Essays and Criticism
Religious Beliefs of the Society Depicted in The Good Earth
In The Good Earth, Buck’s saga of rural Chinese life over several generations, the three great religions of China—Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism—make almost no appearance. In Chinese history, there has generally been a distinction between the religious beliefs and practices of the educated classes and those of the peasantry. Over the centuries, the common people have known little of the intellectual or devotional practices of these great faiths. Instead, as Ninian Smart explains in The Religious Experience of Mankind, “religion, interwoven with magic, had an immediate practical significance in the struggle for worldly benefits and in the common round of agricultural and family festivals.” It is these early religious beliefs and superstitions, which seem to have remained unchanged for many hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, that are presented in The Good Earth, against the background of Wang Lung’s changing attitude towards them.
The first insight into the religious beliefs and practices that govern life in the small village in which Wang Lung lives comes when, as a young man, he returns from the House of Hwang with his bride, O-lan. The first thing he does is take her to the western field on his property, where a tiny earthen “temple” stands. It was built by Wang Lung’s grandfather, and Wang Lung’s father tends to it with great care. It is part of their family tradition. Inside stand two earthen figures depicting a male and a female god. They are covered in robes of red and gilt paper which Wang Lung’s father makes for them every New Year. Wang Lung burns incense to these gods of the fields, in whom all the townspeople believe, so that they will bless his marriage and make it fruitful. Although at this stage Wang Lung appears to believe in these gods and their power, the author gives a hint that they may not be as all-powerful as he believes. The gods look spruced up in their new robes, but this will not last, because “each year rain and snow beat in and the sun of summer shone in and spoiled their robes.” These are gods who are damaged by the very things they supposedly control.
In addition to believing in the power of the gods, Wang Lung also believes in omens and evil spirits. He is relieved to find that the sticks of incense he has brought with him to the temple are not broken, for that would be an evil omen. Then later, when he comes home with O-lan and his baby...
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The Good Earth, upon its publication, caught the reader’s attention immediately. About its realism, Florence Ayscough wrote (1931):
I have lived for many years in such a country and among such people as Mrs. Buck describes, and as I read her pages I smell once more the sweet scent of bean flowers opening in the spring . . . ; all as it was and is there in the Yangtze Valley.
Similarly, Paul Hutchinson (1931) pointed out that there had never been a novel that “looked more deeply and understandingly into actual Chinese life.” The novel’s greatest effect, however, is that it humanizes the Chinese people for the American public. The readers feel a kinship toward Buck’s characters, who engage their sympathies and with whom they could easily identify. Thus Carl Van Doren, in The American Novel (1940), commented that “The Good Earth for the first time made the Chinese seem as familiar as neighbors.” The writer of a review in New Statesman and Nation (1931) said:
I can recall no novel that frees the ordinary, flesh and blood, everyday Chineseman so satisfyingly from those screens and veils and mirrors of artistic and poetic convention which nearly always make him, to the Western reader’s eye, a flat and unsubstantial figure of a pale-colored ballet.
Although Wang Lung is the main character, around whom the...
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Epic Qualities in Buck’s Novels
It was certainly the power of Pearl S. Buck’s fiction that brought her to the tables of presidents and into the counsels of ambassadors. It was the enchantment of her stories that captivated millions around the globe and won her the Nobel Prize, making her the first woman recipient of both the Pulitzer and the Nobel awards for literature. And yet the keepers of academic gates have hardly shown much zeal for her work. When they have praised her, as did Henry Seidel Canby in his 1938 review of The Good Earth, or Carl Van Doren in his 1940 study The American Novel, 1789–1939, the compliment has been as stinted as it has been patronizing. Confronted by such critical climate, one scans the academic skies, but, like Wang Lung in the years of drought, sees not a sign of a fertilizing cloud, not a mention of Pearl S. Buck in academic journals or critical debates in the country, not even when popular fiction receives rising scholarly attention and when multiculturalism happens to be the rallying cry on quite a few campuses.
In view of such general timidity, I find a special reason to commend the faculty and the administration of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College for their having opted to stir up some critical and academic dialogue about Buck’s stature as a writer while they could as well have had a party to celebrate the glorious career of their distinguished alumna.
The neglect of Pearl S. Buck’s fiction, even if benign, is, to an...
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