Pearl S. Buck Essay - Critical Essays

Pearl S. Buck Short Fiction Analysis

Pearl S. Buck’s best-known stories were typically published first in large circulation magazines, then included in collections of her short fiction. “The Enemy,” “Hearts Come Home,” and “The Good Deed” are examples reflecting Buck’s international themes. By depicting characters in exotic or potentially threatening surroundings, Buck heightens cultural contrasts and emphasizes common human characteristics. The outsiders she presents may meet a Good Samaritan figure, fall in love and marry, or achieve greater understanding of others and themselves as Buck foregrounds the power of human beings, however weak and short-sighted they may be, to transform one another intellectually and emotionally.

In her short fiction, as in her novel The Good Earth, universal human experiences dominate: love, marriage, birth of children, death of loved ones, threats of natural disaster, and the encroachment of new ways on old culture that creates major conflicts. The stories, however, often lack the realism of the novels, and occasionally they become sentimental and didactic. Still, their color and simplicity of style enabled Buck to succeed in reaching the wide audience she felt literature should serve.

“The Enemy”

In “The Enemy,” a story set in Japan during World War II, a wounded American washes up on the beach near the home of a respected Japanese surgeon, who finds both his daily activities and traditional attitudes transformed by the encounter with the American. Before the American’s appearance, Dr. Sadao Hoki and his family live according to the old Japanese ways despite his modern profession. Their home has the traditional inner and outer courts and gardens tended by servants; Dr. Hoki’s father had lived with them until his death. The Hokis’ marriage, too, is traditional, for although they met in America where both were students, they waited to fall in love until after their marriage had been parentally arranged in Japan. Mrs. Hoki remains respectfully silent much of the time she is in her husband’s presence; she eats only after he has eaten his own meal. The narrative voice reveals that Dr. Hoki has many tender feelings for her because of her devotion to the old ways.

The exposition of the story is complete after the narrator describes Dr. Hoki’s thoughts as he stands gazing at the islands beyond his home. These were, according to his old father, “stepping stones to the future for Japan,” a future for which he prepared his son with the best American education available. When Mrs. Hoki arrives to tell her husband that the meal has been prepared, a figure appears in the mists along the rocky coast. As the man staggers, finally collapsing unconscious, they rush toward him, expecting to find an injured fisherman. With fear and horror, however, they discover that he is a white man, and they cannot decide at first what they should do with him.

They are unable to put the man back into the sea although they realize that for fear of the authorities they should do just that. When they move the injured man to safety, their servants leave for both political and superstitious reasons because they believe it is wrong to harbor an enemy. Only Mrs. Hoki remains to aid her husband when he discovers a bullet lodged near the wounded man’s kidney. She washes the man’s body, which she cannot bear for her husband to touch at first; then she manages to administer the anesthetic, although the sight of the man’s wound sickens her. Her husband, on the other hand, marvels that the young man has survived this long and strives at length to remove the bullet without creating paralysis. Indeed, throughout the surgery Dr. Hoki cannot help speaking to the patient, addressing him as a friend despite his foreign appearance. They realize in the course of their ministrations that the man is an American, probably an escaped prisoner of war, for his body shows signs of abuse.

The surgery is successful, and the couple settle into a period of hope and fear as they await the patient’s recovery. When soldiers appear with a summons, the doctor is terrified until he learns that he is needed to treat an ailing Japanese general. After the general begins to recover, the doctor confesses to him that he has helped a wounded American who would have surely died without his help and that now he cannot bear to execute the American after having spent so many years with Americans when he was in medical school. The general agrees to send assassins who will, within the next three days, murder the American even as he lies in the doctor’s house.

Yet the days and nights pass, and the Hokis note only the American’s recovery of strength and his deep gratitude toward them. Again they confront an opportunity to save him; the doctor gives him a boat, clothing, and food so that he may escape to a neighboring island and wait for a fishing boat. Days later, the doctor confesses to the general that the American has somehow escaped, and in a strange reversal, the general realizes with considerable anxiety that he has forgotten his promise to the doctor. The general then begs the doctor not to reveal their secret to the authorities, and the doctor willingly swears to the general’s loyalty before returning home to discover his servants returned and peace restored.

Remaining somehow troubled, Dr. Hoki turns to face the island “steppingstones” of progress as he recalls the ugly faces of all the white people he has ever known and ponders why he could not kill the young white enemy. This resolution to the story suggests that although no dramatic change has occurred in the lives of the Japanese family, an awakening has perhaps been achieved as they discovered that they must for human reasons help the injured American.


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