The next Pulitzer Prize winning-novel on my list has been strangely timely. It has been an eerie experience reading The Good Earth, a 1931 novel about rural Chinese farmers, at the same time as our world has descended into a global pandemic which likely originated in rural China (the COVID-19 or “coronavirus” pandemic of 2020).
In addition while reading this novel, my wife and I made some large personal transitions: we moved into a new home and welcomed our first-born into the world. Throughout it all, I was reminded of the terrible hardships in The Good Earth faced by Wang Lung and his family: drought, robbery, pestilence, and starvation. In the novel, O-Lan, Wang’s wife, gives birth numerous times alone in a private room amidst the imminent threat of death, yet she perseveres. Looking back, whatever challenges I was facing at the time seem a little easier, more privileged, less heavy, and I found myself thankful all things considered.
The story is the work of Pearl S. Buck, daughter of Christian missionaries who spent much of her childhood in China. Buck lived in China for a good portion of her life, and she saw first-hand the struggles of ordinary Chinese people, so she decided to write sympathetic stories about the Chinese plight, even though the Communist Chinese government would later dismiss Buck’s works as mere Western Capitalist propaganda.
The Good Earth is, in part, Pearl Buck’s reflections on her extended time living in China. This beautiful but simply crafted novel is about Wang Lung, a wheat farm in Northern China who is struggling to rise from poverty. His relationship to the land is the central theme of the novel –a timeless topic that may be found in the works of many great writers, from Hesiod to Steinbeck. However, The Good Earth is not a pastoral novel. It is not a celebration of the peaceful and tranquil wilderness. Life is excruciatingly strenuous for these struggling farmers. Wang Lung breaks his back sowing wheat fields, yearning for a male son to help him, longing for winter rains to finally come. He cares for his aging father who can no longer work in the fields, and he carefully watches his shifty uncle who lives on a neighboring farm. Gradually, as Wang sells more wheat, he stows away silver coins inside the walls of his room (banks are non-existent in rural China). He spends his meager savings in order to diligently acquire more land from the declining House of Hwang in the village. The old woman of the Hwang family has turned her attention away from important business matters, and instead she lives amidst a fading cloud of opium. The once great Hwang family has stagnated, and I found myself fascinated by this background theme: some people rise and grow (like Wang), while others stagnate and decline (like Hwang). Wang also initially acquires his wife from the house of Hwang. Her name is O-Lan, a simple slave girl who is obedient to his every whim.
O-Lan bears many children, especially sons, which are of greater value in 20th century China. However, when a drought comes, the family nearly dies of starvation, eating beans and digging up roots out of the ground. They are robbed by a band of starving neighbors, until finally Wang Lung and his family muster enough strength to leave their precious land and head south via the new train route (or “fire wagon”) to a bustling Chinese city. Wang works during the days running a rickshaw around the city, earning just enough money to pay for food each day, while O-Lan teaches the children how to beg on the streets. Soon a revolt breaks out against a fat and wealthy family living behind the high-walled palace of the city. One night, Chinese laborers storm the palace (likely a reference to the 1911 Chinese Revolution). Wang and his wife are caught up in the confusion, and O-Lan, having previously worked in a great house, finds a loose brick in the bedroom with valuable jewels hidden inside. They use the jewelry to buy return tickets to their precious land in the north, and Wang buys even more land from the House of Hwang. Wang invites a new business manager, his neighbor, Ching, a remorseful man who helped Wang during the drought when all hope seemed lost. Remembering the devastation of this drought, Wang devotes himself to producing as much food as possible and he grows wealthy with a favorable reputation in the village. His uncle returns with his family, and in order to avoid disgrace, Wang takes them into his home, only to later discover that his uncle is involved with a Chinese “red-beard” mafia gang, so Wang is blackmailed into allowing his shiftless uncle and his lazy family to remain under his roof.
However, Wang is not simply an innocent, noble, self-sacrificial hero. Eventually, he loses interest in his wife, O-Lan, which causes him to stray from his work on the land. He falls in love with a concubine named Lotus at a tea shop in the village, and he becomes wholly consumed by thoughts of her. As time passes, his aunt arranges for Wang to purchase Lotus -an act which causes Wang’s wife, O-Lan, immense grief and disappointment. Wang builds a beautiful new home with a pool and a kitchen for Lotus, but he soon learns that no man can ever truly possess a woman. Wang’s firstborn son strikes up a secret romance with Lotus. O-Lan reveals the truth to Wang in private, and Wang beats his moody but scholarly son and sends him away. Finally, Wang’s attention returns to the business of his vast land.
In the end, O-Lan grows ill with what seems to be multiple forms of cancer. Suddenly, Wang feels sorrow for this hearty woman who bore him many children, and who cooked him many meals, asking for nothing in return. He remembers taking her precious pearls that she once stole from the palace in the city, only to give them to his lusty concubine -the ultimate insult to his wife at the time. O-Lan eventually grows weary in suffering, and she lives long enough to witness their eldest son’s return and his wedding before she dies. Wang mourns her passing, and almost at the same time, Wang’s father passes away. They are both buried on the same day. At the suggestion of one of his sons, Wang Lung purchases the old, great house of Hwang and he moves his whole family and laborers there. He also, slyly, arranges for his conniving uncle and his wife to become addicted to opium -they lie in bed all day and cause Wang no trouble. One day, Wang’s friend and business parter, Ching, dies in his field, so Wang buries Ching in the family cemetery next to a plot designated for Wang. Wang mourns the passing of his friend, Ching, and he rarely returns to his old rural family home because the painful memories are too great. Wang passes into old age enjoying the sunlight in his courtyard. He takes a small slave girl, Pear Blossom, as his mistress. The final tragedy of Wang Lung’s life is that his sons have all been raised in luxury, not in connection to the land, so they intend to sell their father’s precious land one day -the land Wang Lung had fought so feverishly hard to hold onto through drought, starvation, poverty, pestilence, and finally success. At the end, his sons walk across the land and discuss which plots will sell best, while Wang Lung follows behind them. He begins sobbing uncontrollably, grabbing at clods of dirt and telling his sons that the land is everything – the place where they are born and where they will one day return. Without it, their family is nothing. His sons offer soothing words, in an attempt to console their father, but over Wang’s head, they all smile at each other knowingly -thus concluding this epic novel with the impending demise of Wang’s great life work at the hands of his offspring.
