The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

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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.

Other reviews:

If you have reviewed The Good Earth, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.

Reviewed on July 9, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I listened to this on audiobook, and it was due at the library before I finished it. That didn’t particularly bother me, and I have no urge to go back and get it, precisely because of this issue.

    I don’t know much at all about Chinese culture. But in every novel I’ve read or tried to read by a male Chinese author, I’ve been seriously bothered by the treatment of women. It could be a coincidence. *shrugs*

  • Since you already included a link to my review, you know that I was not a huge fan of this book. The treatment of women, the “dryness” of the narrator’s voice, there was just something about it that bugged me. I just looked back at my own review and realized that I must have liked it more at the time than I do now looking back … hmm, that reminds me of your post from yesterday about your different reactions to books at different points in your life. This is not a book I would ever want to read again, but I’m not sure I would have said that back when I wrote my review.

  • You know, the treatment of women didn’t bother me in this book at all. It was bad, of course, I’m not saying it wasn’t, but I felt like the book was more a portrayal of what existed in that time period in that place. I didn’t feel it was political in nature, but more slice of life. It was the opening of a culture for me, as it existed then. I didn’t fault Wang Lung because he did only what he knew. He didn’t know anything different. When someone is taught something we consider wrong by our standards by they consider right by theirs, I simply can’t fault them. It feels wrong to judge them by our standards.

    I really loved this book. It was beautiful, the characters felt real, and there was a nice balance between tragic and hopeful. I was expecting it to be miserable, and it wasn’t. It made a huge impression on me and has become one of my favorite classics.

    My review is here:

  • I remember reading this a long time ago (maybe high school?) and thinking it was good. Now I’m wondering if I thought that because I was influenced by someone. You’ve made me curious. I may have to look for this book.

  • Eva, well, this one is by a female author, so that’s why I just kept going. I kept thinking the women would get some redemption at the end. Alas…

    Heather J., I actually didn’t find it dry at all! I loved the language. It seemed Biblical to me (which was a good thing) and maybe the narrator of the audiobook made it easier to get through, but I really did love how it was written! I do think I’ll probably read it again.

    Jackie, I’d be interested to know if the woman issue bothered you.

    Amanda, I knew it was a “time period” piece but it still really bothered me throughout. Like I said above, I wanted there to be some redemption, like O-Lan at some point had someone love her even a little. It just felt so unfair. I know I can’t judge them by our standards, but it still really irked me. I hesitate to read something like Gone witht he Wind for similar reasons: even though it’s a historical fiction/period piece the issue bother me. I do think I’ll reread it someday, and maybe upon rereading I’ll like it more. I’ll link to your review too.

    Kathy, if you read it again, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

  • I guess in terms of redemption, I suppose I saw the redemption for the women in how much the reader loves O-lan. She wasn’t appreciated by her own people, but how many people look at this book and admire Wang Lung? No one, really. But just about everyone admires O-lan’s strength. I think she gains redemption through her unwavering loyalty, dedication, and moral ethic. It’s sort of an outside redemption, if that makes sense.

  • On its surface, misogyny seems to be a major construct in “The Good Earth” but the women are clever, resourceful and fiercely proud. There is no doubt that the wife is primarily responsible for the survival of her family during times of famine, and for her husband’s accumulation of wealth and status.
    Men may seem to be dominating the novel, but they couldn’t survive without the women. In all of Buck’s writing, this theme comes striding through.
    Men is this novel come across as the men in “beer commercials” come across: shallow and two-dimensional. Ahh, but the women in this book are the most memorable.

  • Regarding Pre-Shakespeare, I skipped my senior year in high school as I was working full time and living on my own. But I had to complete Advanced Calculus, physics, organic chem and English Lit on my own.
    So I chose to write on the works leading up to Shakespeare!
    Christopher Marlowe was probably the most famous with “Doctor Faustus”, “Tamburlaine the Great parts I and II”, and the “Jew of Malta.” Many British literary historians believe that Shakespeare actually “stole” most of Marlowe’s works.
    Other authors worth reading were Henry Medwall, John Sketon, John Bale, and Sir David Lindsay. Enjoy them! I certainly did…especially “The Strange Case of Doctor Faustus.?

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  • I read the book previously for about a quarter but then couldn’t really continue because it was too depressing back then. Had to return it to the library. I can still remember the peas that the wife has to eat after giving birth. The imagery is so vivid. My gosh it was depressing. I want to go back to it though, definitely.

  • Thanks for the link to my review 🙂 I loved this book and the mistreatment of women, although tough to read, did not detract from the story for me. I think Buck purposefully wanted the reader to experience what these women went through…and show us how STRONG these women really were. Rather than being a tale mistreatment of women, I found it to be more a story of their courage, strength, and perserverence.

  • I have this book listed as one of the books I want to read this year. I’ve had it on my shelf for years – the copy I have is actually my mothers. She read it when she was in high school – and that is many moons ago 😉 I am looking forward to read it, and your review has made me even more curious.

    Just wanted to thank you for your comments left on my pages while I was away. I am back home now and trying to catch up on blogs, tweets and mails 🙂

  • Wendy, The more I think about it, the less the women issue bothers me. It was still depressing, but as others have said, it showed the women as the strong part of the culture, as opposed to the dumb men. I think it’s like someone said before, because I was listening to it over the course of many days, the woman issue just stood out to me and started to irritate me. Maybe when I reread it, that issue won’t seem so center stage. (And I will reread it!!)

    Louise, I hope you do get to it. It is a powerful book, even though I found it a bit depressing.

    I hope you had a nice trip!

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