Religious Beliefs of the Society Depicted in The Good Earth

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In The Good Earth, Buck’s saga of rural Chinese life over several generations, the three great religions of China—Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism—make almost no appearance. In Chinese history, there has generally been a distinction between the religious beliefs and practices of the educated classes and those of the peasantry. Over the centuries, the common people have known little of the intellectual or devotional practices of these great faiths. Instead, as Ninian Smart explains in The Religious Experience of Mankind, “religion, interwoven with magic, had an immediate practical significance in the struggle for worldly benefits and in the common round of agricultural and family festivals.” It is these early religious beliefs and superstitions, which seem to have remained unchanged for many hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, that are presented in The Good Earth, against the background of Wang Lung’s changing attitude towards them.

The first insight into the religious beliefs and practices that govern life in the small village in which Wang Lung lives comes when, as a young man, he returns from the House of Hwang with his bride, O-lan. The first thing he does is take her to the western field on his property, where a tiny earthen “temple” stands. It was built by Wang Lung’s grandfather, and Wang Lung’s father tends to it with great care. It is part of their family tradition. Inside stand two earthen figures depicting a male and a female god. They are covered in robes of red and gilt paper which Wang Lung’s father makes for them every New Year. Wang Lung burns incense to these gods of the fields, in whom all the townspeople believe, so that they will bless his marriage and make it fruitful. Although at this stage Wang Lung appears to believe in these gods and their power, the author gives a hint that they may not be as all-powerful as he believes. The gods look spruced up in their new robes, but this will not last, because “each year rain and snow beat in and the sun of summer shone in and spoiled their robes.” These are gods who are damaged by the very things they supposedly control.

In addition to believing in the power of the gods, Wang Lung also believes in omens and evil spirits. He is relieved to find that the sticks of incense he has brought with him to the temple are not broken, for that would be an evil omen. Then later, when he comes home with O-lan and his baby son from the House of Hwang, he shows his superstitious nature. He boasts about how beautiful the baby is, but then he is fearful because he is walking under an open sky with his baby and any evil spirit could see the child, and, presumably, cause him harm. So Wang Lung covers the child’s head and speaks out loud to confuse any lurking evil spirit, saying it is a pity the child is a female and has smallpox and that he and O-lan should pray that it may die. It appears that this is a world in which malicious spirits practice trickery and must be outwitted by human ingenuity.

Such are the basic religious beliefs of this late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Chinese peasant society. But as the novel continues, it becomes apparent that Wang Lung is not a slave to ancient beliefs about the gods. He is at heart a practical, down-to-earth man who learns to look for comfort, solace, and peace not to the capricious gods but to the earth, the land, the bringer of sustenance and...

(This entire section contains 1305 words.)

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the giver of life. He is quite willing to reject the gods, but he never rejects the land.

It is during the famine that Wang Lung’s attitude to the gods starts to undergo a radical change. Like Job in the Bible, when suffering comes Wang Lung expresses his frustration with God. But he goes further even than Job, directly accusing the “Old Man in Heaven” of being wicked, although he does feel a twinge of fear at doing so. When he goes to the temple, instead of burning incense, he spits on the face of the god. But the god and his consort “sat there unmoved by anything and Wang Lung gnashed his teeth at them.” Wang Lung repeats these sentiments when the famine is over and he has returned from the city. Peering into the temple, he sees that the statues of the gods have fallen into ruin. No one has been paying them any attention; their faces have been washed away by the rain and their paper clothes are in tatters. These are impotent gods, indeed, and Wang Lung seems to relish the feeling of revenge that the sight of them produces in him: “Thus it is with gods who do evil to men!” he says.

Wang Lung’s religious skepticism sees him through into middle age and beyond. When he is getting on in years and Ching warns him of an approaching flood, he repeats his earlier sentiments with even greater vehemence: “I have never had any good from that old man in heaven yet. Incense or no incense, he is the same in evil.” He even tells Ching that he thinks God enjoys looking down and seeing men drowning and starving. Not surprisingly, the humble Ching is shocked and asks that his employer not talk in such a way. But Wang Lung just walks off, muttering to himself. It appears that a prosperous, successful man has no need for religion.

But often in crises or moments of emotional intensity, people suddenly return to the beliefs they think they have outgrown. So it is with Wang Lung—although with a twist. Some years after the flood, he is awaiting the birth of his grandson. When he hears from Cuckoo that it will be a long and difficult birth, he gets frightened and feels the need for spiritual support. He buys incense and goes to the temple in the town, “where the goddess of mercy dwells in her gilded alcove.” He summons a priest to make the offering. But then a thought strikes him: what if the grandchild is a girl not a boy? To offset this possibility, he strikes a more assertive note in his newly recovered piety: “If it is a grandson I will pay for a new red robe for the goddess, but nothing will I do if it is a girl!” Then he goes to the small temple on his own land, burns incense as an offering and says much the same thing to the two gods there “who watched over fields and land.” In his old age, then, Wang Lung shows that he has not quite renounced the religious beliefs and customs that are observed as a matter of course in his society. But the years have changed him. As a young man he respected the gods and was submissive to them; as a mature man, he railed against the malevolence and injustice of the gods; now, as an old man, he is willing to take them into partnership, to deal with these vexing gods as an equal, as if they were bargaining partners and he were negotiating the price of purchasing new land or selling his goods. They may be gods, but he is Wang Lung, man of substance and not to be trifled with. Over the years, he has learned his lessons; that life is hard and unpredictable; that the gods may have little care for human happiness, that he must make his own way and cleave to the land, which he venerates with the kind of fervor that others reserve for those inscrutable gods.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on The Good Earth, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

O-Lan's Character

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The Good Earth, upon its publication, caught the reader’s attention immediately. About its realism, Florence Ayscough wrote (1931):

I have lived for many years in such a country and among such people as Mrs. Buck describes, and as I read her pages I smell once more the sweet scent of bean flowers opening in the spring . . . ; all as it was and is there in the Yangtze Valley.

