Pearl S. Buck Buck, Pearl S(ydenstricker) (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Buck, Pearl S(ydenstricker) 1892–1973

Buck was an American novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, editor, biographer, autobiographer, author of juvenile literature, and translator. The daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, Buck spent almost forty years in China, and in her published work strove to interpret China for the Western world. Her work has generally been regarded as skillful in its portrayal and interpretation of Oriental life, but weak artistically. A champion of many humanitarian causes, Buck often allowed a didactic quality to override artistic objectivity in her work. Her third book, The Good Earth, was both a popular and critical success, however, winning for the author the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, becoming the first American woman to achieve that honor. In addition to her novels of Chinese life, Buck wrote several novels with an American setting under the pseudonym of John Sedges. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 41-44, rev. ed.)

Phyllis Bentley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[It is] as novelist, as pure literary artist, that Mrs. Buck regards herself and prefers to be regarded. It seems worth while, therefore, to consider her books as novels, works of art, to analyze them as fiction, without prejudging them by applying any label. Let us, that is, for a moment forget that Mrs. Buck is famous as "the novelist of China," "the author of those Chinese books," and inquire simply, as with any unknown novelist, into her choice of material and her technique. Such an analysis is in her case difficult, for there is a firm unity in her work which makes its component parts not easily distinguishable, but I am sure that the degree of permanence to be achieved by any fiction can only be ascertained by assessing it as a work of art. (p. 791)

Mrs. Buck's chosen scene—and it is part of our scheme to state it thus coolly—is modern China. There are parts of that vast country where modern China means the same as ancient China; there are parts where the change of date implies a profound social change. These two Chinas, the old and the new, form the material for Mrs. Buck's art….

[The] attempt is made to present China from within, as the Chinese see it…. [The] landscape in Mrs. Buck's novels is always presented as seen by familiar eyes. Now this is one of the great difficulties of the novelist who chooses to write about a land not native to him; he is likely to write of the scenery as he, the stranger, sees it, not as the man who has lived with it all his life; the dawns are lurid with beauty to the stranger, where the native sees the coming of rain or the rising of a wind…. Mrs. Buck has lived in China so long that she really knows the landscape, and she never once, in all the volume of her work, forgets it and goes into raptures as over an alien scene. (p. 792)

In the same way Mrs. Buck aims to present the Chinese customs as familiar, natural and correct, because so would her characters regard them. The customs at birth and death and marriage and new year, the earthen gods, the family ceremonial, the slavery of women, are all copiously illustrated, but always presented, as it were, unself-consciously, as part of the natural process of living; never by the slightest word or turn of phrase does Mrs. Buck call our attention to the difference of these customs from our own. This may be thought a commonplace, but, in fact, an identification with one's characters so complete and so well sustained is rare in fiction; nor is this an unimportant matter, but a quality which goes far in welding the firm unity we have already mentioned. Her picture of the Chinese civilization is highly remarkable, then; for she presents to us China as the Chinese see it, but in language (of both lip and mind) which we understand. (p. 793)

[The] language in which Mrs. Buck presents this material shares the same dual character. It is English—very plain, clear English; yet it gives the impression that one is reading the language native to the characters all the time. This is very largely due, I think, to the entire absence of Chinese words in the prose…. The prose which is broken by many foreign words in italics accentuates our sense of being English-speaking people reading a book written in English about an alien race. Especially is this the case when the foreign word is followed by an explanation of its meaning. Pearl Buck never uses a Chinese word, never needs to explain one. Even "Mah-Jongg," for example, is called "sparrow dominoes"—and very rightly, since that is what the Chinese word means to the Chinese. On the other hand, Mrs. Buck never, I think, uses a word for which a literal translation into Chinese could not be found. The effect of her prose is to translate what the Chinese mean into language which means that to us. That it is also exceedingly beautiful prose is just our luck, so to speak, and a remarkable instance of Mrs. Buck's skill. The grave, quiet, biblical speech, full of dignity, in which Mrs. Buck, without ever "raising her voice," is able to render both the deepest and the lightest emotions—the feeling of a mother over her dead child and the excitement of an old man over his tea—is a fine example of an instrument perfectly adapted to its task. (pp. 793-94)

Mrs. Buck's main characters in each novel, always Chinese, always belong to one family, the action being seen through the eyes of that family alone…. There are other characters, but they are subsidiary; the main drama is not that of clash between house and house, but consists in the varying fortunes and happiness of one house alone....

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Malcolm Cowley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Good Earth" is] a parable of the life of man, in his relation to the soil that sustains him. The plot, deliberately commonplace, is given a sort of legendary weight and dignity by being placed in an unfamiliar setting. The biblical style is appropriate to the subject and the characters. If we define a masterpiece as a novel that is living, complete, sustained, but still somewhat limited in its scope as compared with the greatest works of fiction—if we define it as "Wuthering Heights" rather than "War and Peace"—then ["The Good Earth" is a masterpiece].