I cannot say, in good conscience, that The Good Earth is a truly brilliant novel. It is compellingly simple, but it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi with regard to literary merit. The Good Earth is often praised for what it did to the political circumstances between the United States and China in “raising awareness” about the struggles facing Chinese peasants. Pearl Buck awakened a generation of Americans to the relatable struggles of Chinese farmers. In this way, The Good Earth tends to be more important for its “historical” relevance rather than its substance. It is often remembered for its influence n society rather than its artistic merits. I suppose I am less impressed by the effects of a novel than I am by its individual qualities.
About The 1932 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The Good Earth is also an odd choice as winner of the Pulitzer Prize since the plot and characters are so far removed from the American experience, however this was the year of (once again) new terms for awarding the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The language was revised to: “…for the best novel published during the year by an American author.” The Jury decided unanimously upon The Good Earth for “its epic sweep, its distinct and moving characterization, its sustained story-interest, its simple and yet richly-colored style.” They also considered Willa Cather’s Shadow on the Rock and R. E. Spencer’s The Lady Who Came to Stay. Former Pulitzer Official, John Hohenberg wrote of the popularity of The Good Earth: “To a bewildered people mired in a terrible economic breakdown, the story of the hardships of Chinese peasants somehow was most appealing.” The 1932 Novel Jury was composed of returning jurors: Jefferson B. Fletcher (Chair), Robert M. Lovett, Albert B. Paine.
Shortly after its publication, Buck wrote two sequels to The Good Earth, including Sons (1932), about Wang’s sons and how they handle his estate after his death; and A House Divided (1935), which is about the third generation of the Lung family in the 20th century particularly Wang Lung’s grandson, Wang Yuan, as he faces new life under communist China. The whole trilogy is sometimes called “The House of Earth” trilogy.
Click here to read my review of the 1937 film version of The Good Earth starring Paul Muni as Wang Lung.
About Pearl S. Buck
Pearl Sydenstricker Buck (1892-1973) was the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries in rural China. She was initially born in West Virginia but her parents moved to China where they remained through the “Boxer Rebellion” of 1899. In 1914, Buck returned again to China as a missionary. During this time, she wrote her most famous book, The Good Earth in 1931. It won the Pulitzer in 1932, and Buck later won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. Her Nobel lecture focused on “The Chinese Novel.” The Bucks resided in Nanking, China and once again they refused to flee the country during a violent conflict between local warlords and communist forces called the “Nanking Incident.” Her family was forced to leave their home and take shelter in a nearby hut, while their home was looted by militants. Buck’s manuscript for the first novel was completely destroyed in the chaos. The Bucks escaped to Japan, but later returned to Nanking after the violence had ended.
Pearl Buck was married twice (divorced once). In later years, following the Maoist “Cultural Revolution” in China, she was refused entry into China for her “imperialist” writings of rural Chinese village life. She died of lung cancer in 1973 having not returned to China in her later years. Pearl Buck designed her own grave with her name written in Chinese symbols. She was a lifelong humanitarian, and upon her death a foundation was established in her name. To this day, “Pearl S. Buck International” sits on her country estate in eastern Pennsylvania.
Here are some notable quotations from The Good Earth:
“The hole was barely large enough to admit his hand and he thrust it out to feel of the air. A small soft wind blew gently from the east, a wind mild and murmurous and full of rain. It was a good omen. The fields needed rain for fruition. There would be no rain this day, but with in a few days, if this wind continued, there would be water. It was good. Yesterday he had said to his father that if this brazen, glittering sunshine continued, the wheat could not fill in the ear. Now it was as if Heaven had chosen this day to wish him well. Earth would bear fruit” (Chapter 1, page 1).
“The sun beat down upon them, for it was early summer, and her face was soon dripping with her sweat. Wang Lung had his coat off and his back bare, but she worked with her thin garment covering her shoulders and it grew wet and clung to her like skin. Moving together in a perfect rhythm, without a word, hour after after hour, he fell into a union with her which took the pain from his labor. He had no articulate thought of anything; there was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods. The earth lay rich and dark, and fell apart lightly under the points of their hoes. Sometimes they turned up a bit of brick, a splinter of wood. It was nothing. Some time, in some age, bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses had stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth. So would also their house, some time, return into the earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth. They worked on, moving together-together-producing the fruit of this earth-speechless in their movement together” (pg. 26).
“But the year turned to spring and the willows grew faintly green and the peach trees budded pink, and Wang Lung had not yet found the one he sought for his son.
Spring came in long, warm days scented with blossoming plum and cherry, and the willow trees sprouted their leaves fully and unfolded them, and the trees were green and the earth was moist and steaming and pregnant with harvest, and the eldest son of Wang changed suddenly ceasing to be a child” (pg. 189).
Buck, Pearl. The Good Earth. New York, J. Day Co., 1949.