I read The Good Earth based on the recommendation of work colleagues from South Korea. I’d asked them to suggest authors and novels from their country so was surprised when they chose this book because it’s set in China rather than Korea and the author Pearl Buck was an American.
But they were such strong advocates for this book that I decided to push my reservations to one side. It was a fortunate decision because right from chapter one I was hooked by this novel.
Pearl S Buck spent much of her early life in China as the daughter of missionaries and her familiarity with the country’s rural life and traditions are evident in The Good Earth.
It’s a tale about 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 which 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 belief 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.”
But 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.
They head to the city to 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 overcame my initial reluctance to read The Good Earth because it proved to be 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 Good Earth by Pearl S Buck: Endnotes
The Good Earth was published in 1931 as the first book in her House of Earth trilogy, followed by Sons (1932) and A House Divided (1935). It was the best-selling novel in the United States in both 1931 and 1932.
This commercial and critical success was considered an influential factor in the Nobel Committee’s decision to award Pearl S Buck the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.
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,
Why I read this: As part of my project to read more books by authors outside of the traditional western canon.
This review was posted originally in 2016. This updated version incorporates biographical information about the author and an updated image of the book cover. Formatting has been changed to improve readability.