Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Good Earth

In the near future, I am going to have my honor students focus on reading highly praised novels (like the "classics" and Pulitzer Prize novels), so in my research, I am trying to read some of my own. I happened upon The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, and I was tempted to read it.

It looks like a dry book. It really does. But I was hooked and I wanted to keep finding out what would happen to Wang Lang and his family. This book is very old, as it was published in 1931, and used to be taught throughout schools when my mom was younger. My mother actually read the book in 6th grade. She remembers reading it because she sliced her finger open while making a project for the book--a diorama. Remember those? In any event, it's an older book.

Wikipedia's description is very, very brief. So much more happens that makes the plot and the character's circumstances very complicated. Essentially, the book follows the protagonist Wang Lang who lives in rural China. He is a very poor farmer but has a connection with his land (hence the name of the book). He wants to make a man of himself, so he goes to the main courts to get himself a bride from a slave. It is there that he receives his wife O-Lan. She soon bears him many children, as they are fortunate to have two boys first. However, economic times become extremely harsh in the land, as the land dries up, and China experiences a drought, thus a famine. Finding food is extremely difficult, and people resort to stealing. Wang Lung has a difficult time feeding his family since he has to feed his wife, two sons, and his older father.

To Wang Lung's misfortunte, his uncle (a mischievous, nefarious, malicious man) joins a notoriously bad group of felons who steal and hurt for their own personal gain. They are the equivalent of a gang. They take most of Wang Lung's food (which is hardly anything), but O-Lan pleads that they leave the furniture, which most of them do. Wang Lung is faced with a hard decision: does he sell his land to make some money for food or does he move away? Wang Lung decides not to sell the land and move to the city to keep his family alive.

However, before they leave, O-Lan faces two misfortunes. First, she gives birth to a daughter who is the victim of malnutrition during the pregnancy. This girl is born with some type of mental retardation as a result, and is thus called the Poor Fool throughout the novel. O-Lan's second pregnancy at this point of time births another baby girl. O-Lan knows that they cannot provide for this baby and kills it. Wang Lung takes it outside to be eaten by a nearby dog who keeps digging up the dead bodies of his relatives to satiate its hunger. Horrid. Nasty. Horrifying.

Wang Lung's family migrates to the city where Wang Lung pulls a plow for silver. His family begs in the street, but at least they have little money and rice to eat. One day, a mob breaks out as people are starving. They raid the nearby house of the rich. Wang Lung comes face to face with a rich man. In an act of desperation, Wang Lung tells the man he will kill him if he does not hand him over some silver. Wang Lung receives many gold coins, enough to keep his family satisfied for a long time. O-Lan picks up some jewels that also will help. Thus, they return back to their land to start anew.

Wang Lung decides to really build up his house and his land. He buys land from the rich house and staffs farmers to increase his intake from his land. He becomes rich from all of the products coming from his land. The money starts to get to Wang Lung's head. He starts to dress very nice and partake in luxuries. He has twins as well, a boy and a girl. They buy servants and build a new, nicer house. The servants move into the old house.

Wang Lung grows bored and wants to become known as a great man. He goes into the town and stumbles upon a whorehouse. He contemplates the decision, feeling guilty, but eventually he begins to sleep with a girl named Lotus. He will do everything for Lotus and pines for her day and night. O-Lan suspects this, and their distance grows. He even asks O-Lan for her jewels to give to Lotus, and O-Lan knows this. However, O-Lan is a silent, obedient woman. It's sad to watch how much terrible treatment she takes and how hard her life is.

Eventually, Wang Lung decides that he wants to buy Lotus for good. His uncle and his wife have now taken residence in his home, seeing that he is so prosperous, and he must house them, for he must respect his family and his elders. He hates having them live there, for they are greedy and constantly ask for silver, but his uncle provides protection from his gang. The uncle's wife makes a deal for Lotus to move to the house, so Wang Lung builds her her own wing off of the house which is very nice. She will reside there. Of course, tension between the women erupts as she lives there.

At this point, Wang Lung's sons are now older, and Wang Lung wonders what he will do about wedding his first son. His first son is lusting so bad that he goes into the town for women. He even has a brief fling with Lotus, and when Wang Lung finds them, he beats his son with a stick. He sends him to the city to get out of his sight until he can find him a bride. A bride is eventually found, and they move into the house together with the family.

