1932: The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck

Literary Style:

Having sped through the last 1/4 of this novel, I think I can soften some of my criticisms of Buck’s work, but I’m still fundamentally dissatisfied by the reading experience I’ve been through.  To cast things positively first, though, I think she ultimately does a nice job weaving together a lot of different elements to the story.  There are some actions that “come full circle”, so to speak, and I feel she’s pretty successful with them.  And honestly, the more I think about it, the more I think her central character, Wang Lung, is pretty well described—we do get inside his head.  It’s what’s inside there that limits the novel, in my opinion.

Chekhov famously suggested that happy families are boring, and that it’s unhappiness that makes for interesting art.  I think Wang Lung’s a good counter-example—his unhappiness, his cruelty, his selfishness, is simply really boring.  He’s not a charismatically fascinating villain (like Milton’s Satan, say, or Shakespeare’s Iago).  He’s not even really a usefully pitiable villain (Tolkien’s Gollum, or Shakespeare’s Shylock).  The combination of his banal personality with his casual complicity in a whole lot of sadness and suffering is depressing without feeling purposeful.  There’s very little character development outside of Wang Lung—characters do change a bit as they age, but Buck seems uninterested in explaining or even trying to understand why or how they do.  So we’re stuck inside a man who maybe does learn and grow a little, but in a fundamentally unsatisying way.

And towards the end, Buck really lays it on thick with her symbolic! phrases! about the goodness! of the earth!  It’s clear to me that she thinks this is the real heart of the story—the relationship of Lung to “his” earth, and of his family to the earth, and how their detachment from their land ultimately works to their destruction (a cycle we saw, in part, in the fall of the house of Hwang early in the novel).  But it just doesn’t land for me, principally because it’s not at all clear that any of them were better people for being tied to the land.  They were less decadent people, they quarreled less…I can see that.  But Lung wasn’t any less cruel to his wife or his sons, he wasn’t any less selfish or myopic, when he was working the land every day.  If Buck wants to do something with the importance of the land, I grant that there are threads to work from here.  Lung’s most admirable quality is probably his work ethic, or else his foresight in knowing that the land will matter.  His finest moment in the book has to do with his devotion to the old servant who, if anything, loved the land even more than Lung did.  But Buck’s throwing around a lot of strands that try to make the earth into this iconic symbol that explains most of the events of the novel, and it’s not working that way for me.

I recognize that Buck had a different audience in 1932 than she does today.  Her decision to foreground Wang Lung would almost certainly be different for today’s reader—this would have been O-Lan’s (sad) story, or Pear Blossom’s, or even Cuckoo’s.  She might feel a freedom to get further inside the head of more than one character, or to ease up a bit on the importance of “selling” the title’s significance.  But for me, I just can’t pretend a novel works when it doesn’t, no matter how “of its time” it is.  I can read and enjoy plenty of novels from earlier times, even novels whose attitudes about race or gender are more backwards than Buck’s tale.  Those books work on me because I feel they still have things to say to me, and I can hear them speaking.  Despite the fact that I think Buck’s a capable enough craftsman in prose, I can’t hear much of what she wants to say here—that may be my issue more than hers, but it’s my review and that’s the way it fell for me.

Historical Insight:

This is normally where I talk about how this book helps me gain an insight to America at the time.  I’m not sure how far I can take it with this book—obviously the setting is China at some indeterminate time in the recent past (seemingly early 20th Century, but honestly I couldn’t quite read the cues I’m pretty sure Buck was dropping, since my mental timeline for China’s history just isn’t fine-grained enough).  I do think it’s no real accident that the winning novel for the (arguably) worst year of the Great Depression is a novel about a struggling farmer and his relationship to the land.  It’s a shame, in my opinion, that the novel doesn’t do more to empathize with the people who struggle and fail—we really don’t get any sense of them, and instead get Wang Lung, who seems to represent the idea that if you’re canny and work hard enough, you can always get ahead (not a very realistic notion in America circa 1932).  But I think it’s clearly at least nodding towards some ideas and some realities that other American authors (cough-cough-John Steinbeck-cough)  examined with more clarity.

