Book Summary: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

Book Summary: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

Type of work: Humanistic /naturalistic novel

Setting: Pre-revolutionary China; 20th century

Principal characters
Wang Lung, a peasant who becomes wealthy
O-lan, his wife, once a slave
Lotus, a prostitute
Pear Blossom, Wang Lung’s slave-concubine

The Good Earth Book Summary

On his wedding day, Wang Lung nervously made his way to the gates of the illustrious house of Hwang to meet his new bride. As the gateman led him into the opulent hall, the peasant heard “tinkles of laughter on every side” that heightened his anxiety.

He was, after all, a poor man, whose father had negotiated his marriage to an unpretentious slave woman there. When O-lan, Wang Lung’s bride-to-be, was presented to him, he could see that “there was not a beauty of any kind in her face.” Nevertheless, he felt a “secret exultation” during the wedding feast and ceremony, for, at last, “he had his woman!” After his marriage, as his new wife attended to his needs, Wang Lung discovered, for the first time, a “luxury of living.”

His bride’s cooking, housekeeping and work in the fields please him greatly, as did her undivided love. And before long, O-lan presented him with his first man-child. Informing his father that he was now a grandfather, Wang Lung listened as the old man cackled joyfully.

A short time later, the hard-working and fertile O-lan gave birth to yet another son. And to add to this luck, after much hard work and sacrifice, Wang Lung and O-lan were able to buy a new tract of land from the great House of Hwang. Wang Lung firmly believed that the earth was “one’s flesh and blood,” and now at last he felt himself “equal to [the] people in the foolish, great, wasteful house.”

O-lan, meanwhile, rejoiced that she was the wife of a man who could buy land from those who had enslaved her. The family’s happiness, however, was short-lived. Hearing of his nephew’s new prosperity, Wang Lung’s destitute uncle began to make demands. All too well acquainted with the ways of the libertine man, Wang Lung observed acerbically, “If [we] have a handful of silver it is because … we do not, as some do, sit idling over a gambling table or gossiping on doorsteps never swept, letting the fields grow to weeds and our children go half-fed!”

Nevertheless, bound by family honor, Wang Lung assisted the uncle and his family as often as he could. In time, a terrible drought took hold of the land, killing many crops, and there came a point where Wang Lung could no longer afford to give even “a small heap of beans” or “a precious handful of corn” to his uncle without starving his own family.

The uncle went around the village, complaining bitterly: “My nephew, there, he has silver and he has food, but he will give none of it to us, not even to me, and to my children, who are his own bones and flesh.” Incited by the uncle’s words, the villagers descended on Wang Lung’s home and pocketed the family’s last few bits of food. For a moment, Wang Lung felt great fear, but he immediately comforted himself: “I have the land still, and it is mine.”

Meanwhile, two daughters and a third son had been born into the family. The younger daughter had a vacant gaze and dull mind, but her father loved her; sadly and affectionately, he referred to her as “the fool.” Now, however, he could no longer bear to look at any of his emaciated children. At last, though he knew the journey would be difficult in their weakened state, he decided in desperation to take his family south.

As Wang Lung and O-lan led their children out of the village, they discovered a horde of other desperate families struggling towards the railroad to board the “fire wagons” that would take them south. With his last two pieces of silver, Wang Lung also bought tickets for a train bound for the city of Kiangsu. Kiangsu’s well-fed residents often hurled “scornful and haughty” glances at their new neighbors from the north.

After pulling together a rude hut from cheap floor mats to shelter his family, Wang Lung went to work pulling a ricksha through the city; his father, wife, and children, meanwhile, set out to beg on the streets. “Unless you give, good sir, good lady – we starve – we starve,” they called out to passersby. But even as his kin coaxed coins from strangers, Wang Lung’s hope and pride burned on. He never let the one most important thought drift from his mind: “We must get back to the land.” Before long, a class war erupted between the city’s poor and rich.

As penniless mobs ransacked Kiangsu’s palatial mansions, a handful of pilfered silver finally came into Wang Lung’s grasp. The silver not only paid for return tickets to Wang Lung’s home village, but it also bought a new ox for his family, and “seeds the likes of which he had never planted before.”

To Wang Lung’s further delight, O-lan had pillaged a “heap of jewels” from a rich man’s house in Kiangsu. As she surrendered this treasure, she asked only that she be allowed to keep two small “wife pearls” to wear around her neck. Wang Lung promptly marched to the house of Hwang to exchange the rest of the fortune for more land. His property holdings were now vast, and he would no longer permit his wife to work in the fields.

In her place, he contracted the services of Ching, his gentle and loyal neighbor. As the years passed, Wang Lung hired more laborers to tend to his fertile lands. At last, he had achieved the status of a wealthy man and, as such, he naturally encouraged his sons to become scholars – although he occasionally worried about how accustomed they had become to privilege. He also was troubled by his beloved daughter, “the fool.”

