Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
The Good Earth is an epic depiction of agricultural life during the last half-century of the Manchu or Ch’ing dynasty (1644-1911) in China. The Chinese man of the soil is embodied in the character of Wang Lung. Wang Lung brings the slave O-lan to his earthen house where he cares for his aged father and from which he farms his land. After O-lan bears him two sons and a mentally retarded daughter, the region is devastated by drought and famine, and Wang Lung takes his father, children, and wife many miles south to a city, where they become street beggars while Wang Lung earns what he can as a rickshaw runner. O-lan will give birth later to a second girl and, after leaving the city, to twins, a boy and a girl.
In this first part of the novel, the customs of prerevolutionary China are detailed as part of the story. Filial respect, not only for the father but also for the father’s brothers, is absolute. Wang Lung must obey his father’s wishes, even though the old man is immobile and losing his memory and good sense. In addition, Wang Lung must take his shiftless uncle, along with the uncle’s wife and son, into his household as dependents. The uncle imposes upon his nephew’s charity with impunity: Wang Lung learns that his home is spared the ravages of bandit gangs only because his uncle is a member of a particularly vicious gang.
While there is something of merit in the tradition of filial piety, little can be found in favor of...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Anhui. Large inland province in east central China divided by the great Yangzi (Yangtze) River. The far northern part of the province, in which the novel is set, is part of the broad northern China plain that is usually hot and dusty but subject to frequent flooding from the Yellow River.
Wang Lung’s farmhouse
Wang Lung’s farmhouse. Rural farmhouse that is the scene of most of the novel. The house is located in Wang village, described as composed of only a half dozen households, within an hour or so walk of an unnamed walled administrative town in the inland province of Anhui. The changes the farmhouse undergoes closely mirror the fortunes of Wang Lung and his family. Wang Lung toils daily in the fields and has a deep attachment to the land—the “good earth” of the title. In famine he lets the house go into disrepair and sells the household goods but will not sell his land. A multitude of trials face the family and threaten the farmhouse, but both survive. In prosperity, Wang Lung buys additional land and improves his house.
The house first appears as a run-down three-room, earthen-floored structure made of mud-and-straw bricks with a thatched roof in which Wang Lung and his widowed father live. When a wife, O-lan, joins the household, the interior of the house improves through her skill and hard work. Additions to the house come as the frugal and hard-working family members raise...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Biblical in the simplicity of its language and cadence, The Good Earth traces the life of Chinese peasant Wang Lung from his youthful marriage to his death in his seventies. Living in Anwhei Province hundreds of kilometers west of Shanghai, Soochow, Nanking, and other cities of eastern China between the Hwang Ho (Yellow River) to the north and the Yangtze River to the south, Wang Lung must pin his survival upon the yields of his land. Above all else, the land preoccupies and absorbs him, as it did most of China’s traditional, prerevolutionary peasantry.
Believing that the fate of his land compelled it, Wang Lung subordinated everything to the soil: family, friends, his beasts, and every ounce of his strength. To hold the land, he battled drought, devastating floods, plagues of locusts, bandits, the desires of his three sons, and jealous neighbors until midlife. Only on his deathbed was it clear that the land to which he had sacrificed so much—and which even as he was dying he sought to pass to his sons—would in fact be divided and sold by sons who had little affection for him.
Throughout the book’s thirty-four chapters, Wang Lung is depicted as a changing, three-dimensional figure. Poor, unlettered, shy, traditionally dutiful, honest, thrifty, and indefatigable in his labors as a young man, his eventual attainment of riches provides ambit for his desires and moments of reflection. Self-absorbed and insensitive toward O-lan,...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Pearl Buck was a widely read and influential author. Previously unknown and lacking money or influential friends, she gained instant fame and international recognition because of The Good Earth. Published to rave reviews, The Good Earth became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and in 1932 won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1935, it was awarded the William Dean Howells Medal for distinguished American fiction. The following year, Buck was also elected to the National Academy of Arts and Letters. These honors culminated in the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, for a corpus of work which also included two masterful biographies, The Exile (1936) and The Fighting Angel: Portrait of a Soul (1936), portraits of her parents, Caroline and Absalom Sydenstricker, respectively.
Before her death, Buck published forty novels, along with a score of nonfiction works, fourteen books for children, and several translations of Chinese works. Her novels in particular were themselves swiftly translated into more than fifty major languages and many others, testifying to the universal humanity of her works. This influence was of immense importance to the women of the world.
