The Good Earth is Buck’s masterpiece. Even though she wrote more than eighty books after its 1931 publication, it is her best-remembered work. Made up of thirty-four chapters dividing the story into two distinct parts, it tells of four generations of a Chinese family as it grows from poverty to prosperity. The narrative begins when young peasant farmer Wang Lung meets his bride, a slave girl named O-Lan, on the day of their arranged marriage. It ends when Wang Lung is an old man, a father and grandfather, placidly awaiting the end of his days.
The novel, a roman-fleuve, tells the saga of Wang Lung’s family and its changes over the years. It is also an in-depth character study of Wang Lung, revealing the many sides of his personality. When first seen, he is a timid, humble young man on his wedding day with several admirable qualities: He is hard-working, unquestioningly doing the backbreaking work necessary to make his farm productive. He is respectful of his old father and to the gods he believes hold power over his farm’s productivity. He may not love his wife, whom he meets for the first time on their wedding day, but he is as considerate of her as a good husband is expected to be and rarely has a harsh word for her. He even shows appreciation for her uncomplaining labor beside him in the fields, for her presenting him with three sons, and for her subservient kindness to his old father.
Though Wang Lung is illiterate, he is not a stupid man. He understands the value of his land and the importance of increasing his holdings whenever he can. Thus he shows shrewdness, saving money from his harvests and buying land until eventually he is one of the richest men in the region. When others around him sell their crops as soon as they are harvested, he understands the wisdom of holding back until demand is higher and prices are greater. By doing so, he manages to make a profit when others are only subsisting.
Still, when drought hits the region, even his thrifty ways do not prepare him for the famine that strikes everyone in the province. He must pack himself and his family off to a less stricken area in the south. There, in a city, his family begs while he, desiring to work instead of beg, pulls a ricksha. The southern city brings out another side of his character: When a frightened rich man whose home is being looted by rioting peasants thinks Wang Lung is a threat and offers him gold to spare his life, Wang Lung takes the money. He uses it to take his family back to his farm and to purchase additional acreage as well.
His resulting prosperity produces unpleasant qualities in Wang Lung. He spends less time actually working his farm; he hires workers to till his “good earth” and bring about the harvests. Bored and displeased with his plain-looking drudge of wife, he frequents a tea house, where he falls in lust with a young, pretty prostitute named Lotus. He takes her home as his concubine. He has no consideration for O-Lan’s feelings about the arrangement;...
(The entire section is 1233 words.)