Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2026
Most of Buck’s novels deal with the confrontation of East and West. From her own life she knew how the Chinese people, rich and poor alike, lived, and she drew on her experiences to create the events and the characters who lived those events. Because of her work with her...
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- Critical Essays
Most of Buck’s novels deal with the confrontation of East and West. From her own life she knew how the Chinese people, rich and poor alike, lived, and she drew on her experiences to create the events and the characters who lived those events. Because of her work with her first husband in the peasants’ fields and the time she spent in Shanghai working at a women’s shelter, she met real people whose lives and ways furnished the details that make her characters come alive.
Having missionary parents, she grew up steeped in the language and phraseology of the Bible. Though she read and appreciated other writings, she found the style of the Bible particularly fitting for many of her works. It was especially effective in The Good Earth. The rhythms and patterns of Chinese speech are captured through the biblical manner of expression. She uses a direct narrative approach, avoiding flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness techniques. Thus her stories move along in a strictly chronological mode from start to finish, simply, without confusion, and in language formal yet accessible.
In her 1938 Nobel lecture, she explains another strong influence on her writing. Reading Chinese novels, she says, was one of her early pleasures. The Chinese novel was not an art form conforming to arbitrary rules established by critics and scholars; it was a creation of the common people, who embraced oral storytelling and encouraged a simple narrative form when stories were finally put to paper. Because it evolved from an oral tradition, it was expressed in the language of the common people. Its primary purpose was to amuse its listeners (later readers), so it had not only to tell a clear, straightforward story, but also had to be expressed in words readily understood. It had to be fluid and uncomplicated in its printed form because it was often read aloud to a largely illiterate audience.
Polysyllabic words, convoluted sentences, philosophic meanderings, and lavish descriptive details had no place in such works. Descriptions were needed only to help the reader or listener visualize the scenery and characters. Actions and conversations alone would suffice to convey any philosophic concerns the writer wanted to mention. Most important, the story, though often dealing with myth and legend, must relate to familiar things, things that fill the lives of ordinary Chinese people: love, marriage, family, wars, pillagers, and heroic and villainous men and women.
Buck tried to achieve an unaffected naturalness. Though she deliberately varied her style from work to work to avoid sameness and predictability, certain characteristics recur in many of her novels because her readers can see themselves in her characters. Her heroines are often plain and ordinary-looking; her heroes are often less than brave. With many of her readers American or European, and therefore unfamiliar with the Chinese people she wrote about, she tried always to make her Asian characters and settings familiar in their ordinariness.
She wrote East Wind: West Wind with a focus on racial and gender issues, the plot dealing with the clash between Western and Chinese values and traditions. With the more epic The Good Earth, she describes a Chinese peasant family’s struggles and triumphs, deprivations, and eventual prosperity. Buck’s experiences as mother of a retarded child are suggested when Wang Lung and O-Lan’s daughter suffers mental retardation. O-Lan’s tumor recalls Buck’s tumor. When The Good Earth was published, Americans were reading Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (1932) and would soon be reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). While those two books chronicled the American poor, Buck showed that poverty is a universal issue which everyone can understand, even when it occurs in far-off China.
Buck’s other works highlight other aspects of Chinese society and history. She wrote two books about the lives of her missionary parents, conveying both their perceptions of Christianity as well as her own. The status of women is an important issue in Buck’s work. Her female characters called attention to women’s issues at a time when few others considered them worthy of discussion. Some of Buck’s themes embrace the nature of love and the polarity of men and women, how marriage enforces or strains the spouses’ concepts of fidelity, compatibility, and initial expectations about relationships.
Buck’s novels have universal appeal because she is able to convey an understanding of humans in difficult yet ordinary circumstances, surviving hardships with a degree of grace and dignity, and living life with limited expectations. She tried, in most of her works, to promote understanding among peoples of different cultures.
The Good Earth
First published: 1931
Type of work: Novel
A Chinese peasant struggles with nature and family issues to gain prosperity, in the process losing many things dearest to him.
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; to him wives are for bearing sons, which O-Lan did, and concubines are for love. His sons, now old enough to understand how well-off the family is, urge their father to let them go to school and later to move the family into town so that they and their families can enjoy the lifestyle to which they are entitled.
Perhaps the most deplorable thing Wang Lung does in his fall from humility into arrogance and selfishness is to take two small pearls O-Lan saved from jewels she looted from a house in the southern city. She hoped one day to have the pearls made into earrings for herself. Wang Lung takes them from her to give to Lotus, effectively relegating O-Lan, mother of his sons, to the subservience she endured before marrying him.
Wang Lung shows cowardice and mean-spiritedness in at least one other situation. His father’s indigent brother and family move in with Wang Lung once they realize that Wang Lung can support them. They are disruptive and demanding, and Wang Lung wants them gone. When he tries to oust them, his uncle reveals his affiliation with a fierce robber band which terrorizes the countryside, though never assaulting the Wang household. Aware of the danger if he makes the uncle leave, Wang Lung, showing callous craftiness, concocts the idea of getting the uncle and his wife addicted to opium. He is happy to pay for the opium because keeping them in a drugged state guarantees his peace and quiet.
Wang Lung’s educated sons show him how a man of means should dress and comport himself, so differently from how he dressed and acted when he was a struggling young farmer. Even he is surprised sometimes at how he has changed—and not for the better—over the years. Even so, he retains some virtues: he shows a tender devotion to his retarded daughter, his “poor fool.” O-Lan had always cared for the girl, but after O-Lan dies, Wang Lung realizes no one else, not the sons surely, will care for the girl, so he is always sure she is fed and sheltered. One wonders if his devotion is altruistic or whether he simply finds an otherwise elusive peace in her undemanding company.
Wang Lung’s sense of morality, though weakened over the years, does not die completely. When he takes a second concubine, this time the young slave girl Pear Blossom, even younger than any of his children, he is quickly disgusted with himself and regrets what he has done. He offers to give up the girl, but she chooses to stay with him, and their relationship assumes a father-daughter dynamic. The admirable quality Wang Lung retains throughout the story is his abiding regard for the land, for the “good earth,” which he believes gives his family all that it is and has. He tries to persuade his sons to hold onto the land because of its spiritually nurturing value to the family.
A parallel can be seen between the rise of the Wang family and the decline of the House of Hwang. The rich Hwang family had owned the great house in the town near Wang Lung’s farm. O-Lan, in her youth, had been one of the slaves there. As the Wang family grew in size, wealth, and prestige, the Hwang family declined. Its sons left the region, some going to live abroad. The family wealth was dissipated through luxurious living and apparently very little productive work. As Wang Lung acquired more land, the Hwangs sold off more of theirs. By the end of the novel, the sons of Wang Lung have also moved away from the land of their father. Being more town-bred than peasant-bred in their outlook, they see the farm only as a source of money once sold. Though they tell their father they will never sell the land, it is clear to the reader that they will repeat the mistakes that led to the decline of the House of Hwang. The good earth of Wang Lung’s farm sustained him and his family and brought them prosperity. Divesting themselves of it promises to bring the family to grief.