloss over the hardship so I wouldnt agree with those critiques wholeheartedly.

      • As I say, I don’t have an opinion about it because I read the book too long ago. I think we can look at almost any book written at any time and find that it misrepresents some group or other, and end up not enjoying anything at all if we take it all too judgementally…

  6. I’m glad to hear you think so highly of this one, as I’ve been thinking I should read it – off to add it to the wishlist!

  7. I definitely need to read The Good Earth. I unfortunately was never assigned Pearl Buck to read at college. I kind of regret that a bit.

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