I do agree with some of my commenters that this is the book’s real strength: I feel I know more about a lot of elements in Chinese society at the time than I previously had.  I’m admittedly having to trust that Buck got it right (as I had to with Laughing Boy…and which I could not possibly believe of Scarlet Sister Mary).  But I’ve heard enough from enough people to assume that’s at least plausibly fair.  Personally, if I wanted to get a handle on Chinese society, this is not the book I’d start with.  And if I was handling China for middle schoolers, this is not the book I’d start with (though it’s certainly played that role for decades)—I don’t think it gives China much credit at all.  Chinese religion, social structure, economic opportunity….all of it is pretty soundly looked down on by the implied narrator.  I can correct for that bias in my head—for example, imagining what it’s like for the many peasants who believe in the importance of temple offerings, unlike Wang Lung—but I wouldn’t want to try and get 8th graders to do the same.  Anyone who is trying it, I salute you: it’s got to be a difficult road to walk.

Review:

By my non-scientific and totally-irregular ratings system, The Good Earth gets a “find a better book than this”.  Seriously, if you want some good examinations of the farming life, read Steinbeck.  If you want to examine how wealth corrupts ordinary people, read Fitzgerald or Wharton or James or any of the dozen other American novelists who tackle that issue with regularity and skill.  And if you want to learn something about China, read a book by a Chinese author, or else a book written recently enough that the Western author is more aware of their cultural baggage and more able to correct for (or acknowledge) it.  This isn’t a bad book.  But if it’s the best book of 1932, I’ll purchase a hat, and eat it.

The Last Word:

As is our custom at Following Pulitzer, Buck gets the last word.  In this case, I chose a passage very late in the book, when Wang Lung is an old man.  I think it’s some of Buck’s best writing—it works pretty well, as do a number of her passages, though not consistently in my experience—and it does show some of the nods she makes at the symbolism she sees at the heart of the story.  It may well be there more than I guess, for her and for you:

Spring passed and summer passed into harvest and in the hot autumn sun before winter comes Wang Lung sat where his father had sat against the wall.  And he thought no more about anything now except his food and his drink and his land.  But of his land he thought no more what harvest it would bring or what seed would be planted or of anything except the land itself, and he stooped sometimes and gathered some of the earth up in his hand and he sat thus and held it in his hand, and it seemed full of life between his fingers.  And he was content, holding it thus, and he thought of it fitfully and of his good coffin that was there; and the kind earth waited without haste until he came to it.

Blog post #200: The Good Earth, the good Earth, and why I’m down on this novel

The project has stalled, as it is seemingly wont to do, on yet another novel I’m having trouble slogging through.  I posted about my struggles with The Good Earth a little while ago, and got several comments in reply—the one that got my attention most, I think, was the dissent from a fellow Pulitzer blogger (and a welcome visitor here anytime), Diablevert.  I hope she won’t mind my quoting a part of her comment—anyone who wants to see the whole thing should hop to “Blog post #197” and read it.  Here’s an excerpt that I’m most interested in engaging with and replying to:

“I was dreading . . . that it would be heartwarming and wholesome and racist and condescending, and it’s not, really. (Well, racist is a complicated issue there’s plenty of room for contention on, but it’s not out and out racist the way something like Scarlet Sister Mary was. Scarlet-Sister-Mary-again-but-Chinese was what I was dreading, basically.)”

I want to be perfectly clear about a couple of things at the outset: first of all, I fully recognize (about all of these novels) that there’s a wide range of acceptable opinion.  When I make my sweeping remarks about these works, I’m trying to capture how I feel, but I’m not trying to invalidate the experiences of others.  So I don’t think this is a case where either Diablevert or I is right, but not both of us.  I think we’re both working as well as we can (from our authentic experiences of the novel) to express what we think is true about it.

Secondly, I think Diablevert is definitely right about some things I should have been better at either seeing or acknowledging—given the era, and the history of the Pulitzers in that time period, it is in fact worthy of note that the book is not flat-out racist in its treatment of the Chinese people and culture.  Scarlet Sister Mary was, as has been mentioned in this space before, ten gallons of awful.  The sentimentality of a lot of racist depictions makes them much more ghastly, and much more repellent (as Diablevert is rightly noting)—Buck avoids a lot of those problems here, and I’m definitely glad about that.