As a strong woman (although one often in conflict with herself), Buck created or portrayed memorable women throughout her life, starting with O-lan and Caroline. Such characters were embodiments of her own vocal rebellion against the situation that women,...
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Revolutionary Change in China
During the period covered by the novel, China went through dramatic political change. Although The Good Earth focuses mostly on rural existence, which was resistant to change, on two occasions Wang Lung comes into contact with wider social forces. The first occurs when he is in the city of Kiangsu (Nanking), and he hears all the revolutionary talk and sees soldiers in the city, recruiting for a war. Then a revolutionary army arrives, and mob violence breaks out. The atmosphere and events described in these sections of the novel are based on the growing social unrest in China during the first decade of the twentieth century. For decades, the political institutions of Chinese imperial rulers had become increasingly corrupt and incompetent, failing for example to defend China from foreign invasions. The social discontent thus generated culminated in the Revolution of 1911, in which the Ch’ing dynasty collapsed. The trigger for the revolution was an uprising that broke out in October of 1911, between nationalist revolutionaries and the military in the city of Wuhan. For four months, many provinces rose up against imperial rule. There was heavy fighting in Nanking. Buck’s parents, the Christian missionaries Absalom and Carie Sydenstricker, were in Nanking at the time and were advised to evacuate, but they refused to do so.
On February 12, 1912, a Chinese Republic was established with revolutionary...
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Imagery and Symbolism
The novel is a realistic one but also on occasions employs imagery and symbolism. The traditional Chinese practice of foot-binding, for example, is used as a symbol of Wang Lung’s desire to improve the social status of his family. The binding of girls’ feet over a period of years resulted in a deformed foot that sometimes was no longer than three inches. Foot-binding was a painful process, but a small foot was considered desirable. Wang Lung finds Lotus alluring because she has tiny feet. Also, if a girl had bound feet it was easier for the family to find her a husband. The practice was not common amongst the poor, however, because poor women had to work; they could not afford to be merely decorative objects. Since O-lan is a kitchen slave, her feet were not bound. However, when Wang Lung acquires wealth and determines that his wife is not good enough for him, what repels him most are her “big feet,” and he looks at them angrily. To appease him, she offers to bind the feet of their younger daughter. O-lan does this successfully, and the result is that the girl “moved about with small graceful steps.”
Wang Lung’s braided hair is also used as a symbol. It represents the traditional way of life. When as a young man Wang Lung visits a barber on his way to collect his bride, the barber wants to cut off the braid to make him look more fashionable, but Wang Lung will not hear of it. He says he would need...
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Compare and Contrast
- 1930s: In the Chinese city of Nanking, invading Japanese troops kill an estimated 369,366 Chinese civilians and prisoners of war between December 1937 and March 1938. About 80,000 women and girls are raped; many are then mutilated and murdered.
Today: For decades Japan refused to apologize to China for atrocities committed during World War II. In 2005, Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi apologizes for the fact that Japan caused grief and pain to many people in Asian nations during the war. But he does not mention Nanking by name.
- 1930s: China is under the rule of the Nationalist Party, led by Chiang Kai-shek. The Chinese Communist Party opposes the nationalists but in the 1930s is on the defensive. In 1934, the communists begin their famous 6,000-mile Long March from Hunan to northwest China, where they establish a base.
Today: China is ruled by the Communist Party, but economic reforms over the past twenty years have introduced many capitalistic practices. The private sector of the economy is growing fast as China develops into a major world power.
- 1930s: In Shanghai, a Chinese city subject to many international influences, educated, sophisticated women forge new roles for themselves that leave old ideas about appropriate gender roles behind. They regard themselves as free and...
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Topics for Further Study
Closely examine the brief incident described in chapter 14, in which Wang Lung encounters a Christian missionary. What image does it present of Christianity? Does the passage suggest that Christian missionary work in China is positive or negative? What reasons might Buck have had for presenting Christian missionary work in this light? Write an essay in which you present your analysis.
Obtain a copy of the 1937 movie version of The Good Earth and make a class presentation, with video clips if possible, of the main differences between the book and the movie. Take especial note of how O-lan is portrayed. Also consider why all the leading parts were taken by white rather than Chinese actors.
