Pearl S. Buck Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2376

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...

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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.

“Hearts Come Home”

In “Hearts Come Home,” a modern young businessman of China finally affirms the old ways of his culture. David Lin, a manager in a printing house, discovers to his surprise a young woman of simple beauty and individuality in the unlikely setting of a sophisticated modern dance in the home of a wealthy banker. The girl turns out to be the banker’s daughter, visiting her father briefly before returning to school. Sensing in her a kindred spirit, Lin falls desperately in love with her because she is so different from the other sophisticated women of Shanghai.

Throughout David Lin’s pursuit of Phyllis, the atmosphere, dialogue, and actions of their courtship heighten cultural contrasts between old and new in China. David spares no expense in treating her to the finest modern entertainment: They dance, drive about in the car, enjoy imported foods, and converse in a fashionable mixture of Chinese and American slang. Yet they grow distant rather than intimate; although they exchange kisses in the American fashion, David perceives Phyllis withdrawing from him, hiding her true personality more and more as the days pass.

He learns why one day when she suddenly asks him in Chinese whether he actually enjoys what they are doing, dancing in such a foreign and unrestrained style. Discovering that they share a dislike for dancing, she opens her heart to him, revealing to his pleased surprise that foreign things disgust her and that she does them only to please him.

The love for tradition that David and Phyllis share brings them close to each other in a new way. They exchange their traditional Chinese names, and before they know it they find themselves describing a Chinese marriage in which the old ways are celebrated. No longer will they kiss, wear foreign clothes, or eat foreign foods; their single-story house will have many courts and gardens filled with happy children. Yet David does not propose. He merely speaks of an arrangement which must soon be completed by their parents. Phyllis bids him a respectful goodbye according to the appropriate Chinese formula, and David leaves, peacefully contemplating their future.

“The Good Deed”

“The Good Deed” portrays the impact of cultural changes on several generations, a common theme in Buck’s work. Like “Hearts Come Home,” this story suggests that the old ways can be valuable and satisfying. Mr. Pan, a Chinese emigrant to America, brings his aging mother to live with his wife and children in Chinatown in 1953. He discovers, however, that in saving her from the marauders destroying her native village, he has only brought her to another kind of suffering. For she sickens at the rebellion of his children, his wife’s inability to speak her native tongue, and the loneliness of life in a busy city. Although Mr. Pan and his wife can supply the aged woman with excellent Chinese food and physical comforts, her spirit weakens daily.

The Pans decide in desperation that a visitor may help, and they invite Lili Yang, a young Chinese social worker, to visit old Mrs. Pan. Lili listens with interest as the old woman describes her native village, which lies in a wide valley from which the mountains rise as sharply as tigers’ teeth. A gentle friendship develops between the two women, but a conflict emerges when old Mrs. Pan discovers that Lili, twenty-seven years old, remains unmarried. The aged one is shocked and troubled as she concludes that Lili’s parents had been remiss in their duties by failing to arrange a satisfactory marriage for their daughter before their deaths. Lili weeps for the children she has always wanted, although she tries to hide her loneliness from old Mrs. Pan.

Once Lili has returned to her work, old Mrs. Pan presents her son with the responsibility of securing a husband for Lili. Indeed, the aged one decides that she herself will serve as Lili’s parent, if her son will only supply her with a list of appropriate prospects. Such a good deed will be counted well in heaven for all concerned. Through the succeeding weeks old Mrs. Pan’s life reflects her newfound purpose. With renewed energy she commands Mr. Pan to seek out unattached men of good character so that she may contact their parents, a project he finds most amusing as he recalls secretly that even he and his wife had fallen in love first, then allowed their parents to arrange a marriage later. He strives to explain to his mother that life in America is different, yet old Mrs. Pan remains determined.

Although she may do little else on her own, old Mrs. Pan stares daily out a window at the strangers passing along the street, hardly a suitable method of securing a mate for Lili, but at least a means of examining the young men of Chinatown. She develops an acquaintanceship with a young man who manages his father’s pottery shop directly across the street. Learning from her son that this son of old Mr. Lim is wealthy and educated, she fixes upon him as an excellent prospect for Lili. Her son laughs at this possibility and tries to convince her that the young man will not submit to such an arrangement: He is handsome and educated, but Lili is plain and of simple virtue. At this argument, old Mrs. Pan becomes angry, reminding him that often women who lack beauty have much kinder hearts than their more attractive peers. She gives up her argument and makes plans of her own.

In order to meet the young man and perhaps at least introduce him to Lili, old Mrs. Pan waits until her son and his wife are gone and then asks one of the children to lead her across the street so that she may buy two bowls. The child dislikes her, however, and abandons her as soon as they reach the curb in front of the pottery shop. Fortunately, the young son of Mr. Lim rescues her, helping her into the shop and pleasantly conversing with her in excellent Chinese as she rests briefly. He then helps her find the bowls she seeks and they converse at greater length concerning the complexity of life in a large city. She finds herself confessing that if it had not been for Lili Yang, she would never have even looked out the window. When he asks who Lili Yang may be, she will not speak of her, for it would not be proper to discuss a virtuous young woman with a young man. Instead old Mrs. Pan goes into a lengthy speech on the virtues of women who are not beautiful. When he concludes that Lili must not be beautiful, old Mrs. Pan merely says that perhaps he will meet Lili some day and then they will discuss the matter of her beauty. Old Mrs. Pan, satisfied that she has made a point, leaves with graciousness and dignity.

Returning home with the purchased bowls, she informs her son that she has spoken with old Mr. Lim’s son and found him indeed pleasant. Her son realizes immediately what she has been doing and secretly cooperates by inviting Lili to visit them again, providing Mrs. Pan with an opportunity to introduce the young people. Old Mrs. Pan, however, achieves much more satisfaction than she expects, for in taking Lili with her to buy more pottery, old Mrs. Pan meets old Mr. Lim. While Lili and young James Lim are conversing in English, she and the aged father agree quietly that perhaps a match is possible and that certainly to arrange a marriage is the best of all good deeds under heaven. Observing the young people together, they set a date to have the horoscopes of the children read and to arrange the match; the date they choose, the reader learns, is the day of Lili and James’s first American-style date.

A final theme appearing late in Pearl Buck’s work is the search for female identity. In several early novels, including East Wind: West Wind (1930) and This Proud Heart (1938), she presents women struggling to fulfill their potential in antagonistic cultural settings. In the novella The Woman Who Was Changed, Buck depicts a woman who succeeds in expressing herself in the artistic and personal spheres. A particularly contemporary concern, women’s struggles appear also in Buck’s autobiography, My Several Worlds (1954).

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Pearl S. Buck Long Fiction Analysis