The Good Earth


Pearl S. Buck




Date Reviewed:

July 30, 2014

more accurate title for this book, rather than The Good Earth, would be: Portrait of A Selfish Man. It is the story of a peasant farmer in China, I am not sure of the date, but it seems to take place early in the 20th century. The peasant farmer is named Wang Lung. At the beginning of the novel, Wang Lung is an appealing character who works hard, doesn't gamble, and honors his father. Wang is disciplined, he hoards his harvest, not selling until winter time when he can command higher prices for his bounty. Through hard work, Wang accrues enough money to purchase a wife - he travels into town and visits the home of the wealthy Hwang family. Wang Lung is humiliated by the doorkeeper, but he does manage to get a wife - the ugly slave woman named O-lan.

Wang is disappointed that the wife he bought is so plain, and apparently, O-lan is not too bright either, because she is a woman of so few words. But it turns out that O-lan is an ideal spouse for Wang Lung - she works in the fields tirelessly, keeping the house and respecting Wang's father. O-lan doesn't complain or question Wang, and she bears him sons. Yet Wang Lung fails to appreciate how hard the self-sacrificing O-lan works for his benefit. Love certainly doesn't blossom between Wang and mother of his sons; indeed, Wang is incapable of even offering O-lan a compliment or even noticing her efforts. If there is any heroic character in this book, it is the neglected O-lan.

I thought this was going to be a book about how hard work and persistence are rewarded in the long run, but the novel takes a turn. Drought comes to the village, and starvation for all the peasants. In desperation, Wang sells everything except his land and moves his family to a large city in the south, riding upon a the marvelous wonder that is a train for the first time. In the large city, Wang tries to make money as a rickshaw puller, while the rest of his family begs. But these efforts come to nothing and they exist in crushing poverty. War comes to the city, and there is panic. Enemy soldiers attack the city, and mobs run through the streets. Wang Lung finds himself in a mob that ransacks a rich man's house, and Wang ends up face-to-face with the rich man himself. The rich man offers Wang great wealth if Wang will lead him to safety. Wang takes the money, but abandon's the rich man to his fate. O-lan is also involved in the looting of the rich man's house, and she manages to steal a fortune in jewels.

The novel takes a mysterious jump at the this point, and we next see Wang Lung back in his village with his stolen wealth. How did he get his family out of the city with enemy soldiers attacking? Certainly the trains would not have been running, or else they would have been overwhelmed by the crush of desperate refugees. Despite Wang's long absence, he returns to find his land and his hut still intact. With his ill-gotten wealth, Wang buys more land from the Hwang family, and some how, despite famine, Wang acquires seed to plant and becomes the farmer of much prime acreage.

The novel becomes harder to read beyond this point, because a wealthy Wang Lung is a horrible man. He is selfish, spending his money foolishly, visiting prostitutes and acquiring the trappings of a rich man. Still, he treats O-lan badly, wasting all of the jewels she has stolen on satisfying his own desires. Wang even demands that O-lan turnover her prized earrings so that he can woo the evil prostitute Lotus Flower. Each chapter simply documents more bad behavior. Wang Lung beats his sons. Wang Lung buys slaves. Wang Lung fails to reward Ching, his loyal foreman. Wealth comes in, and as Wang gets richer, he becomes more dislikable. Perhaps Pearl S. Buck meant this book to be a story about how wealth corrupts. When Wang is an old man, he buys a young slave girl and turns her into his concubine. He justifies this deed by saying that he is a rich man and thus can do what he likes.

Wang Lung's sons are equally bad. I am not sure they even have names, I think they are just called Eldest Son and Second Son through out the book. They learn how to read and write, and they also learn how to manipulate Wang Lung by appealing to his vanity. Eventually they talk Wang into buying the big house in town of the formerly rich Hwang family. Wang returns in triumph, now he is the owner of the house where once he was mocked when he bought O-lan as his wife. I thought at this point the novel would be some kind of "circle of life" tale - that is would be a story about how Wang Lung's life arc would follow the arc of the formerly-rich but now impoverished Hwang family. Instead, the novel ends with the treachery of Wang's sons. I had hoped that by the end of his life Wang Lung would develop some wisdom or generosity; I hoped Wang Lung would learn to share his good fortune, that he could do something to improve the lives of the poor people around him. I hoped in vain; Wang Lung remains a selfish, amoral man to the end. Even his success is based upon his theft of the rich man, not upon the fruits of hard work.

What horrible people Buck has depicted in this story. Selfish, greedy, vain and unable show any empathy for their fellow humans. Apparently this book was a huge bestseller in the 1930's, and won a Pulitzer Prize, but I really struggled to get through it. I had to renew it from the library multiple times before I could finally slog the uninspiring life of the unlikeable Wang Lung. The Good Earth may be a classic, but it is devoid of joy or humanity. Skip this book.