Similarly, Paul Hutchinson (1931) pointed out that there had never been a novel that “looked more deeply and understandingly into actual Chinese life.” The novel’s greatest effect, however, is that it humanizes the Chinese people for the American public. The readers feel a kinship toward Buck’s characters, who engage their sympathies and with whom they could easily identify. Thus Carl Van Doren, in The American Novel (1940), commented that “The Good Earth for the first time made the Chinese seem as familiar as neighbors.” The writer of a review in New Statesman and Nation (1931) said:

I can recall no novel that frees the ordinary, flesh and blood, everyday Chineseman so satisfyingly from those screens and veils and mirrors of artistic and poetic convention which nearly always make him, to the Western reader’s eye, a flat and unsubstantial figure of a pale-colored ballet.

Although Wang Lung is the main character, around whom the events in the novel revolve, O-lan seems able to gain more sympathy from the readers. A plain-looking, inarticulate, submissive, and enduring woman, O-lan plays a critical role in the ups and downs of Wang Lung and his family. Like the humble and wordless good earth, O-lan is rich in resources and silently produces and keeps life going. More than the good earth, O-lan is an intelligent, courageous, and capable woman, who makes the right decision at the right time for the family and keeps it going in health toward happiness.

In what follows, it will be shown that O-lan is a very individualized character while at the same time representative of the Chinese peasant women of her times. Like all other women, she is made aware of where her place is both in society and at home. She has also learned the principles of the Three Obediences and Four Virtues that society requires from a woman. However, it is important to see that, under such unfavorable situations, she is able to use her limited power to steer the fate of the family towards prosperity.

The first thing we notice of O-lan is her plain looks. Before we meet her for the first time, we already know from Wang Lung’s father that she is not supposed to be a pretty woman, whom a poor house like theirs does not need. At first glance, she appears to be “a square, rather tall figure,” with “neat and smooth” hair, and “clothed in clean blue cotton coat and trousers.” And “He [Wang Lung] saw with an instant’s disappointment that her feet were not bound.” Looking more closely, Wang Lung finds out that:

She had a square, honest face, a short, broad nose with large black nostrils, and her mouth was wide as a gash in her face. Her eyes were small and of a dull black in color, and were filled with some sadness that was not clearly expressed. It was a face that seemed habitually silent and unspeaking, as though it could not speak if it would . . . there was not beauty of any kind in her face—a brown, common, patient face.

The only thing Wang Lung can comfort himself with is that she has no pockmarks on her dark skin and her lips are not split.

As for O-lan’s personality, Buck let us view her first through the eyes of the Old Mistress of the House of Hwang. According to the Old Mistress, O-lan is a “good slave, although somewhat slow and stupid,” “does well what she is told to do and she has a good temper.” Next, Buck has Wang Lung, who is naturally eager and curious to find out what his bride is really like, watch her closely for the next few months after their marriage.

To Wang Lung, O-lan seems to be dull and slow. For instance, when Wang Lung wants to know if there is a side gate on their way out of the House of Hwang, “she nodded after a little thought, as though she did not understand too quickly what he said.” All the way out of the house, where she has been a slave for ten years, her face is expressionless, and her eyes “dumb” when she looks at him. Above all, the reader is constantly struck by O-lan’s silence. “She never talked . . . except for the brief necessities of life.” She does everything in her submissive ways, a virtue she has been forced to adopt. When Wang Lung shows her the box and the basket to take home, she places the heavy box on her shoulder without a word. When Wang Lung changes his mind and commands her to take the basket instead, she simply obeys, “still speechless.” Once a wife, she does her daily chores without a word; she works with Wang Lung in the fields quietly. Even in childbirth, she is silent. She appears so inarticulate that one wonders if she is capable of thinking. Wang Lung could make nothing of her. So he contents himself with the thought that she is, after all, only a woman.

However, this seemingly ordinary peasant wife surprises the reader more and more as the story goes on. As we observe more of her, especially after she is out of the House of Hwang, we find that the Old Mistress is not altogether right about her. Even Wang Lung has quite a few surprises from O-lan’s intelligence and ability. He admits to himself that “she was a woman such as not commonly found.”

We find, as the story reveals little by little, that O-lan is not only hardworking, dutiful, enduring, but also intelligent, competent, and has a practical mind to get things done toward good. Silent or inarticulate though she may be, she carries with her a quiet dignity that catches the reader’s heart.

Evidence of O-lan’s good qualities is bountiful throughout the novel. Her image as a hardworking, dutiful, and enduring woman who always serves as a provider is set from the very first day of the wedding. According to Chinese custom, even a girl from a poor family gets to wear red, has the day off from daily chores, and is waited upon on her wedding day. O-lan, however, never gets to enjoy what a wife is normally entitled to. She has no wedding clothes and no formal wedding ceremony. Out of the House of Hwang, on their way toward the small earthen house of his ancestors, they stop to burn incense before the gods in the wayside temple to the earth, which is supposedly the moment of their marriage. She has to start working hard to fulfill her duty as a wife as soon as she steps into Wang Lung’s house. The only celebration they have is the wedding “feast,” but O-lan is the one who prepares it and stays in the kitchen, working the entire time until all the guests are gone. Through the wedding feast, O-lan not only proves her own capability but also brings Wang Lung the pride he has never had among his folks, for with what little meat she has, she has “skillfully brought forth all the force of the meat itself, so that Wang Lung himself had never tasted such dishes upon the tables of his friends.”

As the wedding feast symbolizes, O-lan, in the days to come, takes what little life has to offer her and makes the best of it. Rather than just doing well what she is told to do, as the Old Mistress says about her, she does the daily chores “without a word and without being commanded to do them.” Every day, she is the first one to arise at dawn to light the stove and the last one to go to bed at midnight after making sure every household matter has been well taken care of. Furthermore, she goes to work with Wang Lung in the fields. Thus, she actually works much harder than Wang Lung, for she has the extra housework to do, meals to prepare, and the ox to be fed after a whole tiresome day’s work in the fields. She never stops working, even when she is heavy with child. Except for the firstborn. O-lan will stop working in the fields only when she had to go back to deliver. Right afterward, she would come back to work at Wang Lung’s side as if she had done nothing extraordinary. Even for the first childbirth, she surprises Wang Lung by stopping in her labor to prepare food for him and his father. When her family becomes rich, she refuses to use a slave and insists on doing everything by herself until too sick to work anymore.