Consider some of the stereotypical ways in which Chinese and other Asian people were viewed by Americans during the twentieth century. Consider films and television programs. Why did the West cultivate such negative views of non-Western cultures? Make a class presentation in which you discuss such stereotypes and show how portrayals of Asians and Asian-Americans in the media today are more positive than in former times.
Team up with another student and make a class presentation in which you compare John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) to The Good Earth. What themes do the two books have in common? Does Steinbeck’s book suggest a reason why The Good Earth was received so enthusiastically by American readers...
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The Good Earth was filmed by Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1937, directed by Sidney Rainer. As of 2006, the film was available on video cassette. A play based on the novel was written by Owen Davis and Donald Davis and produced in the Theatre Guild in New York City on October 17, 1932.
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What Do I Read Next?
Buck’s novel Sons (1932) is the second volume in the trilogy that begins with The Good Earth. Beginning where the previous volume ends, Sons is about the lives of Wang Lung’s three sons, the eldest (the landlord), the second (the merchant), and especially the youngest son, who becomes a warlord. None of the sons respects the father’s legacy. As literature, Sons is not considered the equal of The Good Earth; nonetheless, it is a tale well told.
Splendid Slippers: A Thousand Years of an Erotic Tradition (1998), by Beverley Jackson, is an account of the Chinese practice of foot-binding. Jackson describes the history of foot-binding, what the procedure involved, and the erotic fascination associated with bound feet. She also compares foot-binding to other exotic practices supposedly aimed at enhancing female beauty, such as the custom of the women of Burma who appear to stretch their necks by wearing a series of heavy necklaces. (Actually, the collar bone collapses toward the rib cage as x rays have proven.)
John Henry Gray’s China: A History of the Laws, Manners, and Customs of the People, published by Dover Books on Literature and Drama in 2003, is a reprint of the original book that was published in 1878. Gray was the archdeacon of Hong Kong, and this readable history covers the period when Wang Lung, in The Good Earth, was a young man. It covers topics such government, prisons, religion,...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Buck, Pearl, The Good Earth, John Day, 1965.
Conn, Peter, Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 126.
Gao, Xiongya, Pearl S. Buck’s Chinese Women’s Characters, Susquehanna University Press, 2000, p. 36.
Harwood, H. C., Review of The Good Earth, in Saturday Review, Vol. 151, No. 3942, May 16, 1931, p. 722.
Smart, Ninian, The Religious Experience of Mankind, Fontana, 1970, p. 218.
Spence, Jonathan D., The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895–1980, Viking Press, 1981, p. 51.
Walton, Eda Lou, “Another Epic of the Soil,” in Nation, Vol. 132, No. 3, May 13, 1931, p. 534.
Doyle, Paul A., Pearl S. Buck, revised edition, United States Authors Series, No. 85, Twayne, 1980. This is a concise and readable introduction to the entire range of Buck’s work.
Harris, Theodore F., in consultation with Pearl S. Buck, Pearl S. Buck: A Biography, John Day, 1969–1971. Written by her close friend and collaborator, this two-volume work is, as of 2006, the most comprehensive biography of Buck.
Leong, Karen J., The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong, and the Transformation of American Orientalism, University of California Press, 2005. Leong...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Buck, Pearl S. The Good Earth. New York: Washington Square Press, 1994. Provides a lengthy introduction about Pearl Buck and The Good Earth by Peter Conn. Also includes commentary from the time of the novel’s publication and sources for further research.
Buck, Pearl S. House of Earth: “The Good Earth,” “Sons,” “A House Divided.” New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1935. A trilogy that begins with The Good Earth and thereafter unfolds the fate of Wang Lung’s family after his death. Although critics thought less of the latter two novels, they nevertheless offer a wonderful portrait of the dissolution of traditional China. Contains a brief essay on the origins of The Good Earth.
Buck, Pearl S. The Mother. New York: John Day, 1934. A novel based on a woman named Mrs. Lu whom Buck had known in China. The central figure is a failed mother and unfulfilled peasant woman who Buck hoped would be seen as reflective of such women’s lives everywhere. Biographers have perceived this character as a mirror of Buck’s own emotions, many associated with the need for men and her lifelong care and love for a retarded daughter. Important for understanding Buck’s appeal among a whole generation of women.
Cowley, Malcolm. “Wang Lung’s Children.” The New Republic 99, no....
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