The next Pulitzer Prize winning novel on my list has been strangely timely. It has been an eerie sensation reading The Good Earth, a 1931 novel about rural Chinese farmers, in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic which likely originated in rural China (the COVID-19 or “coronavirus” crisis of 2020).
In addition, while reading this novel, my wife and I made some large personal life 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. O-Lan, his 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.
The story is the work of Pearl S. Buck, the daughter of Christian missionaries in China. She 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 to the Chinese plight, even though the Communist Chinese government would eventually dismiss Buck’s works as Western Capitalist propaganda.
The Good Earth is, in part, Pearl Buck’s reflections upon her extended time living in China. This beautiful but simply crafted novel is about Wang Lung and his ongoing struggle to rise from poverty as a wheat farmer in Northern China. His relationship to the land is the central theme of the novel -a timeless topic that may be found in many great writers, such as Hesiod and 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, longing for winter rains to 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 wall of his room (banks are non-existent in rural China). He spends his coins only to acquire more land from the declining House of Hwang in the village. The old woman of the Hwang family has turned away from important business matters, and instead she lives in a cloud of opium everyday. The once great Hwang family has stagnated, and I found myself fascinated by this background theme: some rise and grow, while others stagnate and decline. 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 wish.
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 the strength to leave their precious land and head south via the new train (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 for food and money in the streets. Soon a revolt breaks out against the fat and wealthy family living in the high-walled palace of the city. One night, Chinese laborers storm the palace (likely the 1911 Chinese Revolution). Wang and his wife are caught up in the confusion, and O-Lan, having worked in a great house previously, finds a loose brick in a bedroom with valuable jewels hidden inside. They use the jewelry to return to their precious land in the north, and Wang buys even more land from the House of Hwang. He invites a 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 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, self-sacrificial or noble man. 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. Lotus and Wang’s firstborn son strike up a secret romance. O-Lan reveals the truth to Wang in private, and when Wang discovers the truth, he 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, Lotus -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 wedding before she dies. Wang mourns her passing, and almost at the same time, Wang’s father also passes away, so 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, so they lie in bed all day and cause Wang no trouble. One day, Wang’s friend and business parter, Ching, dies in the field belonging to Wang Lung, so Wang buries Ching in the family cemetery, next to a plot designated for Wang. He mourns the passing of his friend, Ching, and he rarely returns to his old rural family home because the painful memories are 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 been raised in luxury, not in connection to the land, so we are left with the impression that they intend to sell their father’s land one day -the land Wang Lung had fought so desperately hard to cling onto through drought, starvation, poverty, pestilence, and finally success. At the end, his sons walk across the land discussing which plots will sell best, while Wang Lung follows behind them, and he sobs 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.
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 China’s farmers. In this way, The Good Earth tends to be more important for its “historical” importance -it is often characterized by its influence rather than by its own artistic qualities. I suppose I am less impressed by the effects of a novel than I am by its individual qualities. The Good Earth is also an odd choice as winner of the Pulitzer, 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: “for the best novel published during the year by an American author.” The Committee 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.”
Shortly after its publication, Buck wrote two sequels to The Good Earth, including Sons (1932), which is about Wang’s sons and how they handle his estate after his death; and A House Divided (1935), which is about the third generation in the 20th century, particularly Wang Lung’s grandson, Wang Yuan, as he faces new life under the communists in 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.