Pearl S. Buck American Literature Analysis
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...
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