The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck; winner of the Pulitzer Prize 1932

 The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck is a poignant tale about a farmer's connection to the land that sustains him. This story is reminder of how important it is to be true to ourselves and how despite our differences, we are all people and share common experiences and values.


"It was Wang Lung's marriage day."

The Good Earth is the story of Wang Lung, a man who begins life as a poor farmer in pre-evolutionary China. The story begins with his marriage to O-Lan, a woman of whom he is proud to call wife. Both appear fulfilled in their marriage, and work hard together as they work their land, raise their sons and survive the poverty that hits them during the big drought. Through their hard work and some luck, prosperity returns to the Wang family and although Wang Lung can consider his achievements with pride, ultimately it is in his land that he finds his final solace.

The beauty of The Good Earth, which was published in 1931, is that it provided the Western World with an insight into a culture that people did not understand, and did not make any real attempt to understand. US involvement in China was increasing in the early 20th Century, and so the glimpse of Chinese life that Buck was able to provide to Westerners had the potential to have a great influence over their views and attitudes towards the Chinese people.

Through the myriad of authentically depicted characters we learn about what it meant to be Chinese during this period of time. Integrity, reputation and hard work were valued above all else and filial piety seemed to be the cornerstone of most human relationships. Females were considered slaves whose role to produce sons and care for her family. This is not to say that women were not  valued for the role that they played in the lives of men. Wang Lung certainly appreciated and respected his wife, but he only considered her in the light of the role she played within his family. This passage particularly struck me as demonstrating Wang Lung's interest in his wife, but also his conventional approach to the roles of the sexes:
"Sometimes, working over the clods in the field, he would fall to pondering about her. What had she seen in those hundred courts? What had been her life, that life she never shared with him? He could make nothing of it. And then he was shamed of his own curiosity and of his interest in her. She was, after all, only a woman".
I know that many people would find this offensive, but it was the reality of the cultural life of people in China at these times. O-Lan lived this role as much as Wang Lung expected her to.

The essential role that filial piety played in family life was also apparent in many other aspects of their existence. Wang Lung supported his father until his death, as well as his Uncle and his family. Despite the complexities and difficulties of the latter, it was a necessity in order to maintain his reputation as a respectful man.

The reality is that sons were valued more than daughters, as daughters were only raised in order to serve another man and his family. Wang Lung and O-Lan certainly subscribed to this view. Wang Lung gave serious consideration to selling one of his daughters whilst they were in a time of great need. O-Lan killed her newborn daughter whilst in the depths of poverty. Whilst this may seem unimaginable to your or I today, her willingness to do so demonstrated the desperation of the times in which they were living, as well as the value that was placed on a daughters life as opposed to a son's. I have no doubt that as a harsh fact, if that child had been born a son it would not have suffered the same fate.

Through the Wang family's tribulations we are also exposed to the politics and economic reality of China at this time in history. Through all the droughts, floods and the subsequent human suffering, the Government plays no role at all in the lives of the peasants. Self-sufficiency was essential and the end to which all the peasants and farmers worked. Farmers lived off their land, but also utilised the market places to buy and sell goods and produce as required.

Self-sufficiency could not be possible if it weren't for the land, and bonds to the land and ancestral roots is another important theme of The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck.
"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."
It is through such wonderful imagery that Buck really displays how the land from which one which ones comes becomes a part of your sole; a force that compels you to return to honour your ancestors and the land that provided them and you with life.

It was Buck's depiction of the role that land and nature played in the lives and traditions of the Chinese people that I think really holds important lessons for us still. It was never to so clear to me that nature, like life, is truly cyclic in nature. You see the rise and fall of the river, the drought turn to abundance only to turn to flood and then abundance again. Nature has its own guiding force, acknowledged by the people through their Confucianism, and it is that force which must be respected for the life and death that it brings.

Part of the effectiveness of The Good Earth is the way in which Buck has written the story. Buck unfolds this third person narrative using sparse and simple language. The story seems to flow along naturally, which reflects the natural flows and ebbs of nature and human life that are so poignantly portrayed within the pages.

In the end, the traditions, values and land that have sustained Wang Lung throughout his life, begin to change at the hands of his sons which is in and of itself part of the cycle of human existence. In the end though, it is the land that has sustained him life that he returns to to be sustained in death.

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck is moving story full of hope, hard work and heart-break, and has many universal messages that will still resonate with readers today. I loved it.

This book is clearly deserving of the Pulitzer Prize it won in 1932, just as Pearl S. Buck is deserving of the Nobel Prize Prize in Literature 1938.


What kind of read is this?
It is content rich, and very moving and emotional. It is not a difficult read because the flow of the writing carries you along with the story, but it can at times be emotionally challenging.

Do I recommend this book?
Absolutely. This is a book that will hold meaning for all readers, including those in generations to come.

Do you recommend that I buy this book?
I do recommend that you buy this book. It is one that I feel you will find new detail and meaning in each re-reading.

Star Rating

7 / 8

Brilliant. Beautifully told and one I couldn't put down. I recommend that you buy it.

Have you read The Good Earth? I would love to hear what you thought, please leave a link to your review if you have. I have heard so many people say that they felt for O-Lan and disliked Wang Lung for his treatment of her - were you able to suspend your contemporary western values and see their relationship within its cultural and historical context? I admired both for the way in which they really lived their traditions with integrity. 


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