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 Because of his position as a man, and the head of household, and being the very withdrawn and selfish man he is, Wang Lung doesn’t talk to most people.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.