The author justifies her extreme detachment from her narrative by choosing for The Good Earth an epigraph from Proust about the musician Vinteuil's refusing to violate the integrity of his music by mixing his emotion with it. Similarly Buck refuses to interrupt her work to announce that she as author does not personally approve of what is happening. So devoid of subjectivity is her story that she sometimes takes her American audience by surprise when she describes events without passing judgment (e.g., when O-lan strangles her newborn daughter in a time of famine). Still what she achieves is a kind of exotic remoteness and this often adds just a trace of romanticism to her realism.
Buck's text is not marked with italics; she seldom uses a Chinese word or explains a Chinese concept. Exotic sounding translations do occur (as when the procuress tempts Wang Lung with "tiger bone wine and dawn wine and wine of fragrant rice") and occasionally she translates the significance of certain proper names. She does use proverbs (e.g., "The melon must always be split wide open before you can see the seeds").
Her vocabulary and syntax tend to be archaic (e.g., "lest he stink," "like a cur," and past tense verbs such as "digged" and "builded") and such archaisms are effective in suggesting the timelessness of Wang Lung's world. Generally, sentences are short and simple. Naive language is naturally used to match the simplicity of Wang Lung's thoughts,...
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Buck always sought to promote understanding of the world's peoples by stressing similarities rather than differences. Nowhere in House of Earth are Eastern or Chinese ethical values so different from those of the West that the reader feels alienated. Buck deliberately avoids an exploration of the Taoist, Buddhist, or Confucian perspective for this would maximize the foreign aspect of her Chinese characters for an American audience. Her commitment to the promotion of understanding in combination with her lively egalitarianism, so much in accord with Alfred Nobel's requirement that his prize go to "the best works of an idealistic nature," is essentially what won for her the Nobel Prize of 1938.
In this trilogy, which includes The Good Earth (1931), Sons (1932), and A House Divided (1935), the beleaguered Chinese peasant, perennially abused by overlords, warlords, landlords and government officials, wins her sympathy. This concern would remain central to her thought and writing for the rest of her life.
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House of Earth belongs to the tradition of the roman-fleuve. Sagas written in English were made especially popular during Buck's early years by John Galsworthy in The Forsyte Saga (1906-1922). Oscar Cargill detected a similarity between House of Earth and Emile Zola's Rougon-Macquart family saga (1873-1891), and Buck did in fact acknowledge being influenced by the naturalism of Zola: by his commitment to detached narration, by his interest in the poor, by his emphasis on heredity and environment, and by his appreciation of setting and detail. Paul Doyle points out that although Buck liked to use the word naturalism about her own work, she is more often optimistic in a way that Zola was not, which puts her instead in a category with such life affirming authors as Charles Dickens, Honore de Balzac, and Moliere. In fact Dickens was her favorite author while she was growing up. She was also influenced by Marcel Proust, from whose Swann's Way she chose her epigraph for The Good Earth.
Of course, in discussing the precedents of The Good Earth, it is important to seek roots in the Chinese literary tradition as well (especially in the old Chinese narrative sagas), since Chinese and English were both native languages for Buck. Some of the trouble that Buck had with clichés stems from the tradition that a Chinese writer seeks to employ the time-honored phrases that have been sanctified to literature by his...
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Buck's other books on Chinese life are The Patriot (1939), which is about the revolutionary movement in Shanghai in the late 1920s; Pavilion of Women (1946), which is about a strong-willed Madame Wu who at forty provides a concubine for her still sexually active husband; Peony (1948), which is about a Chinese Jew; Kinfolk (1949), which is about the dilemma of cultural dichotomy affecting native-Chinese Dr. Liang, who teaches Chinese philosophy at a New York college; Imperial Woman (1956), which is an historical novel about Tzu Hsi (1834-1908) the last ruling Empress of China; and The Three Daughters of Madame Liang (1969), which chronicles the return of three young women to Communist China after being educated in the United States.
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The Good Earth was adapted for the stage by Owen Davis and Donald Davis and produced on Broadway in 1932 starring Alia Nazimova as O-lan. The film (1937), which took four years to make and was shot with authentic Chinese backdrops and a Chinese landscape recreated forty miles from Hollywood, starred Paul Muni and Luise Rainer, The movie cost $2.8 million to produce and lost almost a half million dollars despite its huge popularity. Still considered one of Hollywood's finest films, it won two academy awards: Luise Rainer for Best Actress and Karl Freund for Cinematography.
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