In my reading journal a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I may want to reread The Good Earth many times. I may need to amend that.
The writing was beautiful. I loved Pearl Buck’s almost Biblical prose that just flowed like poetry. And yet, probably a dozen times, I almost stopped listening to the audiobook. The main character, Wang Lung, drove me crazy, and the blatant mistreatment of women by all the characters irked me throughout. It was difficult to persevere to the end. And yet, since it was written by a woman who lived in China for much of her life, I figured she had a deeper point behind the misogyny. I finished it.
I will probably revisit it sometime for a fresh perspective, because it is deeply interesting and the writing was so beautiful. However, I can’t now say that it is a favorite book of mine. It was difficult to listen to.
The Good Earth tells the saga of one man’s life in peasant China. I assumed it was the late 1800s, but the time period was hard to place. In the first scene, Wang Lung is a very poor farmer on his wedding day, about to marry a slave girl from the great house of Hwang. As his luck variably changes for both good and ill over the years, the land is his constant: he turns to the cool, dark soil to walk and work in. In the end, he is an old man, about to die, and ready to turn the land over to his sons.
My favorite character in the book was O-lan, Wang Lung’s wife. She was a woman who labored in the fields with him all day and then returned home at night to give birth utterly alone. She cooked and cleaned his home without rest, literally running herself to the ground as her health deteriorated. She never cried until the very end of her life, and those tears were because she was unloved. This woman was a slave from childhood until her death day simply because she was born female.
That is all Wang Lung saw her as, throughout his life: his wife was his slave in every possible way. All women and even young girls when born were called “slaves,” and parents did not count them when numbering their children. “I have three sons,” Wang Lung would say, discounting his two girls. When, in the midst of famine, O-lan gives birth to a girl child, the child mercifully “dies” so they no long have to feed it. It was heart breaking to me to see Wang Lung so quick to discount O-lan as nothing. He never even gave her a chance. He never truly understood what it was to love, although the closest he came to love was his tender care for his helpless daughter, who was left mentally retarded after severe starvation in her infancy.
As I listened to the audiobook, I kept thinking of the fact that a woman wrote this: Why did she want to illustrate the horrible status of women in peasant China? Were men and women still so unequal in the 1930s when she wrote this book?
To me, a woman, it was depressing to listen to. It was a powerful illustration of the life of a peasant struggling to create something greater in his life. And yet, I struggled to see beyond the mistreatment of the woman in this book. I don’t know the answers as to why Pearl S. Buck wrote this book. But I do know I would have to reread it a few times before I can truly put in to words all that this is about! There is so much there. Maybe next time I read it, I won’t be blinded by the plight of the women.
The Good Earth won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. Pearl S. Buck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.
Did the discrimination against women in this book bother you?
How do you deal with historical fiction that has uncomfortable themes? I assume, reading this book, that such treatment of women was standard for the time period. It still bothered me to read it, though.
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If you have reviewed The Good Earth, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.