It is interesting to note that O-lan’s diligence is both typical of Chinese peasant women and unique to herself. The Chinese people are noted for their willingness to work hard, and Chinese women are even more capable of doing so simply because they have more responsibilities than men. However, O-lan’s diligence seems to exceed that of peasant women in general. For example, we can safely say that very few women are able to prepare food for their family during childbirth labor. This interdependence of typicality and individualization well illustrates Buck’s skill in characterization: individualization, although seemingly the opposite to typicality, grows out of typicality rather than running counter to it.

O-lan never complains, seldom asks anything for herself for all the work she has done, and endures quietly any hardship that comes her way, both physically and emotionally. For her endurance, the reader can hardly forget the vivid scenes of her child delivering. Once critic, Barbara LeBar (1988), rightly points out that O-lan makes mockery of modern “natural” child-birth. O-lan “simply has a child. And she bears it along— without a doctor, without a midwife, without even her husband”, and, I would like to add, without scream. Furthermore, she goes back to work beside her husband without a word right after she gives birth to their second son, thinking not about herself but that the rice has to be gathered into sheaves before the rain.

During the year of famine, the entire family starves, but O-lan is the one who suffers most. Here is what Wang Lung sees after O-lan kills the infant girl to avoid another mouth to feed:

Her eyes were closed and the color of her flesh was the color of ashes and her bones stuck under the skin—a poor silent face that lay there, having endured to the utmost, and there was nothing he [Wang Lung] could say. After all, during these months he had only his own body to drag about. But this woman had endured what agony of starvation with the starved creature gnawing at her from within, desperate for its own life!

Apart from physical hardships, O-lan endures much emotional pain. When Wang Lung gets tired of O-lan and becomes infatuated with Lotus, he reproaches her for not dressing properly and having feet too big to be fit for a landowner’s wife. O-lan takes the reproach humbly and hides her feet under the bench. At Wang lung’s anger, she only says in a whisper: “My mother did not bind them, since I was sold so young. But the little girl’s feet I will bind.”

The most unbearable thing that O-lan confronts is the time when Wang Lung forces her to give up the two pearls, which she wants to keep not for her own sake, but as a future wedding gift for her younger daughter. When Wang Lung laughs at the sight of the pearls O-lan puts in the hands,

O-lan returned to the beating of his clothes and when tears dropped slowly and heavily from her eyes she did not put up her hand to wipe them away; only she beat the more steadily with her wooden stick upon the clothes spread over the stones.

When Wang Lung takes Lotus into the house, O-lan goes to work in the fields and comes back silently, saying nothing to anyone, and goes into the kitchen to do her duty as she always does. At night, she sleeps alone by herself, burying her sorrow all in her heart.

One wonders how O-lan could endure so much in silence. Is she really dull and not capable of thinking? Wang Lung cannot make anything of her, thus giving up his attempt to understand her. However, the discerning reader would find that O-lan is anything but dull.

O-lan’s silent endurance of hardship and pain has its roots in the mistratement women of her times received from society. As indicated in chapter 2, Chinese society offered women so little that they had learned to expect little from life. Even to gain that little, they had to make much effort and to endure the kind of suffering that their male counterparts did not. This is especially true for a woman like O-lan, who comes from the bottom of society as a slave girl. Having been freed from slavery and becoming a landowner’s wife is already more than she could expect; any hardship in this capacity would seem nothing compared with what she has had to endure as a slave.

O-lan’s silence can also be explained by her miserable past experiences. Having been sold at the age of ten to the House of Hwang in times for famine, O-lan has been severely oppressed and mistreated for ten years. From her habitual slavegirl gesture of raising her arms as if to defend herself from a blow, and her brief unconscious words in her last hours, we gather that she has been forced to accept the fact that she is ugly and therefore not to be loved. Even among the slaves, she is at the bottom, not even allowed to appear before the great lord of the house. She has been beaten for the smallest mistake she makes and anyone can scold her for no fault of her own. There is no place for her to speak. Besides, women were viewed as inferior and supposed to be submissive to men. So, once married to Wang Lung, she tries to do all in her silent obedience. Her silence is therefore one of her trademarks, indicating her personality, her background, and her effort to make her behavior acceptable.

Despite the oppression, O-lan, like other women, “has her joys and sorrows and experiences a full range of human emotions” (Li 1989, 99). In her silence we see her pride, desire, stubbornness, and temper. She is proud of the fact that she is doing well as Wang Lung’s wife, for there is “not one slave with a new coat like mine” in the House of Hwang; she is proud of her first son because “there was not even a child among the concubines of the Old Master himself to compare to him in beauty and in dress.” She is also proud of having been a mother, who has produced so many sons for the family. Such pride, as Doyle (1980) comments, “is particularly touching because O-lan wants and expects so little from life.”

O-lan has a love for beauty. When she hands all the jewels to Wang Lung, she asks to keep two smooth white pearls for herself. At this,

Wang Lung, without comprehending it, looked for an instant for an instant into the heart of this dull and faithful creature, who had labored all her life at some task at which she won no reward and who in the great house had seen others wearing jewels which she never even felt in her had once.

To his puzzled eyes, O-lan only says: “I could hold them in my hand sometimes.” Later, when Wang Lung cruelly takes them from her to give to Lotus, O-lan said nothing, but her tears, which have been seldom shed, suggest that she is heartbroken.

The quiet O-lan also possesses self-dignity. For instance, while she tolerates Lotus for Wang Lung’s sake, she refuses to serve or speak to Cuckoo, who, when a superior in the House of Hwang, was cruel and picky. She protest to Wang Lung, which she seldom does, against the presence of Cuckoo in her house and shows her disdain by ignoring Cuckoo’s existence. She says, “with a sullenness deeper than ever upon her face, ‘I am not slave of slaves in this house at least.’”

