“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.