Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

As he had been healed of his sickness of heart when he came from the southern city and comforted by the bitterness he had endured there, so now again Wang Lung was healed of his sickness of love by the good dark earth of his fields and he felt the moist soil on his feet and he smelled the earthy fragrance rising up out of the furrows he turned for the wheat. He ordered his laborers hither and thither and they did a mighty day of labor, ploughing here and ploughing there, and Wang Lung stood first behind the oxen and cracked the ship over their backs and saw the deep curl of earth turning as the plow went into the soil, and then he called to Ching and gave him the ropes, and he himself took a hoe and broke up the soil into fine loamy stuff , soft as black sugar, and still dark with the wetness of the land upon it. This he did for the sheer joy he had in it and not for any necessity and when he was weary he lay down upon his land and he slept and the health of the earth spread into his flesh and he was healed of his sickness.

Next up after Tears of a Tiger is The Good Earth, a book with much more substance, but unfortunately, as dull as the dirt that gives it its title. Pearl Buck won the Nobel Prize in 1938 in part because of this book, which details the life of a Chinese farmer around the turn of the century and his steady rise into the ranks of the wealthy by his devotion to the land which he tills. Perhaps as a result of that, the back of the book is replete with critical interpretations suggesting that it is a shame that Buck was never accepted by the academic world into the cadre of great writers of the early twentieth century.

But you would have to be quite the revisionist, I think, to accept the premise that The Good Earth is in any way comparable to the work of Joyce or Fitzgerald, or even earlier stuff like Mark Twain, with which its realism has much more in common. Buck's book is just too straightforward, too dogmatic in its sensibilities--the farmer, Wang Lung, begins as a simple and honest man, and though he never abandons his simplicity and goodness, his moral compass slips only when he is separated from the "good earth" that nurtures him and his family. When he brings a prostitute named Lotus to live in his household (much to the chagrin of his homely but loyal wife) we cannot help but recognize it as the actions of a man who has been corrupted, if slightly, by material wealth. The book opens with Wang Lung traveling to the wealthy and arrogant House of Hwang to purchase a slave of theirs to become his wife; when at the end Wang Lung literally purchases and moves into the Hwang's abandoned palace it seems as if Buck is leaving little room for the reader to infer the parallels that exist. The Good Earth, no matter whether Buck won the Nobel Prize or not, is morally and thematically one-dimensional.

All this, of course, makes it a great text for freshmen, whose minds have difficulty handling ambiguity as it is.


Amanda said...

Sorry, but I'd have to say I completely disagree with you on this one. This was one of the most beautiful, moving, and richly written classics I've read this year.

Christopher said...

Eh. I don't hate it, but I really don't think there's much to chew on here.

Amanda said...

I liked the theme of indifference and neutrality of the earth in the face of religion, wealth (or poverty), and circumstances. I kept thinking I knew what she was going to talk about, but then she'd surprise me by going a totally different direction. I loved the idea that in the end, nothing we do really matters.

Rebecca Reid said...

I'm with Amanda -- I think there is plenty to chew on. I particularly like the role of men versus women and find O-Lan quite fascinating as as a strong woman, even if she was never actually realized as such!

Logan said...

I agree, this book lacked the quality that other classics hold.