Those things said, though, I still have issues with the book, because I don’t know that Buck is writing a book that allows me, anyway, to read it as Diablevert does.  She notes in her comment that, essentially, the racist and misogynist elements in the story are at least written in such a fashion that the human commonalities present in that culture and ours can be understood with interest.  (Note: If you think I’m misreading you, Diablevert, let me know and I’ll definitely make the edits you prefer: I want to characterize your position accurately!)  I think that this is, in fact, how a lot of the book’s fans read it, if not all of them.

I find it hard to do this because it seems to me that The Good Earth compartmentalizes Wang Lung’s selfish/sadistic treatment of women from all the other things in his life, and really particularly it treats his brutal words and actions as being a subplot much less important than the great question of the title “character”.  Whenever Buck gets the chance, she rushes him back out to “the land”, the great symbol which presides over the story.  Anyone who knows me and my love of Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter will know that I have no objections to a really obvious use of symbolism.  My objections here are very specifically that I think Buck uses the symbolism to escape dealing with these characters realistically.  Wang Lung goes and plows for a day…and suddenly all his interactions with Lotus are different.  His whole temperament changes.  The land (or the lack of it) is used to explain why sons are lazy—it divides the pure and good from the shiftless and conniving.  And who knows, there may be a lot of truth in this—I grant that the attitude is at least anthropologically interesting (assuming that the Chinese did feel/think this way then, a topic about which I really don’t know anything).  But I feel it pulls the rug out from under the story, because it allows Wang Lung a “get out of jail free” card as far as the novel is concerned.  He does awful things, but then he goes back to the land, and everything else is forgotten.  Not just by him, but by the narrative.

I think the real limitation, in all honesty, is that the entire novel is told from his perspective: the descriptions are all given by a third-person narrator who never gets out of his head.  This is the kind of thing a lot of people don’t notice when they read—who is narrating this, and what do they know—but I definitely do.  It has almost ruined really good novels for me (Zusak’s The Book Thief immediately comes to mind), and it’s definitely made decent novels bad for me.  I think that’s the case here.  Because the whole novel is really only concerned with how Wang Lung feels and what’s important to him, it feels as though it implicitly accepts his judgments about the world.  We see O-Lan’s agony, but remotely, like a Westerner changing the channel when the photo of the starving poor kid comes on.  We recognize the injustice done to his children, but only when he bothers to, and then the plot turns to more important considerations like what the men in the town think of him, or whether the rice crop is growing well: the unspoken suggestion to me is that this is what really matters in life.  Pair that with Buck’s fixation on making the land symbolic of all that is good and holy, and the conclusion I reach (whether Buck wants me to or not) is that Wang Lung may do a lot of horrible things, but in the end it’s not that bad, because he’s a man who really connects with the land, and as long as he keeps coming back to do that, he’ll be okay in the end (and therefore, by extension, everything else in the novel’s world will be okay too).  What we work at is important, not who we are, and certainly not how we treat those beneath us.  (I should note, as always, that it’s possible the book’s concluding chapters will alter this for me—until I’m done reading, these are rough draft opinions, essentially.)

I recognize this is not the only way to read the novel, and it may well not be the best way.  It’s all I’m managing, at present, though—my reading since Diablevert’s comment (and the new perspective it gave me) has been a little easier, but only a very little.  I try hard not to bring judgments about the past to novels written in the past—doing that would rob me of much of the world’s best literature.  But I think what made that literature great is that, despite its racism, its sexism, its condescension to the oppressed of the world, etc., the literature itself grappled with real problems in a way that I can identify with today.  It may be that The Good Earth still does that for a lot of people, and it certainly seems to do that for some.  But for me it abdicates responsibility for problems by placing all its hopes on the mystical qualities of a man’s connection to the soil.  In the end, that’s not enough for me.

I hope folks will chime in with their own reactions—especially if you disagree with me!  As you can see, Diablevert disagreeing with me forced me to do some hard thinking, and even if she doesn’t like what I’ve arrived at, I know I’m grateful for being pushed to think.  I’m hoping the next post on this novel is a review and then it’s on to Stribling and The Store.  We’ll see.

