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 #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.

“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!