Tryn's Reviews > The Good Earth

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
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Apr 02, 12

bookshelves: classic, read-multiple-times, novel
Read in March, 2012

** spoiler alert ** The back of this book sums it up well: “Nobel Prize winner Pearl S. Buck traces the whole cycle of life: its terrors, its passions, its ambitions, and rewards.” The narrative begins on Wang Lung’s wedding day, the moment he opens his eyes in anticipation. It ends as he approaches death, with a hint about what his sons will do with the legacy he leaves them. The scope of the book feels like the cycles of the earth itself, with its seasons, predictable recurrences, and startling surprises.

Wang Lung’s wife O-lan is practically silent and certainly undervalued by everyone in the story. Yet she is actually pivotal. It is when Wang Lung marries O-lan that he really starts to prosper. She economizes, repairs, helps in the fields, in addition to preparing the meals and making the clothes. With O-lan in his life, Wang Lung is much more comfortable and his life has more respectability. With the extra money he is able to save through O-lan’s economy, thrift and help, Wang Lung is able to buy a parcel of land. O-lan bears several sons and daughters to Wang Lung. She cares for his father. She acquires jewels that allow Wang Lung to buy even more land. For a time Wang-Lung loses sight of O-lan's value. He compares her to a beast. He takes from her the little pearls she treasures. He doesn't see that O-lan herself is a pearl of great price in his life, until she nears death and he suddenly comes to his senses. As I think of it, O-lan is much like the land itself—plain, humble, fertile, silent, offering riches!

The life-sustaining power of the earth is the over-arching theme of the book. The land is equated with life itself. As Wang Lung works side-by-side with his new wife in their fields, he feels a union with her and with the earth: “He had no articulate thought of anything; there was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over in the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods.” When the couple announces to Wang Lung’s father that O-lan is expecting their first child, he says, “So the harvest is in sight!” The fertility of the land and the body are synonymous. Even the gods Wang Lung worships are fashioned from clay. The earth equals diety, food, prosperity, posterity.

The land also has healing power. Whenever Wang Lung is troubled by family life, when he is love sick for the prostitute Lotus, when he is lonely and afraid in a distant city, it is the land, or the thought of the land, that heals his soul and fills him with hope. Because he owns land, he is someone substantial; he has self-respect. The land he owns makes him valuable, only in his own at first, but eventually to his whole community. When the land is fruitless for a time and Wang Lung and his family have to leave to live in the city, the land pulls on Wang Lung, calling to him, and ultimately bringing him back to his home.

Wang Lung makes many mistakes in this story, but the most portentous is not grounding his own sons to the land. They become a scholar, a merchant, a soldier—but not a farmer among them. None of them care for the land the way Wang Lung does. None of them are emotionally tied to it the way he is. And we know by the end of the book that they will sell Wang Lung’s precious land and that his prophecy will come true: “It is the end of a family—when they begin to sell the land . . . Out of the land we came and into it we must go—and if you will hold your land you can live—no one can rob you of land.” When people forget their humble attachment to and dependence on the land, they forget who they really are. Their lives become unstable and vulnerable. The land—the good earth—is what holds a man up and gives sustenance to his life.

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