But it wasn't intended to stand alone…. Miss Buck planned to write three novels that would fit together and become a sort of Chinese "Buddenbrooks."

"Sons," the second novel, is a long step toward achieving this purpose. Considered by itself, I'm not sure that it isn't even better than "The Good Earth."… Once again the plot falls into a legendary pattern, since the career of Wang the Tiger is based on one of the oldest and most exciting stories in Chinese folklore, that of the Good Bandit…. Besides this drama, the book has a quality that one doesn't associate with Pearl Buck—a rather earthy humor, most of it rising from the contrast between the traditional place of Chinese women—who are supposed to be household slaves—and the real power that they exercise over their lazy and self-indulgent husbands.

But "A House Divided" is a different story. It doesn't matter whether you judge it by itself or by what it contributes to the trilogy; in either case it is surprisingly inferior….

Its most obvious weakness is its style. In the course of the three novels, Miss Buck has changed her setting from past to present, from an...

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Paul A. Doyle

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

East Wind: West Wind [Pearl Buck's first book] is usually spoken of as a novel, but, actually, it consists of two definite short stories with a decided break between them. The first narrative is more poetic and romantic; the second, more sparse and moralistic. The Dreiser influence, which we are to see displayed particularly in The Good Earth, is non-existent in this book.

East Wind: West Wind is written in a much more delicately wrought and self-conscious style than is found in the later works of Pearl Buck. While basically simple in form, the style in this work is somewhat artificial. The style tends to be choppy, slow-paced, heavily romantic, often strikingly exotic, reminiscent in many of its colorful images of Edward Fitzgerald's translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The prose is often too consciously flowery, and several "purple passages" also appear too obviously calculated for effect. The framework of having Kwei-lan write the details of the story to the foreign lady who has lived in China becomes increasingly artificial, forced, and wearisome as the narrative progresses.

A certain amount of extraneous description occurs; for example, there are some rather unnecessarily detailed portraits of the concubines in Kwei-lan's father's house. Such descriptions are yanked into the narrative for evident background and coloring, but the majority of Miss Buck's descriptions serve the useful purpose of enumerating the manners of aristocratic Chinese families and of underscoring the complete differences in customs between China and the West. Here the book is most successful. Both the situation and the reality of the problem present themselves in a credible fashion, and the book does manage to convey a definite flavor of setting, scene, and authenticity of locale—later a basic characteristic of Pearl Buck's fiction.

At times sentimentalism predominates…. Perhaps Miss Buck overlabors the point that, in their basic emotions and feelings people the world over are, regardless of race, much alike.

In spite of its deficiencies, East Wind: West Wind contains several effective passages, and the theme is meaningful. The characters are caught in a modern dilemma, and the happy resolution in Kwei-lan's case and the semi-tragic resolution in her brother's are convincingly rendered. The objections of the Chinese mother and father to a foreign daughter-in-law strike a common chord, and the tensions produced from their prejudices and instinctive attitudes bring focus to the problem. Truth is at the core of East Wind: West Wind, but at times the veneer of romanticism and sentimentalism blurs and softens this truth.

In an overall view, East Wind: West Wind remains more interesting for its promise than for its effectiveness as a book in its own right. Although it reveals several weaknesses—uncertainty in handling a story framework, tendencies to stylistic artificiality, and a pronounced sentimentality—it points up the fact that Miss Buck has a thorough knowledge of her subject and possesses a fundamental narrative sense. Her first book of fiction also demonstrates that she is a novelist who is in the happy position of understanding both sides in various conflicts between two different worlds, and between the old and new customs. Miss Buck has established a solid hook on which she can hang innumerable stories revolving around these themes.

Perhaps the most important aspect of East Wind: West Wind was that it gave Pearl Buck the necessary confidence to continue in the field of fiction since she now realized that a market for stories using Chinese materials was available. (pp. 33-4)

The impetus for [The Good Earth] was the anger she had experienced because the common people of China were so often oppressed and abused.

When she was prepared to write The Good Earth, she acknowledges that "there was no plot or plan. Only the man and the woman and their children stood there before me." Later, she came to realize, however, that these people were not just Chinese; they were representative of farming people the world over. They were universal in their struggles, in their joys, in their disappointments. (p. 37)

A vividness of both character and scene … distinguishes The Good Earth….