O-lan is in fact very intelligent, thoughtful, and much more practical than Wang Lung— qualities that seem to have been lost in her silence. She is like a pond of still water that runs deep. Buck only occasionally offers her reader the opportunity to glance at her depth. For instance, before she and her husband return to visit the House of Hwang with their firstborn, O-lan astonishes Wang Lung with her careful planning. He has not expected her, with the way she has gone about her work, to have thought about their unborn child and what she will do when she returns to the house where she used to be a slave. But he finds the child fully clothed and the mother in a new coat also. It turns out that, although she says nothing a while working by his side in the fields, she has been making plans for the event by herself all along.

O-lan’s intelligence is shown in many cases—not only in terms of the way she sees things, but also in terms of how she expresses her own opinion and gets things done while still seeming to remain obedient and submissive. When Wang Lung first thinks of buying land from Hwang, she responds with much shrewdness. Though, at first, she does not think that buying land from Huang is a good idea, she does not immediately state her opinion against Wang Lung. Instead, she makes it clear that she supports his idea of buying land, for she thinks it better than putting money into a mud wall. Meanwhile, she shows more consideration for the practicality of buying land from Hwang, pointing out that the land is too far away and they would have to walk the whole morning to reach it. Seeing that Wang Lung’s mind is set on buying it, however, she submits to his decision, again thinking about it in more practical terms: “rice land is good, and it is near the moat and we can get water every year.”

During the famine, she helps Wang Lung to resist his uncle and two city slickers who have been pressing him to sell their land. She sees farsightedly that if they sold the land then, they would have nothing to feed themselves when they return from the south. She will sell the furniture since they have to move, but she will not sell the hoes and plows, which they will need to work on the land. In the city, it is O-lan who is shrewd enough to know what kind of mats are the best buy and clever enough to shape them into a comparatively comfortable hut, with a rounded roof and a matted floor, as a family shelter.

O-lan is also more practical than Wang Lung in many other ways. Wang Lung cannot bear to kill the ox and eat the meat, while O-lan sees an ox as an ox, which should be sacrificed to save human lives. Similarly, when their second son brings home some meat, Wang Lung throws it away because it is stolen. O-lan simply picks up the meat, washes the dirt off and puts it back into the boiling pot, for “Meat is meat,” as she says quietly, and it is the time of famine.

However, in doing all this, O-lan never lets herself appear more intelligent than Wang Lung, never complains or criticizes Wang Lung for his improper behavior, and almost never openly speaks a word against him. When Wang Lung is incapable of carrying out a certain task, she takes things over in her own hands only as if simply to complete what Wang Lung has left unfinished. She knows that she ought to appear subordinate to her husband.

Though O-lan does not speak, she sees everything clearly. It is she who senses the incestuous relationship between their eldest son and Lotus and suggests sending him away to the south to avoid a family scandal. She also discerns that Wang Lung is more and more like the lords in the great house and that what has happened in the House of Hwang would happen in their family. However, she is now helpless, as Wang Lung has forsaken her. She knows that Wang Lung does not love her, a fact that Wang Lung later learns from his daughter.

Wang Lung feels sad “because with all her dimness O-lan had seen the truth in him.” When O-lan chooses to speak, she does it logically and forcefully. Here is what she says to the villagers who come to loot their house:

It is not yet time to take our table and the benches and the bed from our house. You have all our food. But out of your own houses you have not sold yet your table and your benches. Leave us ours. We are even. We have not a bean or a grain of corn more than you—no, you have more than we, now, for you have all of ours. Heaven will strike you if you take more. Now, we will go out together and hunt for grass to eat and bark from the trees, you for your children, and we for our three children, and for this fourth who is to be born in such times.

When she marries Wang Lung, O-lan knows what is expected of her and, compared to being a slave, her social status is instantly elevated. Therefore, she does not mind the hard work as a wife and takes a submissive position to her husband. Besides, she cares very much for Wang Lung, to whom she gives all her devotion and for whose happiness she will do anything. The reason for her silence is not that she does not know how to speak, but because she has deliberately chosen not to speak and has long formed such a habit. Though we know that she is often more shrewd than Wang Lung, she never shows it off and is always supportive and submissive to Wang Lung’s will. Only when compelled by crises, when Wang Lung is too weak-minded to deal with the situation, does she come forward. When this happens, she is still supportive to her husband, never making him feel embarrassed. She does what has to be done or says what has to be said when needed.

Putting all these good qualities—endurance, silence, intelligence, resourcefulness, and practicality— together, we see in O-lan a very individualized character. Her individuality, it should be noted, is believable as well, because it embodies the typical characteristics of the Chinese peasant women in her times and reflects the actual social conditions under which she lives.

O-lan manages not only to achieve some measure of happiness and autonomy for herself, but also brings love, warmth, and comfort into Wang Lung’s house and steers Wang Lung’s life toward success, wealth, and happiness. Before O-lan’s coming to the house, Wang Lung has to take care of the house and his old father besides working daily in the fields. Life is miserable for him. With O-lan’s coming, his life turns dramatically from the first day of his wedding, when O-lan takes all the household chores over to herself. Wang Lung begins to enjoy “this luxury of living” he has never had before. Now, he can afford to lie “in his bed warm and satisfied,” “tasting and savoring in his mind and flesh his luxury of idleness” “while in the kitchen the woman fed the fire and boiled the water.” Even hard work in the fields becomes a luxury, because when it is done he can go back to his house, which O-lan has made clean and comfortable, and where food is always ready and delicious for his appetite.

With O-lan’s diligence, thriftiness, and skillful management, the family’s livelihood is much improved. Before marrying O-lan, no matter how hard Wang Lung worked, they were poor. Now they are able to save money on fuel and fertilizer, for O-lan gathers them herself. With O-lan working with him in the fields, he is even able to have some extra money at the harvest time to buy a piece of land. More importantly, O-lan has produced children, especially sons, one after another, rendering the house full of life.

Apart from the physical changes O-lan has brought to Wang Lung’s life, she gives Wang Lung pride, happiness, and confidence. Just look how proud Wang Lung is at the wedding feast, how delighted when their first son is born, and how happy when he gives the red eggs to his friends and the villagers to celebrate the “big happiness.” “Wang Lung felt his heart fit to burst with pride. There was no other woman in the village able to do what his had done, to make cakes such as only the rich ate at the feast.” When they go to House of Hwang, with his whole family dressed in new clothes O-lan has made and the cakes O-lan has prepared, Wang Lung, for the first time in his life, holds his head high with self-esteem.

