Pearl S. Buck was the daughter of West Virginia Presbyterian missionaries who chose to serve in China. Her first husband, the distinguished agricultural expert Lossing Buck, was himself a China missionary. American China missions therefore accounted for Pearl Buck’s language—as a child she learned Mandarin Chinese as she learned English—and the ambience, the substance, and the experiences upon which her most enduring novels were premised, none more so than The Good Earth.
As her second novel (East Wind: West Wind, published in 1930, was the first), The Good Earth brilliantly reflects Buck’s intimate comprehension of Chinese traditions and of Chinese life that she acquired during the first three decades of the twentieth century and renewed frequently thereafter. Combining the stark simplicity of Chinese peasant life as she knew it with the tones and rhythms of the King James version of the Bible (the basis of Protestant missionary teachings), she superbly adapted her prose to her subject. Accordingly, The Good Earth unfolds, much like Old Testament stories, as a chronological narrative. Its tenor suggests an objectivity expected in documentaries, recounting straightforwardly what happened during Wang Lung’s life, how he perceived himself, and how others perceived him. As observer, the author maintains a certain distance from the characters that she has evoked and from the events that she has set in motion.
Yet, if Pearl Buck as narrator avoids didacticism and the passages dense with detail that frequently convey editorial comment on their subjects in lesser works (her own included), she is neither disengaged nor uncompassionate. Part of her genius in creating The Good Earth lies in the spare but therefore telling detail, as well as the symbolism associated with it, that teases out her own and her characters’ humanity.
Much is implied about the early married relationship between Wang Lung and O-lan, such as when starving times force the decision to slaughter Wang Lung’s cherished ox. Wang Lung cannot bring himself to wield the knife. Treated little better than a broodmare and beast of burden, it is O-lan who, drawing upon more profound reserves of practical character than her husband, drives home the knife herself. Even more is implied by the unforgettable fate of two pearls found by O-lan after others have looted a rich family’s home. Possession of the jewels transforms Wang Lung from a starving, begging refugee into a landowner once again by furnishing the seed money from which springs his subsequent wealth. The source of her husband’s good fortune, the self-effacing O-lan asks the now-rich Wang Lung only for two pearls, which she keeps close to her bosom. Poignantly, years later Wang Lung demands their return to ingratiate himself with Lotus, his newfound concubine.
Incidents such as these blatantly illuminate the Chinese peasant’s perceptions of women: If worthy, they labor in the household, tending the needs of males and children and working alongside their men in the field; they produce sons; and they satisfy male sexual expectations. When cultural variations are stripped away, however, Buck asks by implication, if these were not general male expectations everywhere. The signature of Buck’s genius, not only in these incidents but in many others in The Good Earth as well, was her unerring capacity to evoke the universal.