“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.

5 comments on ““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.”

  1. bakerlady says:

    In general I view misogyny as pure ignorance. How anyone cannot recognize the amazing creation that is woman is beyond me. I find cultures that condone such thoughts/behavior towards women on the whole disturbing, and certainly not atop my list of dream vacation destinations. But somehow worse for me is the outright and immediate dismissal of my opinions as “less than” by men who ought to know better. It is possibly the fastest way to earn my loathing. In a society where there is no dissenting view – where it’s just accepted that women are worthless, I find it more difficult to blame individuals for their ignorance.

    I think racism displayed by those we know (or are descended from) is harder to stomach because we feel there might be vestiges of those beliefs buried within our own lives that we do not recognize. It’s too close to home.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks for commenting, Tonya! I think you and I have essentially the same stance re: misogyny. And it seems like you agree with me about the fact that prejudice from folks close to home stings more. So (if I can push you for a little more information) how do you handle this in fiction—a novel, a film, etc.? If the creator of the work (the author, in this case) is just showing us the misogyny that’s there in the culture, and not particularly pushing back against it, is that okay because she’s just giving us a picture of reality? Or should/do we expect art to do something to fight back against these vilest tendencies of the human mind and heart? In other words, if a novel’s going to record misogyny but do nothing to react or respond to it, should I blame the novelist at all, or focus my reaction solely on the society being portrayed? I’m troubled by this one, as you can see.

  2. bakerlady says:

    I think when an author is depicting reality, it doesn’t make any sense to blame the messenger. However, I think the thing you are missing is that although you see no way for the author insert perspective, you are doing it yourself.

    When reading things that display morals I find offensive (if it’s well written) my ire is directed at the character in question. Maybe the whole point when people write such subjects is to emotionally connect you to a fictional person displaying historical situations in a way that you are forced to deal with your feelings on the issue.

    As far as the author being a woman, I think it’s much easier for women to write misogyny. We know the reality of what it feels like. The emotion connected to it in our own lives. The point then becomes to evoke that reaction when your readers encounter such beliefs in the text.

    Or, I suppose, the authors of such abhorrent characters could be misogynistic themselves – but I choose to look on the positive side of things in general and believe that the point is to cause me to reflect on my deeper tendencies and how I treat others.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks for these additional thoughts — they’re clarifying for me, and I think they help me process this as I move forward. I just wonder if I’ll be able to get any perspective on Wang Lung other than “this guy is an awful woman-hating human being”. I think I can, but the novel’s going to have to help me get there.

  3. I believe everything said was actually very logical. But, think on this, what if you added a little content?
    I ain’t saying your content is not good, however suppose you added a post title to possibly grab folk’s attention?

    I mean 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. Following Pulitzer is kinda plain.
    You ought to glance at Yahoo’s front page and see how they create news titles to grab viewers to open the links. You might add a related video or a related pic or two to grab people interested about what you’ve got to
    say. In my opinion, it would bring your website a little bit more interesting.

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