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 the concurrent status of women. In all but very wealthy...
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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, his wife, and certain that his sons must unquestionably mold their lives to care for the land, he...
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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, particularly creative ones, confronted in male-dominated cultures. She publicly exhorted women, in the tradition of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott, to rail against the abuses, carelessness, and indifference with which they were so commonly treated by men in most societies. She was no less contemptuous of the “selfish, ignorant, self-indulgent American woman of wealth and privilege” and those who preferred life in “a mental vacuum.” Rather than helping their sisters struggle against injustice, these women, Buck argued, pulled everyone down. Because of her sensitive strengths, Buck reached women as have few other authors. She understood their plights, but she also exhorted them to see themselves as the hope of civilization, as people capable of shaping the future of their countries and of the world.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
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...
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