Critical Overview

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On publication in 1931, The Good Earth was a huge critical and popular success. It was chosen for the Book of the Month Club, which in the 1930s was a guaranteed way to generate high sales for a book. In fact, The Good Earth was the bestselling book in the United States in 1931 and 1932. It was reviewed in all the major newspapers and magazines and received near universal acclaim. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. Over the years it was translated into thirty languages.

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What reviewers most liked about the novel was that it was the first book to give Western readers insight into what Chinese society was really like. It was not a fanciful portrait of China as seen through the distant gaze of a Westerner, and it did not present the Chinese in terms of the unflattering stereotypes that were common in the West at that time. For example, a reviewer for the New York Times comments that the country portrayed in the book is “a China in which, happily, there is no hint of mystery or exoticism. There is very little in [Buck’s] book of the quality we are accustomed to label, ‘Oriental’” (quoted in Peter Conn, Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography). In The Nation, Eda Lou Walton comments that Buck’s “complete familiarity with her material allows her to present her characters as very human and very real, as people who engage our sympathies.” H. C. Harwood, in Saturday Review, remarks: “The opening chapters of The Good Earth are so lovely that one forgets the Far East, one forgets everything but humanity.” Harwood also commented on how

[W]ithout effort or anger an alien civilization is quietly presented. It is so easy to be funny about China, and so easy to be funny about the collisions of alien cultures. Mrs. Buck turns away from all that and explains Wang Lung.

The novel was also well reviewed in a number of Chinese journals, although some Chinese intellectuals professed to dislike it. Buck’s defenders felt this was because she had revealed a side of Chinese life (poverty, inequality) that the Chinese educated class would sooner not have exposed.

In the early 2000s, there was a revival of interest in The Good Earth among contemporary readers because the book was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club.

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