She could not speak, but could only display a sweet, empty smile that filled him with intense love and sadness. Strangely, the richer Wang Lung became, the more overwhelmed he was by sadness, often mixed with anger. One day as he stared at O-lan, he was suddenly struck by how plain she looked: she was “a dull and common” old woman, indeed. And, soon, Wang Lung found himself longing for a young and beautiful woman.

He met just such a woman only a few days later at the new teashop in town. Although Lotus worked as a prostitute, she was “like a flower on a quince tree,” an exquisitely beautiful and fragile creature who exercised her will over her new suitor. When she demanded silver and jewels, Wang Lung happily complied, going so far as to compel O-lan to turn over her treasured wife pearls in order to pacify his charming Lotus.

At last, he moved her into his own house, and even agreed to build an addition for her. There in her polished shrine, Lotus “lay indolent upon her bed … nibbling sweet meats and fruits, and wearing … garments of green summer silk. …” Wang Lung’s life became increasingly difficult and complicated. Not surprisingly, O-lan never spoke to her rival; and Wang Lung’s aged father often scolded loudly, “There is a harlot in the house!” If these troubles weren’t enough, his conniving uncle’s family also moved into Wang Lung’s house to enjoy a life of leisure.

And things became even more awkward when Wang Lung discovered his oldest son had been carrying on with Lotus. Consequently, the distraught father hastened his son’s marriage to the courtesan. Now, despite his great wealth, “Wang Lung found himself in such a coil as he never dreamed of” – and he longed to return to the land. True to the prevailing run of luck, the long-frail O-lan died on the very day her son was wed. And only days later, as if “death could not easily leave the house where it had come once,” Wang Lung’s frail father also died. Grief-stricken, Wang Lung selected “a good place in his fields under a date tree for the graves. … And out of his heaviness there stood out but one clear thought and it was a pain to him. … He wished that he had not taken the two pearls from O-lan that day … and he would never bear to see Lotus put them in her ears. …”

In fact, his ardor for his daughter-in-law had begun to cool long before O-lan’s death. Finally, in an attempt to free himself once and for all from the humiliating entanglements with his uncle, Wang Lung, after consulting with his second son, turned over his old residence to the avaricious old man and bought the “great house of Hwang” for himself and his family to live in.

Shortly after they were settled into the lavish new dwelling, Wang Lung’s first grandson was born, and a new aura of peace came into his life. But then he received another blow: the death of the trusted Ching, caretaker of his beloved land. Wang Lung wept openly; the earth that he had once esteemed and coveted with unbridled fierceness now left him unfulfilled and desolate.

Over the years the great house of Hwang, which he had taken so proudly into his possession, began to dishearten him as well. Lung’s two eldest sons and their wives feuded constantly, and Lotus became jealous of a lovely young slave girl called Pear Blossom, who had recently been added to the household.

When Lotus one day accused Wang Lung once of lusting after the girl, he laughed; but then he noticed for the first time how “very pretty and pale” she was, and “something stirred in his old blood that had been quiet” for many years. “Child!” he called to Pear Blossom one day as the girl went about her duties – and immediately she submitted to him. Afterward, he delighted in her words: “I like old men … they are so kind.”

His youngest third son felt betrayed, however, for he had fallen in love with Pear Blossom himself. Now unable to endure her adoration of his father, he withdrew from the house. In grief and repentance, Wang Lung sighed to Pear Blossom, “I am too old for you, my heart, and well I know it.” Now his “passion died out of him,” and life itself seemed to retreat from his being.

But faithful Pear Blossom always helped him to recover his spirits when he was downhearted. What’s more, the servant- girl promised to look after her master’s cherished “little fool” after he died, and to remain steadfastly by his side until that day. As Wang Lung’s passing drew near, he could see that his two greedy eldest sons had become preoccupied with thoughts of their inheritance – the good earth which years earlier he had left in favor of riches. “If you sell the land,” he warned his sons, “it is the end.” In an attempt to placate their dying father, they promised that the land would not be sold. And Wang Lung, his tired eyes closed, did not see their expressions of conspiracy as “they looked at each other and smiled.”

The Good Earth Book Review

Beowulf, the great masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon liteWith the appearance of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth on bookstore shelves in 1931, many Westerners got their first real glimpse into Chinese life. Readers and critics alike were captivated. Heralded as “a work of genius,” the novel became a national best-seller and Pulitzer Prize-winner. But while highly acclaimed internationally, the novel was not well received in China.

Among its detractors were Chinese academics, who believed that the story oversimplified their country’s multifaceted culture by focusing on the peasant class. Other detractors attacked its honest attention to sexuality, which they felt demeaned Chinese sensibilities. Still, Buck’s simple yet explicit depiction of life in China gave her work a universal appeal that humanized and demystified a country which, to the Western world, had long been an enigma.

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