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.