Meanwhile, O-Lan has grown terribly sick, and it now becomes apparent how much she meant to the family and how much she did for them around the house. Wang Lung calls a doctor to the house who informs them that a dead baby is living within O-Lan and will eventually kill her. He could either give them medicine to quell the pain, but it wouldn't solve anything, or he could perform surgery to ensure her survival. When Wang Lung says that he will pay it, the doctor suddenly becomes greedy and asks for ten times the amount, which he could not afford. He would have to sell his land for that kind of money, so it comes down to the land or O-Lan. O-Lan begs for him to keep the land, for her life is not worth that much. Wang Lung agrees with her.

During O-Lan's slow decent towards death, Wang Lung is so saddened inside. He is disgusted with how ugly his wife is and has a hard time holding her hand as she dies in her bed, but he hates himself for thinking this. O-Lan, while in a half-daze, half-sleep, constantly cries out phrases like, "But I have beared your children!" Comments that show how torn up she was over her husband's new love and infidelity. O-Lan finally dies once her son is wed. The old man soon dies as well.

Wang Lung-s first son bears children, and the son's wife is a pain. The eldest son often quarrels with the cousin (uncle's son) who is lustful and devious. He wishes to move away into the great house to escape them. Their first idea to make peace in the house is to hook the uncle and uncle's wife on opium. This works. They are now drug-addicted and want nothing else but opium. Lotus grows fatter and fatter but is happy to live in such luxury with servants. The cousin constantly tries to make sexual advances onto Wang Lung's pretty daughter, so Wang Lung weds her off quickly while she is still a young virgin. To their fortune, the cousin eventually decides to go off to war, so that makes things easier in Wang Lung's house.

After making his second son an apprentice in the grain market and looking after their finances, Wang Lung and his family rent out parts of the great house and move into the city. Wang Lung still returns to the land and even rents parts out, as his servants are now growing older. Wang Lung also grows older. He weds his second, smarter son to a rural woman who won't be as picky as the first wife, and lives in happiness with his wealth. He now has many servants to wait on his growing family.

During one bad period of time, the army (as a war in going on, the Revolution) comes into his home, led by the cousin. They stay there for a long time which causes unrest in the house. They have to put all of the women in one wing and guard it, as the men might rape the women. The cousin takes to a slave, and she has babies by him. The army eventually leaves, and peace comes to the house.

Now, if things couldn't get any stranger, they really get odd now. Wang Lung is now an old man. His youngest son does not want to work on the land, which was Wang Lung's plan, so he asks to be educated like his older brothers and to have a wife. He asks for a servant to be his wife, a very beautiful young girl named Pear Blossom. However, Wang Lung fancies her, and wants her for himself. He is conflicted with what he should do, and one night, he makes an advance on her, and she tells him that she likes older men because they are nicer and gentler. They have their own romance. When the son finds out, he is livid and leaves the house to join the army. Wang Lung approaches his death with acceptance. Before he dies, Wang Lung overhears his sons discussing selling his land once he dies. Wang Lung cries out in horror, and the sons lie to him, telling him that they won't. They smile at each other as they say this, and this is how the book ends.

Now, I did not know that there were two other books to follow this one. This is a cliffhanger, and I wonder if Buck meant for it to be this way. In any event, I am drawn to read more. If anyone has read them, are they worth reading??

The book is so rich with material to discuss. How low will people go when they are starving? What happens when people go from rags to riches? How do people become so greedy? Is infidelity justifiable? What is the role of family and filial piety? What happens when parental expectations don't fit into what we want for ourselves? What is loyalty? How do you maintain wealth when money is hard to come by? How do you become a respectable, honorable person? Is arranged marriage a good thing? Why title the book, The Good Earth?

I wish I could discuss the book with someone else. There is so much to talk about!

Is the movie worth watching?? I am aware that there is one, but I am not sure if I should check it out or not.

So what do you think about The Good Earth?


Diane said...

wow, I SO do NOT remember this book. seems very depressing.

Jami said...


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