Details: (c) 1931, 1958 Pearl S Buck; Pub Gulf & Western Corporation Pocket Books (some time between 1973 and now); ISBN 0-671-82349-3-250
Verdict: The good earth is a fascinating portrait of the protagonist and his culture.
Reasons for reading it / How it came into my hands: We were going through RS' hamper of books she was giving away, and one of her American friends recommended this as an American classic. I'm embarrassed at not having heard of an Anglophone Nobel laureate, though weirdly the book is very big on proclaiming that Buck won the Pulitzer Prize, with the Nobel tucked away as a tiny little afterthought that I might have missed if I hadn't been looking for it.
The really impressive thing about The good earth is that I absolutely believed in Wang Lung, even though he is not at all the sort of protagonist who normally features in literature where the characterization is the point. He's not self-aware, he doesn't think in abstract terms very much, as an illiterate he certainly doesn't situate his experiences within a wider literary and cultural context, it's just stuff that happens to him. tGE really gets inside his head; it is certainly educating the reader about pre-Revolution Chinese culture, but it's doing so extremely subtly, and without ever pointing out things that Wang Lung wouldn't have noticed, or drawing explicit comparisons with a milieu that would be familiar to the reader.
He's also very far from being idealized as a magical primitive. He clearly doesn't regard women as people, and the narrative doesn't evade that at all. I was really touched by the portrait of his marriage to O-Lan, which falls way outside any of the expected Western romantic tropes (even the Orientalist sort). In general, the book is refreshingly free of polemic; certainly, it sucks to be a Chinese peasant and it sucks even more if you are female, but the reader is left to infer the misery of women's lives without ever being told how horribly unfair it was. The oblique and understated mentions of footbinding, for example, I found far more effective than screeds of rant about how evil and misogynist the practice was.
The person who recommended the book to me warned me that it is a little depressing. I didn't find it so; yes, bad things happen in it, but the general shape of it is that Wang Lung attains what in his terms would be success in spite of setbacks. The understated approach to tragedy I found moving rather than depressing. tGE is actually the first of a trilogy, but since it covers Wang Lung's life from his wedding to his death, it makes a nicely complete story. I can imagine that some readers would find it slow, partly because there's little action in the blood and guts and desperate heroics sense, and it doesn't compensate for that with lots of explicit emoting and psychological analysis. Still, it's very short and I was emotionally caught up in the story without being told how I was supposed to react.
Does anyone know of a good biography of Buck? From the blurb she sounds like she must have been a fascinating woman!
I don't think I would have appreciated it as a teenager, TBH. Not because there's sex in it, though I would have rolled my eyes at that. But because the feature that I appreciate as an adult would have really annoyed me. I would have expected to be told how to react, and I really thought that the whole point of a novel was psychology. So I might have felt that I came away from the book without any insights about Wang Lung, and would probably have been very angry at his blatant misogyny.
Have you read any of Adeline Yen Mah's book? Although they partly depressive I found it very interesting learning about Chinese History,culture and philosophy. She always tells her own story in every book beside the education. She takes some things with humour. So it is not all depressing. I was impressed by her books "Falling Leaves" (her own story) "A thousand pieces of Gold" (philosophical stories in the background of history) and "Watching the Tree" (philosophical explanation and stories).
Cool, thanks for the rec. I am really interested in Chinese culture, particularly 20th century China, so I shall look out for that. It's true that Chinese history can be depressing; people starve and are oppressed all over the world, but in China it happens on such a huge scale.
I have read and enjoyed Amy Tan. She does write the same novel over and over again, but it's a good one so I don't really mind. When I read The good earth I was really thinking of the strong contrast with Tan, actually. Of course, one shouldn't read the author into a novel too much, but I think it's likely that the difference does reflect the fact that Buck was brought up in China, though she was American by birth, whereas Tan was brought up in America though she happens to be ethnically Chinese.
It not just the 20th century but whenever she talks about her time or families time she talks about Mautsedong and what else happened during that time. Some politician forbid the binding of feet in the 20th century. Mautsedong died just a month before I was born.
Yeah, the end of footbinding was an early part of the Communist reforms I think. I had a really odd book when I was a kid called "Girl of New China" or something like that, which was all about how wonderful Communism was because the heroine didn't have to bind her feet like her older sisters and she was able to get an education. It was one of those old-style children just like you and me living in exotic countries kind of books.
am curious. maybe i will get hold of it too.. do you know where it's set? footbinding was not universal in imperial China; i've been told that Hakka women never bound their feet, due to a combination of the women traditionally doing physical work, and a less patriarchal society. (i haven't tried to verify this though)
It's extremely vague about where it's set; it might be that you'd recognize it if you really knew the area well, I'm not sure. Wang Lung has never seen a map, and only thinks in terms of the rural "north" where he comes from and the "rich cities" to the south where he has to take refuge in times of famine. It is very clear that footbinding was an upper-class practice and did not extend to poor women who had to do physical work, though; part of the plot is that Wang Lung knows he's made it in the world when he can have his wife bind his younger daughter's feet, even though she and the older daughter were too poor to be able to do that.
perhaps the difference is Hakka men didn't aspire to bind their women's feet. quite a lot of them made it into educated beurocratic/political classes, if not the higher echelons, because of their culture of education and learning (or, depending on who you ask, laziness) in part made possible by women joining in with work.