Since it has been established that Pearl S. Buck wrote in a simple, journalistic style, her portrayal of women in her novel The Good Earth is the depiction of traditional China before the Boxer Rebellion. She neither intends to cast aspersions upon this culture or to praise it; she merely presents it in its historical accuracy.
In this culture, males are valued more highly because they carry the family name; in peasant families such as that of Wang Lung, they are naturally stronger and able to work at many tasks. In this age of no birth control, families are often forced to sacrifice a daughter in order that the other members of the family can survive. Rather than have all of them starve, for instance, a family would sell a daughter as a slave. While she may be treated cruelly and abused by her master, the family must do the only thing that they could in order to survive, and the daughter was, at least, saved from starvation. Certainly, this is an harsh custom, but Buck portrays it also as a necessity of life rather than an arbitrary act.
When O-lan breaks the neck of her starved newborn during the famine, she does so because she knows that it will not survive anyway since she has no milk. In Chapter 9 when Wang Lung hears her whisper "Dead," he looks at O'lan's face with awe,
...a poor silent face that lay there, having endured to the utmost, and there was nothing he could say. ...What agony of starvation this woman had endured, with the starved creature gnawing at her from within, desperate for its own life!
This incident that Buck describes is not one of terrible abuse; rather, it is a portrayal of the struggle to survive. Wang Lung says nothing to his brave wife who has endured because he knows that she has done what is practical, and if she had not, she, too, would die. After all, Wang Lung cherishes his little mentally-handicapped daughter, and he treats her with great love.
There are, however, practices presented that do illustrate the oppressiveness of the male-driven culture as Wang Lung brings into his home Lotus, his concubine, and later, Pear Blossom. Perhaps, one of the cruelest moments is Wang Lung's taking of the two pearls from O-lan after telling her she could keep them. This woman who has worked beside him in the fields, who has sewn his clothes, born him his sons, stolen jewels so that they can return home and buy land and prosper, bound the feet of her own daughter so that she can marry a man of position and never be a servant--this woman is treated as though she has no feelings.
In Chapter 21, O-lan demonstrates some spirit as she retaliates against Cuckoo, also a former servant in the house of Hwang, who demands boiling water for her mistress, Lotus. With tears in her eyes, O'lan asks, "What is this slave woman doing in our house?" But, Wang Lung cannot scold her "because of some shame in him when O-lan was there before him." Nevertheless, he tells her she must bear the situation. O-lan again shames Wang Lung after Cuckoo argues with her as Wang Lung tells her Cuckoo is the servant for the "mistress."
And she bore his violence and she looked at him and she said simply,
"And to that one you gave my two pearls."
Then his hand dropped and he was speechless and his anger was gone and he went away ashamed....
So, despite his treatment of O-lan which disregards her feelings, Wang Lung does respect this woman who has attached his fate to hers. He is, like her, caught amid the tensions of his culture.
Buck's narrative details the emotional and physical abuse of women. Consider the basic premise that governs the thinking of the characters in the novel. When a boy is born, it is good fortune. When a girl is born, it is not. O- Ian kills off her second girl as an infant, and each time a boy is born, Wang makes offerings indicating his happiness. This basic premise helps to establish the abuse of women in the narrative.
For the most part, women are shown in non- complimentary lights. They are sold off, sometimes for marriage, sometimes for enslavement. This helps to establish the pretense for emotional and/ or physical abuse. O- Ian is labeled as slow and stupid. She is abused emotionally when Lotus is taken as a second wife. Her voice is relegated to the periphery, seen in Wang Lung's cruel treatment of her and taking her jewels in order to finance his dreams. Wang Lung does not love her and treats her as merely an accessory to hm becoming successful. Lotus is seen as petulant and promiscuous, as other women are viewed as scheming and duplicitous. Wang Lung buys Pear Blossom during a famine and then makes her his prostitute. Wang Lung's son views women in a non- complimentary light, seeing them as sexual tools seen with his visits with prostitutes and with Lotus, his father's second wife. In this condition, the abuse of women is facilitated because of a negative social view that stigmatizes women and praises men by enabling them.