Blog post #197: In which the blogger attempts to be moderate in his criticism of The Good Earth and fails…

I won’t go on a rant.  I am determined not to rant.  I ranted my way through The Able McLaughlins (a novel that is, I know, much much worse than Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth), and it didn’t bring me any happiness.  Well, that last review did feel pretty good when I wrote it—kind of like the five minutes following an exorcism.  But the farther I am from actually having read that book, the more my review looks like a sort of flailing, juvenile tantrum.  I guess we have to get those out of our system at times, but I’d rather not make a habit of them.

What, then, can I possibly do with The Good Earth?  Regular readers of this blog will note that the momentum I’d gained briefly in August/September seems to have dissipated.  I am mired in a book I can’t really abide, but which is still too long for me to just storm through.  I’ll do my best to explain why in brief words.  First, the positive thoughts.

Yes, there are definitely positive thoughts—Buck’s novel opens my eyes to a level of abject poverty and struggle that I can barely imagine.  I get the sense that, through the fictional plot, I am reaching into a very non-fictional abyss in which Chinese peasants lived for what I can only imagine to be centuries.  I suppose it’s not all that different from peasant life in feudal Europe, but when it’s juxtaposed against the lavish wealth of a modern society—a society full of industry and railroads and globe-trotting Western travelers—it suddenly feels very grim.  I’m grateful for having at least that much done for me, since it can be easy to be fixated only on the United States and its problems (living, as I do, in an American media environment, and having as this blog’s primary purpose the reading of American novels).  But I think plenty of books could have done that for me very successfully without being this book.

The critical problem I face is that it feels to me as though Buck is blind to the moral problems in her novel.  To the extent that she can see them, I don’t see how she is helping me, the reader, through them—she doesn’t seem to raise questions, or provide interplay between characters.  Because of his position as a man, and the head of household, and being the very withdrawn and selfish man he is, Wang Lung doesn’t talk to most people.  He certainly doesn’t seek counsel.  He just is the man he figures he ought to be.  And that man is increasingly unbearable—monstrous in his treatment of his wife, who is given so little agency by the author that the abuse she suffers feels gratuitous.  I know a woman in her society and station would likely never have talked back to her husband.  But to remove her from the spotlight entirely, to never provide any real insight into the life she lives and the thoughts she thinks, guts the story entirely.  I’m left watching a man I can’t respect sink into every possible failure—financial, moral, etc.—without having any notion that there’s a payoff to this.  I feel as though the novel’s thesis is that Chinese society is really awful, and that it makes normal people into awful people, and that inequality (both financial and gender) is probably a part of this but there really isn’t anyone in the society who will change it.

Maybe I’m wrong and the 2nd half will astonish me.  For now it feels like condescension from an American woman who (rightly) assessed the lives of Chinese peasant women in the early 20th century as being unjustly oppressed, but whose primary conclusion from this was that the whole of Chinese society and tradition was to blame.  There’s a long-running subtext involving the earth, of course—the idea of the importance of the land, how much better we are when we live on our own land, how detaching ourselves from working the land detaches us from our own humanity.  But that kind of simplistic worship of the noble savage (and his cousin, the noble rural small farmer) is really pretty thin—or else, if there’s depth to that kind of idea, I don’t see it in what Buck is doing.

In some ways, The Good Earth reminds me of an uneven but powerful novel I used to teach: Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe.  What separates the two, for me, is that Achebe lets me see more than one side of the society.  I see the violent abusive side of Okonkwo, but also the man who loves his daughter, the man who is shattered by having killed his foster son (a killing he felt ethically obligated to join in).  I see the uneasy feelings in his close friend’s perspective on their society, and the complete rejection of Okonkwo’s values by his son Nwoye.  There’s a tension in the book that shows a society as a living thing, as something that can change.  It also engages with questions about the land, with how a man tries to live up to expectations and is cruelly disappointed.  I wouldn’t say it’s the greatest novel ever written, but it does a lot Buck’s trying to do in a much more effective way.  I have a feeling I’ll come back to this comparison as I try to drive through the rest of Buck’s novel as fast as I can—maybe it will seem less apt with time.  For now, all I can say is that those of you who warned me that you didn’t much like this book…well, I can see why.  And I have a hard time understanding what made this such a classic that Buck became an internationally celebrated and award-winning author.

