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.
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.
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.