These are enough to illustrate O-lan’s importance in Wang Lung’s life. But O-lan does more. If any ordinary wife can accomplish what O-lan has done to make the life of the family better, O-lan is quite extraordinary for her crucial actions at critical times to steer her husband’s and the family’s fate.

The first extraordinary act of O-lan is the killing of the ox in the time of famine. It is not that O-lan has a harder heart, but that she knows that, with nothing else to eat, the ox must be killed for the family to survive. Besides, as she sees it: “Eat, for there will be another one day and far better than this one.” The meat of the ox saves the family from starving to death.

Another critical moment is when the villagers, driven by hunger and desperation, come to loot Wang Lung’s house. It is O-lan who, with her pregnant belly, brings them back to their senses. Later, by selling these bits of furniture O-lan has saved, they are able to make the trip to the south.

When Wang Lung, in a moment of weakness, is about to agree to sell their land for a little money to feed the family, O-lan comes forward to prevent it. When she is talking, “There was some calmness in her voice which carried more strength than Wang Lung’s anger.” Afterward, O-lan helps Wang Lung to make up his mind to go south.

The most shocking thing O-lan does, especially to the Western eye, may be the killing of her second infant girl at its birth. However, her “reasons for so acting,” as Ms. LeBar says (1988), “are as compelling as any in fact or fiction.” Firstly, they could not afford to feed another mouth when the whole family is already starved. Secondly, in her condition, she herself cannot possibly feed the new baby, who, therefore, cannot survive for long anyway. Thirdly, O-lan does it so that they can have less worry and difficulty to make the trip to the south, which, as it later turns out, will save the life of the whole family. Weighing the pros and cons, knowing Wang Lung does not want this girl at such a time, O-lan makes the decision to do the unimaginable and takes the guilt all to herself. LeBar thinks that O-lan “terminated an unwanted pregnancy in a way not too much different from the way it is done in modern times at local abortion clinics.” To explain this seemingly cruel action, Pearl Buck says, in My Several Worlds (1954):

It was inevitable that the very reality of their lives made them sometimes cruel. A farm woman could strangle her own newborn girl baby if she were desperate enough at the thought of another mouth added to the family, but she wept while she did it and the weeping was raw sorrow, not simply at what she did, but far deeper, over the necessity she felt to do it.

Wang Lung’s rise to wealth owes much to O-lan, particularly to the jewelry O-lan discovers in a rich man’s house during a looting. Taking the jewelry may suggest dishonesty on O-lan’s part, but the situation O-lan is placed in seems to justify her act. First, this is something O-lan would not normally do if she were not swept into the mass looting. Second, having been a slave in a rich man’s house before, she knows how extravagantly the rich live. When her family faces starvation, it is only human for her to take whatever comes her way. Besides, as Li Bo noted (1989),

It was not an uncommon thing in China during the 1920s and 1930s for the poor people to break into rich people’s houses and seize their properties because they regarded the rich as their oppressors and exploiters. O-lan never felt guilty about her robbery because it was not considered a bad thing in her time.

The jewels O-lan gets enables Wang Lung to buy more and more land and finally takes Wang Lung to the position he has never dreamed of reaching. Wang Lung himself knows in his heart that all the riches he has gotten would have been impossible if O-lan had not found the jewels and had not given them to him when he commanded her.

What is more important, O-lan is the central good force of the family, serving as a cohesive tie to hold the family together. With O-lan as the wife and mother, there is plenty of love, warmth, comfort, and a healthy atmosphere in the house, which, as Doan (1965) points out, “are essential for family happiness.” The old father becomes healthy and contented; the children are well cared for, among whom the retarded daughter receives special attention; Wang Lung himself is satisfied and happy, at least for the first several years.

From this, we see that it is O-lan who sees the family through all the crises; it is O-lan who gets done what has to be done; it is O-lan who holds the family together; and it is O-lan on whom Wang Lung’s wealth and fate rest. No wonder that, to Buck, O-lan, with her almost inexhaustible resource of life, symbolizes the good earth which has borne and sustained the life of the Chinese peasants for more than two thousand years:

The woman [O-lan] and the child were as brown as the soil and they sat there like figures made of earth. . . . But out of the woman’s great brown breast the milk gushed forth for the child . . . if flowed like a fountain . . . life enough for many children, and she let it flow out carelessly, conscious of her abundance.

The crucial role O-lan plays in the family is significant in many ways. First, it adds much individuality to O-lan as a complex, dynamic character, making her unique and memorable. Second, it reflects Buck’s feminist point of view. The Good Earth is considered an epic, telling the ups and downs of Wang Lung, but it is O-lan who is the driving force for his rise to prosperity and higher social status.

As if the events discussed thus far are not enough to suggest O-lan’s importance, Buck sets up a contrast in Wang Lung’s family between the time when he works with O-lan and the time when he turns away from her. During the former time, Wang Lung’s family survives crisis one after another and gradually obtains prosperity. However, as soon as Wang Lung turns away from O-lan, love, warmth, and peace vanish from the house and lust, quarrelling, and sickness set in. Wang Lung’s morality deteriorates greatly once he turns from O-lan to Lotus. He thinks himself entitled to frequenting the teahouse in town and having concubines, giving no consideration to O-lan’s feelings. He becomes a brute, pouring all his anger upon O-lan because she is too common, too ugly to suit his new status.

Yet Lotus, whom Wang Lung feels he needs now as a rich man and later takes home to be his second wife, is nothing more than a sexual object for Wang Lung, a toy for him to play with. Once Wang Lung becomes infatuated with Lotus, he neglects O-lan entirely. He never notices that O-lan’s health has greatly deteriorated and “he had not thought why she had been willing at last to stay in the house and why she moved slowly and more slowly about.” O-lan finally dies of a stomach illness, due to much hardship, fatigue, and a long time of neglect of her disease.

