Title: The Good Earth
Author: Pearl S Buck
The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck, first published in 1931, was on the best seller list for two years and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. It was regarded as a novel that created a bridge between China and the rest of the world.
Set in the early twentieth century, in an age of political unrest, we travel with the protagonist, Wang Lung, and his wife, O-Lan, through times of prosperity, famine and turmoil. Eventually, they become wealthy landlords themselves. Wang Lung even acquires a concubine. We see how despite remaining untouched by the political movements intellectually, the couple does profit from it. Wang Lung grows prosperous by robbing a rich man off his wealth. The rich man empties his pockets to the peasant in exchange of his life. Wang Lung and O-lan enter the home with the peasant hordes attacking the the rich man, instigated by followers of communists. O-Lan makes off with the jewels. The irony of the situation is that they do not know why they are robbing the man and they use the stolen wealth to recreate the lifestyle of the rich man themselves, back in their own home in the north.
Wang Lung, who started as a poor farmer with good values, is driven by poverty to pocket another man’s wealth for his own. In his world, people are revered for wealth and not for the process of acquisition. When Wang Lung’s son steals meat from a butcher, his mother cooks it. Wang Lung’s protests are feeble and ineffective for at the end he himself steals from a rich man to become wealthy. A rich man is seen as akin to God, untouchable and supreme.
It is a very life-like depiction of China, where even now, the common people are cut off from politics and events happening around the world. They only have access to what the Chineses media projects. The Chinese media continues to be the positive voice of the government. Even now, as through history, people revere wealth and beauty to a very large extent. In Xian, you have the fabulous Huaqing Palace which was created by the Tang Emperor Xuanzong for his beloved Yang Guifei, initially his daughter-in-law and then his favourite concubine and consort. Not only did he marry his son’s wife but they had an excellent life together as he would write verses for her and she would dance to them, according to tourist guides who love to relate this story to visitors like us.
Pearl S Buck grew up in China amidst these values and depicted them to the rest of the world with consummate skill. The story of Wang Lung and his wife are no less realistic than the other stories she has written.
There are things that are in common with Wang Lung and his dad and Scarlett O’Hara and her dad (Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell) …the love of their land, the strength, determination and courage to succeed and make it in this world… All four of them have these values. Both Scarlett and Wang Lung compromise the values they grew up with to fulfil their dreams and ambitions.
Pearl S Buck is not just a lucid writer but she delves into the psyche of the characters she creates. She brings out the drama of the situations really well. I would put The Good Earth as a must read.