“‘I shall never sell the land!’ he shrieked at them….”

“Bit by bit I will dig up the fields and feed the earth itself to the children and when they die I will bury them in the land, and I and my wife and my old father, even he, we will die on the land that has given us birth!”

The “land/earth” symbolism in Pearl Buck’s novel is a bit heavy-handed, but it’s powerful nevertheless.  Wang Lung, having experienced years of plenty, is now undergoing his own version of the Book of Job.  Unlike Job, however, Wang Lung’s reaction is generally to spit on the gods (literally and figuratively), cling to his notions of duty and honor, and do as little as possible that will endanger his hope of becoming a wealthy man one day.  He believes in himself and in his land—and in precious little else.

Americans don’t get this as well as other folks, I think—most Americans, I should say—because our relationship to the physical environment is not like that of other nations.  As Robert Frost famously, and wisely, said, “The land was ours before we were the land’s.”  I’d venture that most of us still aren’t as connected to the land we live on and in as most of our ancestors were.  Some few of us still live where our great-great-great-grandfathers were born and worked and married and strove and fought and died.  I wonder what it is like for them.  I wonder it particularly as I am a third-generation Washingtonian married to a fourth-generation Washingtonian, and we are now for the first time in our lives living outside the geography of our ancestors.  Did we lose something by leaving—something we will be at great pains to recover, if we ever do?  Or is the tie to the land a paralysis…certainly Wang Lung’s seems that way, at times.

The novel does a few things really startlingly well in this section.  I feel real hunger, real deprivation, as his family slowly starves.  The death that accompanies this experience is both expected and a bit shocking.  The notions of gender that so bothered me earlier have gone underground, but they feel even more poisonous there—I think not seeing and thinking about the myriad ways this society marginalizes women is worse than having it in my face.  I don’t know….I think I’ll be wrestling with that for a while.

And the novel takes a real shift here—eventually Wang Lung and his family are forced away from their land, to a bustling city.  They live in a modern society…modern enough to have railroads, at least.  And yet they’ve lived utterly unaware of it—the train, in particular, is like something out of legend when they first see it.  And the distinction between urban and rural is really interesting to me: Wang Lung thinks of himself as a foreigner, even though he has only gone 100 miles from his farm.  He even takes offense at remarks he overhears about “foreigners” before he learns that they are speaking of people he’s never even envisioned—these strange white people who overtip and speak Chinese in strange and halting accents.  I’m curious what she’ll do with this, since Buck has the makings of a really interesting situation here, but I can’t tell how she’ll use it.  I’m worried the novel will remain claustrophobically obsessed with Wang Lung and his neuroses about success and land and dignity, and if that’s the case, this novel will really be a drag to get through.  But if it can at least give me those things in the context of some larger themes about China’s modernization, or the juxtaposition of culture and class that’s happening in its largest cities, I see hope for a really good novel.  Time will tell.

A side note: I learned this week, given all the hoopla about the Nobel Prizes, that Pearl Buck was only the 3rd American to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature when she won it in 1938 (it had been awarded annually since 1901), and the first American woman.  Frankly, that’s shocking to me—having read Edith Wharton and Willa Cather (and a substandard Cather novel, at that!), I’m stunned to think I’m reading the masterpiece of a Nobel Prize-winning author here.  Maybe it’s a reflection on the Nobel’s track record being no better than Pulitzer’s?  I’d expected, given that they get to judge a whole body of literary output and not merely the “best” in a given year, they’d have a much easier time picking well.  We’ll see.  Buck’s going to have to step up her game to convince me this is worthy of that kind of recognition.

“What a pity our child is a female whom no one could want and covered with smallpox as well! Let us pray it may die.”

This will be a brief update, but a necessary one, since I want to start processing the extreme gender issues in The Good Earth early.  The above quote is appalling—its offensiveness diminishes only slightly if you know that, in context, Wang Lung has just realized he and his wife have been too loudly pleased with themselves and their son, so that he must shout some loud negative comments in case an evil spirit is waiting to cause them misfortune.