Without O-lan, the house falls apart: “for the first time Wang Lung and his children knew what she had been in the house, and how she made comfort for them all and they had not known it.” No one seems to know how to light the stove and how to cook and no one bothers to clean the house. The retarded girl is once left outside in the cold the whole night and almost dies from the illness she gets as a result. The old father is neglected and dies soon after O-lan’s death. There are plenty of women in the house, but Wang Lung knows in his heart that there will never be the kind of love and care O-lan once gave him and his children. The house is divided and declining.

As a representative of the old-fashioned Chinese country women, a Confucian model of a caring mother and a faithful wife, O-lan’s qualities are more appreciated when compared to other, minor characters in the novel: Wang Laung’s concubines Lotus and Pear Blossom, and Cuckoo, Lotus’s slave.

Lotus is everything O-lan is not. She entices Wang Lung because she loves his money. It is there no surprise that she contributes nothing to the family but jealousy and turmoil. While O-lan is the central force that unites the family, Lotus is a bad disease, infecting and weakening it. Every time Wang Lung is with Lotus, he comes home illtempered toward everyone. With her, Wang Lung does not only part from O-lan, but is also shunned by his children. To make it worse, Lotus develops an incestuous relationship with Wang Lung’s eldest son, bringing shame and pain to the family.

Pear Blossom, a young girl whom Wang Lung takes as a third wife in his old age, shares some similarity with O-lan. She remains faithful to Wang Lung and takes care of the retarded daughter for O-lan until the end of her days. However, she lacks the kind of courage and ability we have seen in O-lan.

Cuckoo, a slave, cannot compare to O-lan, a former slave herself. She is a snob, bullying fellow slave girls below her position but fawning on her superiors and the rich, from whom she thinks she can benefit. When her master is rich, she tries to entice him. Once his family’s wealth collapses, she betrays him. She uses the money she has taken from the old master to run a teahouse, but when she sees less work and more comfort and security to be gained in going into Wang Lung’s house with Lotus, she chooses to be a slave again. Her behavior is even despised by O-lan who, as we have seen, seldom thinks ill of others: “You may have lived in the courts of the Old Lord, and you were accounted beautiful, but I have been a man’s wife and I have borne him sons, and you are still a slave.”

It is also interesting to compare O-lan with Madame Wu, in Pavilion of Women. At first sight, we see primarily differences. O-lan is quiet and inarticulate; Madame Wu is eloquent. O-lan does not come forward unless in some crisis that Wang Lung cannot handle; Madame Wu is always in the forefront of every family affair. O-lan does not have much control over the family decisions; Madame Wu is the maker of all decisions in the House of Wu. They even differ in appearance: While O-lan is plain-looking, Madame Wu is beautiful.

All these differences are, however, only superficial. They have many commonalities between them. They are both intelligent, courageous, hardworking, capable, and dignified; they both play crucial roles in the fate of their respective families.

How can we explain these differences on the one hand and similarities on the other, then? Such an explanation, in fact, is not hard to obtain. It can be sought in the origins of the two characters and the socioeconomic conditions they find themselves in. In terms of origin, O-lan’s is humble whereas Madame Wu’s is not. Having been a slave makes O-lan short of words and submissive. Being born and bred in a family of wealth provides Madame Wu the opportunity to be educated, thus becoming eloquent and dominant. In terms of socioeconomic conditions, O-lan is married into a poor peasant family, which means that her life will be characterized by hardship and submissiveness to her husband, whereas Madame Wu is wedded to a wealthy husband with a big family, which means that she will have the responsibility to oversee all affairs of the house, providing her with a stage to display all her intelligence and ability.

However, these differences do not necessarily prevent them from sharing positive qualities, qualities that can only be found in their very being. In other words, Buck may have offered the two characters different stages to perform and allowed them to act in different ways toward similar events in their respective lives, but she has bestowed on them the same nobility and admirability, hence the same credibility as literary characters. O-lan possesses better qualities than her husband.

O-lan, like many of Buck’s Chinese women characters, is shown to have “more integrity, more steadfastness, more endurance in the crises and affairs of life”, while Wang Lung displays weakness in such situations. As he changes from a poor peasant to a wealthy landlord, he completely loses his integrity. He no longer works hard, and instead forsakes the land, takes concubines, betrays his wife, and lives and idle and corrupted life. In times of difficulty, he is happy and grateful to have O-lan as his wife. When he rises to prosperity, he deplores her ugliness and thinks that O-lan no longer fits his position.

Portraying Wang Lung as such does not only reveal Buck’s conviction that Chinese women are better than men, but also that men’s corruption has been caused, in part at least, by society. Buck tells us, through the narration, that Wang Lung is only doing what other men of wealth and leisure are supposed to do. Therefore, O-lan is, as Charles W. Hayford (1992) points out, “betrayed (but not broken) as much by her husband’s weak character as by social attitudes.”

Through O-lan, Buck seems to suggest that, although oppressed, Chinese women, even the peasant women, have the same fine qualities as women elsewhere in the world. They have strength, courage, and insight as well as a practical mind to steer the fate and future of a family and to struggle for dignity and happiness.

Source: Xiongya Gao, “Peasant Women: The Good Earth,” in Pearl S. Buck’s Chinese Women Characters, Associated University Presses, 2000, pp. 91–106.

Epic Qualities in Buck’s Novels

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It was certainly the power of Pearl S. Buck’s fiction that brought her to the tables of presidents and into the counsels of ambassadors. It was the enchantment of her stories that captivated millions around the globe and won her the Nobel Prize, making her the first woman recipient of both the Pulitzer and the Nobel awards for literature. And yet the keepers of academic gates have hardly shown much zeal for her work. When they have praised her, as did Henry Seidel Canby in his 1938 review of The Good Earth, or Carl Van Doren in his 1940 study The American Novel, 1789–1939, the compliment has been as stinted as it has been patronizing. Confronted by such critical climate, one scans the academic skies, but, like Wang Lung in the years of drought, sees not a sign of a fertilizing cloud, not a mention of Pearl S. Buck in academic journals or critical debates in the country, not even when popular fiction receives rising scholarly attention and when multiculturalism happens to be the rallying cry on quite a few campuses.

In view of such general timidity, I find a special reason to commend the faculty and the administration of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College for their having opted to stir up some critical and academic dialogue about Buck’s stature as a writer while they could as well have had a party to celebrate the glorious career of their distinguished alumna.