Part of the reason for this vividness rests in the universality of the novel's various portraits. (p. 38)

[Portrayed] with graphic authority is the ebb and flow of life, its change and perpetual movements, not only seasonally from spring to winter, from seed planting to harvest, but also a cycle of both family and humanity. Past links with present, and present links with future…. [A] sense of "being shaped by eternities" is one of the characteristics of The Good Earth. (pp. 38-9)

In addition, careful handling and emphasis on both the precise and the appropriate descriptive details … enhance the [universality] of experience…. The descriptions are never overdrawn or excessive; their conciseness always centers on concrete, closely observed, "essential" details; and, although the scene which we behold is unfolding in a distant land and many of the practices and traditions are exotic or picturesque, we see the essential logic and reality of these customs in their time and place. In its economy and in its laconic but vital lyricism, the descriptive passages in The Good Earth often remind us of Ernest Hemingway's writing. The style bears no dross; only descriptive details necessary to convey the scene or to reinforce the mood are recorded.

The style of The Good Earth is one of the novel's most impressive characteristics. This style is based on the manner of the old Chinese narrative sagas related and written down by storytellers and on the mellifluous prose of the King James version of the Bible. (pp. 39-40)

Pearl Buck's writing in The Good Earth is characterized by simplicity, concreteness, a stress on long serpentine sentences, parallelism, balance, and repetition of words. Although the majority of the sentences are lengthy, they break into shorter, sometimes choppy, segments of thought which undulate in movement. The style, generally slow-paced, evinces a quiet stateliness and seriousness. It does not at all rival the color or richness of the biblical imagery, principally because it follows the simplicity of word choice of the Chinese saga rather than the more imaginative and exotic coloring of the Old and New Testaments. At certain times Miss Buck's style achieves poetical suggestion, but never is the imbalance between the normal and the more poetic so pronounced as to produce isolated "purple passages," as was the case in East Wind: West Wind.

The style of The Good Earth is unusually appropriate for the saga story. The simplicity and the slow but steady movement of the prose fit harmoniously the heroic and epic-like qualities of the narrative. (pp. 40-1)

In structure, The Good Earth uses a chronological form which proceeds at a fairly regular pace. Some climaxes occur, although they do not reach too much higher than the normal incidents in the story. The movement is slower and somewhat less arresting after O-lan's death, but some slackening is inevitable in a roman-fleuve. (p. 42)

Although The Good Earth places much emphasis on the family unit, and the analysis of the family fortunes is pivotal, the main characters are studied in detail. The portrayal of Wang Lung's character is starkly frank. His strengths and weaknesses are candidly examined and bared before the reader; and while, on the basis of a superficial reading, he might appear to be a one-dimensional figure, he actually runs the whole gamut of human emotions. (pp. 42-3)

Mention should be made of the haze of romanticism which hovers over and about the novel. Miss Buck has wisely avoided the artificial romanticism and the obvious sentimentalism which marred East Wind: West Wind. Yet the story of The Good Earth, although it maintains a convincing realism, takes on a certain exotic remoteness which lends additional charm to its episodes. The strange is made familiar, and the familiar is made pleasantly strange…. The faraway coloring of The Good Earth lights the familiar elements with new freshness and appeal. Realism and romanticism blend in just the right proportions. Life is given the glow of legend, and legend is given the aura of life. (pp. 44-5)

Pearl Buck has acknowledged the influence of Zola, and it is almost immediately evident. Certainly The Good Earth is Naturalistic in many ways: in its documentary approach to its material, in its detached and objective presentation, in its stress on factors of environment and heredity, in its accuracy of setting and descriptive details, and in its interest in impoverished and earthy people who dwell on the lower strata of social class. Yet, at the same time, several differences exist between Miss Buck's approach and Zola's. She is much less interested in sordidness, brutality, and squalor; and her emphasis on these factors arises out of a more balanced and wholesome interest in things as they are than from a deliberate stress on the seamier aspects of life in order to shock and horrify. (p. 46)

Realism rather than Naturalism would be a more accurate term to apply to Pearl Buck's work. The pessimism and despair of a writer like Zola are far removed from Miss Buck's more affirmative approach to things as they exist and from the basic meliorism which her writing in general displays. She stands as an optimist rather than as a pessimist, although she often hears and records the "eternal note of sadness." (p. 47)

As a novel, Sons [sequel to The Good Earth] labors under the handicap which all sequels to famous books must face. A narrative to equal The Good Earth would have to be more powerful and absorbing than Sons. Yet, within its own limitations, Sons is an interesting, worth-while novel and a work of no mean effort. It perhaps suffers in that the emphasis on brigands and war lords, on their characteristics and activities, seems somewhat remote to a Western audience. (p. 59)

The fundamental defect of Sons is the weakness of the characterization of Wang the Tiger. (pp. 59-60)

In contrast to [actual war lords throughout Chinese history], Wang the Tiger is a considerably more limited and colorless individual. Although the reader comes to know him quite well, a particular remoteness about him persists. His motives and behavior are analyzed at some length, but he does not come fully alive as a flesh and blood character. And he does not arouse interest or sympathy as Wang Lung and O-lan do. (p. 60)

It is difficult to sense tragedy here, at least from the way the story and characters present themselves.

