Pearl Sydenstricker Buck referred to herself as “mentally bifocal” with respect to her American and Chinese ways of looking at things. The daughter of American missionaries in China, Buck came to know that country better than any other, for she spent her early formative years there, and during that extremely significant time many of her ideas, viewpoints, and philosophy developed. She attended schools both in China and in the United States and made several trips back and forth, some unwillingly, as when she and her parents were expelled from China during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.
As a girl in China, Buck began to write articles and short stories. There is no doubt that she had a gift for making the strange, unknown, and distant appear familiar. Until the time of her first published success, East Wind: West Wind (1930), very little had been written about the life of the simple Chinese, although China was of increasing interest to businessmen, diplomats, and missionaries. Nevertheless, the general public did not think of the Chinese as people with whom they could easily identify. Buck’s feeling for the fundamental truths of life transcended the preconceived notions of the reading public about China because she portrayed her characters as understandable human beings struggling for happiness and success.
The Good Earth was published in 1931 and became Buck’s most popular and widely read novel. It depicts a life cycle from a man’s early years until his death. Some Chinese felt that the portrayal of their people was inaccurate and incomplete, and many Chinese intellectuals objected to the choice of a peasant farmer as the subject of a novel, preferring that the Western world see the intellectual and philosophical Chinese, even though that group was a minority. Buck’s only answer to such criticism was that she wrote about what she knew best, and these were the people whom she had seen and come to know and love during her years in the interior of China.
The theme of The Good Earth is an uncomplicated one with universal appeal, and the author shows a man rising from poverty and relative insignificance to a position of importance and wealth. In some ways, the story is the proverbial Horatio Alger tale that so many Americans know and admire. The difference here, making it unique, is the setting. Wang Lung, the main character around whom the action in the novel revolves, is a poor man who knows very little apart from the fact that land is valuable, solid, and worth owning. Therefore, he spends his entire life trying to acquire as much land as he can to ensure both his own security and that of his family and descendants for generations to come. Ironically, he eventually becomes like the rich whom he at first holds in awe when he allows himself to follow in their path and separate himself from the land to live above toil and dirt. The earth theme appears repeatedly throughout the book. Wang Lung’s greatest joy is to look out over his land, to hold it in his fingers, and to work it for his survival. At the end of the novel, he returns to the old quarters he occupied on his first plot of land so that he can find the peace he knows the land can bring him.
The Good Earth is a simple, direct narrative. There are no complicated literary techniques, no involved subplots to detract from the main story line. Wang Lung is the central character, and all the other characters and their actions relate in some way to him. The book depends on characterization, and its dramatic episodes are projected through the sensitivities and experiences of its characters. It may be said that a strength of the author’s characterization is her consistency, for all of her characters act and react in keeping with their personalities. None is a stereotype, for their motives are complex. O-lan is a sympathetic portrait, but there are aspects of her personality that give her depth, dimension, and originality. Such actions as stealing the jewels from the plundered rich or killing the small baby girl born to her when she is in ill health are consistent with her character. She is realistic and sees her acts as producing more good than evil. Throughout the novel O-lan is courageous and faithful, and she maintains a dignity that gives her a special identity of her own.
One of the most obvious and significant Chinese customs that appears repeatedly in the novel is the submission of the wife in all things to the will of the man. Girl children were born only to be reared for someone else’s house as slaves, whereas boys were born to carry on family names, traditions, and property. This situation is based on the Chinese position that women are inferior to men. The reader cannot help but be struck by this attitude as it manifests itself in the lives of the men and women in The Good Earth.
The novel has no high point or climax, no point of great and significant decision. There is no one who causes Wang Lung any serious struggle. His only antagonists are the adversity of the elements and the occasional arguments he has with his lazy uncle and his worthless nephew. Dramatic interest is sustained in the novel by well-placed turning points in the narrative. The first is Wang Lung’s marriage to O-lan and their early, satisfying years together. When, in the face of poverty, destitution, and hopelessness, Wang Lung demands the handful of gold from the rich man that enables him to get back to his land, Buck makes clear how much Wang Lung’s land means to him and what he is willing to do to have it back. In the closing pages of the novel, the quiet servitude and devotion of Pear Blossom, a simple slave girl in a house full of discord, afford him the only peace and contentment of his late years, though Buck refrains from moralizing on the fact that this is the extent of Wang Lung’s years of hard labor and sacrifice.
Buck won the Pulitzer Prize for The Good Earth, which, in addition to being widely read in many languages, was also dramatized and made into a motion picture. Its universal appeal undoubtedly derives from its clear and precise portrayal of one man’s struggle for survival, success, and happiness.