The neglect of Pearl S. Buck’s fiction, even if benign, is, to an observer, a matter of cultural bafflement. Today, while women writers of smaller talents are avidly read, little notice is taken of the substantial work that Pearl S. Buck produced, and the best of it excellent by many critical standards. Whether it is some critical orthodoxy, or a popular prejudice against her chosen subject, or an aspect of her life that keeps Buck’s work from being assimilated as part of our intellectual heritage is an issue that belongs, I think, to another topic. I shall, therefore, forbear from speculating about the causes of her exclusion from the academy.

I shall only indicate why she read, rather than explain why she is not being read, especially at universities and colleges where her work has the potential of doing much social good.

Unlike Thomas Lask, who regards her books as “facile” and “slick,” or Paul A. Doyle, who finds her stories improbable and simplistic, I find in Buck’s tales the compelling power, and in her style the touches of sublimity, which, as in the case of all great literature, release the readers from the numbing round of their daily life and transport them to new regions of thought and feelings. To read her trilogy House of Earth is to confront in all its fullness the part of humanity that had, by and large, gone unrepresented in Western literature. Not only does Buck install at the world’s banquet table a guest frequently heard of but seldom seen there; she also confers human decency and literary dignity upon peasants and slaves, upon the disinherited of the earth who seldom had their portrait taken. The peasants who had been granted only entrances and exits—except in Hardy’s, Hauptmann’s, or Brecht’s fiction—are now allowed the whole stage to themselves. Pearl S. Buck enfranchises the mute and the inarticulate half of humanity simply by creating a literary space where they can enact the sheer truths of their impoverished existence. Nowhere is a better proof of this daughter of America’s commitment to democracy to be found than in her trilogy. And if her work is infinitely gentler than Soviet writing, where a worker falls in love with his tractor and lives happily thereafter, it is because the human spirit is dearer than any ideology.

To take Pearl S. Buck’s true measure, it may be necessary to recall that an average English novel tends to fasten itself on a particular scene, attend to a set of characters, and see them through a course of action by the time the curtain is ready to come down. When we are done with the novel, if we remember it at all, what we turn over in our mind is some traits of a character, the nature of a locality, or the social and psychological issue from which the story evolved. Not so with the The Good Earth, however. What we are left with is a feeling of immensity, the sensation of having watched from space the life of earthlings, embroiled in a struggle for existence—ploughing, fighting, mating, dying—while the earth keeps turning and turning, sometimes parched by the sun, sometimes swept by floods, at times invaded by locusts and pestilence. Like Tennyson’s gods looking down upon the Lotos land, then we watch from high

Blight and famine, plague and earthquake, roaring
deeps and fiery sands
Clanging fights, and flaming towns, and sinking
ships, and praying hands.

The reader reviews from the author’s grandstand, again in Tennyson’s words,

. . . an ill-used race of men that cleave the soil,
Sow the seed, and reap the harvest with enduring toil.

Now such a capacity in the writer to wrest from the obscuring flux of life sharp patterns of human existence and to a project their ceaseless cavalcade through tumbling seasons of the earth is a rare gift indeed. And it is the gift, generally, of an epic writer, of one endowed with a macroscopic vision, of a writer who sees life and sees it whole. That hers was such a vision is borne out by passage after passage in The Good Earth. We are told what Wang Lung and O-lan encountered working in their field: “Sometimes they turned up a bit of brick, a splinter of wood. It was nothing. Some time, in some age, bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses has stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth. So would also their house, some time, return into the earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth.” After reading this, the earth appears no strange place, nor death a terror. This couple but rehearses what generations of human ancestors have perpetually gone through.

Ezra Pound, summing up Henry James’s achievement, remarked upon the latter’s epic talent, which, according to him, consisted in James’s capacity to “show race against race; immutable; the essential Americanness, or Englishness, or Frenchness.” Buck’s powerful narrative conveys to the reader not only the Chineseness of her characters, but also a feel of what it must have been like to be living in the era between the old dynasty and the modern state.

It conveys something else, too: the recurring scheme of life on the planet, caught amid the cycles of seasons and the alternating pattern of plenty and scarcity. Equipped, like an epic writer, with a prophet’s vision that can not only see, but also reveal to others, the patterns that are embedded in human lives and Nature’s kingdom, Buck brings all this to her readers, and without leaving them with any sense of despondence either. When we are told that “the woman and the child were as brown as the soil and they sat there like figures made of earth [and] there was dust of the fields upon the woman’s hair and upon the child’s soft black head”, we find there is nothing for tears in their plight. Eternal like the earth, they are possessed of its strength. There is such vitality in their motion that nothing, it seems, can stop this fountain of life. If we begin Buck’s novel with some curiosity, we end it with wisdom.

Now such an effect is rarely achieved by a realistic novel, which specializes in compiling a record of each fact like a police diary. Its chronicle can, at best, show us the root and branches of some trees, but never the shape of the entire wood. The latter effect is achieved by works like Homer’s Odyssey, or a novel like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, where the entire social fabric is rendered for our contemplation. The only two American novels that come close to this stature are Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). What makes Buck’s achievement all the more remarkable is the fact that her novel arrived nine years before Steinback’s and might well have served as a model for his work.

Let us briefly examine precisely how she goes about her work: she makes up a captivating tale, captivating not so much because its subject is exotic as because its appeal is universal. The story that opens with a young man’s preparation for his marriage takes us through his contented years with his wife, his struggles against grinding poverty, and the virtual starvation of his family. Then, when the heavens relent, Wang Lung attains prosperity, reaches mid-life crisis, goes through certain flings, and is smitten by anxiety for his children, who embark on searches of their own. Things approach a closure with his wife’s, then his father’s death. Soon after his children have reached adulthood, we find him preparing to meet his death, after which, we know, his children will abandon the lands into which he had poured his sweat and blood and of which he had become a part. Thus, within the covers of a book, we see two generations pass away and the third ready to spring out on its own.