The style of Sons follows the same biblical-Chinese saga influence displayed in The Good Earth, and, in general, repeats this pattern beneficially. Many of the long sweeping sentences are especially lyrical and mellifluous, and numerous passages of thoughtful beauty recur…. [However, in] The Good Earth, the style was absorbed in the humanity of the characters and their difficulties; consequently, the style took on a special life and feeling. In Sons, Wang the Tiger does not maintain the same interest to carry along the style with him. Thus, the prose of Sons occasionally seems utilitarian, a mere archaic-flavored ordering and recital of events. While it may not actually be determined that Pearl Buck felt her story and people more deeply and more vibrantly in The Good Earth than in Sons, this conclusion is strongly suggested by the style and characterization of Sons.

Sons, of course, possesses social and historical value as an illustration of a way of life in China…. The novel also has merit as a pointed, ironic commentary on the differences between generations in the same family…. The individual differences between Wang Lung's sons and their wives display a universality which rings true and is an easily remembered aspect of the story.

But, in the final analysis, Sons falls short of The Good Earth because it does not have the same universal quality of timelessness, the same inevitable moment of birth and death, of success and failure, of tragedy and of joy. Universality has been narrowed to the rise of a war lord and the subsequent—but never powerfully felt by the reader—misunderstanding between father and son. Even the time movement of Wang Lung's descendants seems to sink into secondary significance in the emphasis given to the story of one rather colorless military chief. (pp. 63-4)

A House Divided [the final volume of the trilogy], which studies the development of one young man's mind during a turbulent and crucial period of modern Chinese history and also probes the changes wrought in one family over a period of several generations, is actually the weakest volume in the House of Earth trilogy. Part of the reason for this situation is that Yuan does not hold the same reader interest as did Wang Lung or even Wang the Tiger. Yuan does not come alive as a believable individual. None of the characters in A House Divided arouses any particular interest; and, while much happens, the events do not involve the reader in the action.

As an examination of one man's mind, A House Divided fails to be appealing primarily because Miss Buck's technique is not thorough and conclusive enough in its introspective probing. Yuan seems to wear his heart on his sleeve, and his sudden shifts of emotion and feeling are not presented logically…. Miss Buck's technique is more effective in analyzing external events and elements than in presenting internal aspects. Too much explaining of Yuan's thoughts and character occurs. (pp. 68-9)

The reader is also too conscious of authorial manipulation in the handling of Yuan's character. He is a puppet who dances the same tunes on constantly shifting strings, strings which are observed by the audience. The romance between Yuan and Meiling is, for instance, shamelessly managed and rigged by the author….

Further, the book wanders about somewhat aimlessly. A House Divided treats of a number of places and a number of events, and its canvas often becomes episodic and unwieldy. Malcolm Cowley has observed that the material in this last volume of the trilogy is too scattered and does not progress to any significant conclusion [see excerpt above]. (p. 69)

Miss Buck's style, effective in the early scenes when Yuan returns to his grandfather's earthen house, often appears flat and ordinary—a mere recording of events. The prose of A House Divided is, in general, much too dull and undistinguished to do more than merely tell a story. A particularly heavy burden is placed on the style to describe internal events; and while at times some poetry filters through the external description, the style is not adequate to the needs of so much internal analysis. (pp. 69-70)

A House Divided has appeal as the final view of a family that we have seen at its best and at its worst…. Yet, while [its] events themselves have great significance, the people in A House Divided who participate in them appear awfully pallid and lifeless in comparison.

In 1934, between the publication of the second and third volumes of her House of Earth trilogy, Pearl Buck issued one of her most unusual novels, The Mother. This narrative was intended to give a universal portrait of the eternal mother, to present the various cycles of her life, and to capture some of the timelessness of her existence. In a sense, this novel was attempting to describe one woman in the same manner that The Good Earth had endeavored to analyze one particular family. (pp. 70-1)

The Mother is an extremely important work in the canon of Pearl Buck's writing. The never-ending cycle of birth and death and the eternal round of a mother's life with its joys and sorrows stir the reader because of their proportions and the novelist's insight into life. Here is a portrait of a perennial mother, with universal implications. (pp. 72-3)

In many ways The Mother is one of Miss Buck's finest books. It possesses many distinctions: for example, the cyclical flow of time, the eternal mater dolorosa caught in this movement, the tragedies and hardness of existence, the mistakes and crises revolving around the life of a mortal woman. Nevertheless, in an overall estimate, one comes to admire the book for its ambitious attempt rather than for its complete realization of achievement. Several reasons support this viewpoint.

In the first part of the novel, description predominates, and the mother speaks very little. In the...

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