The thing I need to process is that the book’s appalling record on gender—Wang Lung’s uncle refers to his daughter as his “worthless oldest slave creature” only a few pages farther in, and there is no shortage of other examples if I wanted to keep going.  Because this book manages to strike me less deeply than misogyny in other novels I’ve read for this project, and I want to work out why.  I feel as though I’m cutting it slack for being some sort of “authentic” record of a society that was very hostile to women…but somehow I wasn’t willing to cut the same slack to novels about misogyny, say, in America’s heartland.  Why is this….and is this a fair response?

Right now my theory is that I’m reading this book almost sociologically: I’m distanced from the anti-woman language.  And while misogyny among American farmers feels like I’m watching my great-grandparents, I don’t feel that kind of connection with Wang Lung.  I’m going to admit openly this may be a terrible way to read—that’s part of why I’m airing it now.  I certainly don’t endorse the attitudes of Wang Lung and his society.  So should I react against them (and, by extension, this novel) more aggressively than I am?  Or is my differential reaction a basically acceptable thing because this is how humans are: we’re offended by any racism, but hearing your own uncle, or boss, or mayor say something racist is much more embarrassing and awkward than hearing the same remarks from someone on the other side of the world?  I’m not sure how I feel about this.  So many of my fellow citizens—my friends, co-workers, neighbors, etc.—come from the other side of the world, and so, only a few generations ago, did my family.  Should I really put up fences?  Call one misogyny a pernicious evil, and look with sadness at another misogyny as “they way it was in that culture at that time”?  I don’t know.

I can’t imagine being a woman reading this, and I wonder if any of the women who read this blog will chime in, especially if you’ve read this novel (or a novel like this, set in another culture that is brutally anti-woman).  How do you react?  And is your reaction altered at all if, as in this case, the novelist is a woman?  What if, in the long run, she critiques this perspective?  My only difficulty is that I can’t see how she will.  There are no outsiders in the story to provide that kind of reaction, and it’s hard to imagine enjoying a novel where it’s me and the narrator against every character.  I have to think about this, I guess, and wanted you to know the hill I was climbing.

“It was Wang Lung’s marriage day. …”

So begins the 1932 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck.  In some respects, the novel looks very familiar—like Laughing Boy, it is an exploration (at least in its opening chapters) of a marriage between two young people who do not entirely understand each other, set in a culture that is foreign but fascinating to the middle-class American reader to whom the novel is seemingly addressed.  Regular readers of the blog will remember that I was initially skeptical but ultimately fully won over by Oliver La Farge’s Laughing Boy, because the author successfully brought to life characters I feared would be presented flat stereotypes.

Because of that success story, I am moderately less concerned about Buck’s novel, but I’ll admit the opening hasn’t really grabbed me.  The relationship thus far feels like a culture being observed from without, and Wang Lung’s inner life doesn’t feel as richly conceived as the work La Farge did with Laughing Boy.  I’m on the fence about the portrayal of women, since I’m hopeful that Pearl as a woman author is interested in exploring a society this openly hostile to women—certainly the narrative shows us that even the potentially sympathetic main character, Wang Lung, sees his wife as something like a good cow.  A nice investment, and you’re pleasantly surprised by how useful she is and how well she’ll breed, but you don’t really envision having a conversation about her feelings.  I don’t know yet what Buck will give me, or even what I want, really.  I think most of all I want a novel that will not delight in misogyny, but will not skip past it merrily as though it can all be overcome by true love.  Whether that’s more than the 1930s can deliver, who can say?

I’m curious about this book, which (unlike many other Pulitzer winners) became a big best-seller and remains a staple of English classes in schools across the country (though I think it’s gradually fading from the scene).  I’m curious about Buck, and her experiences in China that drove her to write the novel.  Based on my initial read of the first several chapters, I think this one can go quickly if I want it to…we’ll see whether, having read a bit more, I decide I want to skip past it pretty hastily, or whether I want to slow and savor a better novel than the Pulitzers as a whole have led me to expect.  Lastly, I’ll mention that I want to think about Asia and America in the context of the 1930s—particularly American attitudes about China (especially in the light of rhetoric about China in 2011).  I’m hoping the book provides some opportunities for reflection: we’ll see!