The reason her story is gripping and credible is that Buck, like a true epic writer, transplants details that are realistic to a plot that is both fantastic and mythic. Wang Lung, like all culture heroes—like a Theseus, a Moses, a Rama—leads his people on a frightening journey from “the Northern province of Anhwei” to the southern city of Nanjing. What they encounter in the urban ghetto is chronic deprivation, moral anarchy, and political lawlessness. Wang Lung, an Eastern Job, suffers physically and psychologically, yet never gives up either his courage or his dream.

On the contrary, he brings his people through, brings them not only home, but to a peak of prosperity, founding, in the bargain, a family which shall have to be reckoned with for a least another three generations. At its base, the plot is but a variation of the Cinderella story, of a rags-to-riches romance, all the more engaging because first we witness here human life stripped of all pretensions, in its bare essentials: in its hunger and cupidity, in its sexuality and self-centeredness. But we stay to witness, too, daring and noble self-sacrifices. For, of characters, there is God’s plenty here. If we come across social leeches, like Cuckoo, we find here mothers, too, like O-lan, who is at once patient and courageous, pragmatic yet noble. If we are confronted by the bullying gateman at the ancient house of the north, the one who keeps twisting the three hairs of his mole, we meet, in the south, the crusty hot-water seller, the one who hides Wang Lung behind his cauldron when the soldiers come looking for the able-bodied in the shantytown. A garrulous old lord is balanced on Buck’s canvas by a seductive young slave. A revolutionary finds, as a counterpoint, a missionary, who goes about distributing pictures of Christ on the cross to uncomprehending heathens. Faithful neighbors like Ching serve as a counterbalance to robbers like the rapacious uncle. The mob of a city and the laborers of the fields, all find their place in this gigantic portrait of humankind.

Similarly, all the enterprises of life, from courting through wedding to copulation, birth, and burial, are covered here. The pages of the novel, as a consequence, seem bristling with motion and vitality. What ennobles the narrative is the stature of Wang Lung, who, though a contemporary of Prufrock, is more like a Prometheus. O-lan, too, compels by her determination a comparison with the heroines of Greek Tragedies. By discovering for us innate nobility and willful tenacity among the poor peasants of China, Pearl S. Buck makes us realize the worth of the people written off as of no consequence unless they are acting as a mob.

The crowded canvas of the epic novel is accompanied by a comprehensive range. For what makes an epic different from any other genre is that it casts its net wide and captures the entire communal life of a people: their manners, their rituals, their customs; their food and dress and medicines; their forms of government and their ways of worship. The Good Earth shows us all: the rituals of the community, the social gestures, the superstitions, the New Year’s feast, the wedding gifts, and the burial ceremonies. The earth gods, we realize, must be remembered at all crucial occasions—upon the marriage and the birth, at mournings and festivals—and they must be remembered even when they curse and afflict the people who adore them. The whole range of behaviors confronts us, thus, not only with the social picture of a people, but also with their “unconscious metaphysics,” the ethos which defines them as a memorable entity.

What lends epic qualities to the novel, though, is not merely the mythos and the human crowd. At work here is, to use Longinus’ words, in addition to “the faculty of grasping great conceptions,” besides “dignified and spirited composition,” a grand style, one forged under the mighty influence of the Bible.

If we look at the text closely, we notice the repetitive phrase and the recursive image of time so typical of Old Testament narrative. We may be running full tilt and, suddenly, we ram into expressions like “his heart pained him with longing for that which was passed.” “Was passed,” not the ordinary “had passed.” We are reined in by phrases like “he was so amazed at what had come about”, reminiscent of the suggestive grandeur of the simple, almost austere, phrasing of the King James version of the Bible. The mythical resonance of the plot, which speaks to our unconscious, is, in this novel, enhanced by a style whose dignified echoes have become part of our collective auditory imagination.

The larger picture of the novel is framed by a fearful symmetry: it opens with the coughing shadow of Wang Lung’s father waiting for his boiled water, and closes with Wang Lung’s occupying the spot where his father used to lean against the wall; it begins with the grandfather waiting for the warm bodies of his grandchildren, and ends with the father who is mocked by the cold stares of his sons plotting to sell the land he had acquired with heroic efforts. The land acquired, acre by acre, with blood and sweat, and preserved for posterity by an iron will, is sold off by the progeny for creature comforts. The grand human tale, subverted by a terrible irony, reveals life to be but vanitas vanitatum leading us to deep contemplation.

It is a mischief to equate Pearl S. Buck’s fiction with popular romance. Even if we were to ignore the generosity and the decency of the novelist’s conscience, her sensitivity to women’s cruel situation, her quiet anger at social injustice, the aesthetics of the novel would have enough, besides its ethics, to keep the readers embroiled in a debate. Therefore when critics complain that Pearl S. Buck “lacks a Camus-like intellect” and that she suffers from a Victorian reserve in handling sexual material, one knows that they are asking for a pint of gin at a health shop. But the history of reading is filled with such misreadings. What is amusing in our situation is our inability to abandon old positions even after we have witnessed several critical revolutions. Some readers would slight The Good Earth because, they argue, historically it is inaccurate. But she was not writing a book of history; she was writing an epic, a story not merely of three generations but of entire China, of the human life itself. History, Aristotle warns us, “relates what has happened,” and poetry/epic “what may happen.” Buck’s novel carries a greater truth than the chronicle of one-shot events. Its tale has a larger validity, for it can as well be read as an extended allegory of the fates of all families, Japanese, Indian, or American.

When we correct one angle of a square, all the angles of the square, we know, correct themselves. If we can but bring ourselves to read Buck’s works as we read other received texts—exploring their verbal and thematic complexities—we may discover that the best of her work is what appears but once in the greatest of literary traditions—a powerful and abiding tale told by an untutored imagination.

One thing is very clear: if there is no one to fight for the turf, the turf will not be protected. And here rests a challenge for all those who believe that their lives and minds have been enriched by their contacts with Pearl S. Buck’s work.

Source: Pradyumna S. Chauhan, “Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth: The Novel As Epic,” in The Several Worlds of Pearl S. Buck: Essays Presented at a Centennial Symposium, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, March 26–28, 1992, edited by Elizabeth J. Lipscomb, Frances E. Webb, and Peter Conn, Greenwood Press, 1994, pp. 119–24.


Critical Overview