Swankivy's Reviews > The Good Earth

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
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it was ok

On the surface, this book isn't bad--writing-wise, it's easy to read, has enough substance to it that you care what's going on, and even actively root for this story's family even though its patriarch is kind of a jackass. But since there wasn't a moral it was driving at, and there wasn't exactly a central narrative beyond "and then this happened and this happened and this happened," and there wasn't much of an emotional connection (for me) besides outrage over tons of unfair and revolting situations, I have no choice but to conclude that this was written almost in a documentary fashion, and is meant to depict how a certain group of people acted and lived and felt during a certain time in a certain place.

I have no doubt that there were people whose lives were like this. And in the very brief bit I read about the author at the end, I see she wrote this book based on five years she spent in an agrarian community in China. But since I know she wrote it as an outsider to the culture and as a visitor to the area, I can only understand it as authentic to a minimal degree. An outsider CAN'T really write a story with a true, felt connection to the customs, the traditions, the ways. She can only interpret it as an outsider would, and it's an outsider telling other outsiders how it looks. That's all I'll say about that aspect, as an outsider myself, and my rating of this book is partially based on that.

The other reason I gave the book a relatively low rating despite its being written in a style I could enjoy is that I just . . . plain . . . hated the main character. He begins the story looking forward to getting an ex-slave as his wife because he'll be so glad to not have to get up and heat water because his wife he hasn't met yet will assume the job. His main thoughts about the wife are that he doesn't want her to be too pretty because if she is then some other dude will have already taken her to bed, but if she's too ugly then he'll be grossed out so he doesn't want that either. She's the right kind of average for him, turns out, and though she does everything she's supposed to do as a wife in the story, mostly he just thinks about how she's not very cute, talks slow, and has big feet because nobody bound them when she was a child. This woman bears children without help, literally works in the field the day before and the day after she gives birth, and makes Wang Lung a propserous man. She is one of only a handful of named characters--she is called O-lan--but he usually just calls her "the woman."

I was hoping Wang Lung would become a better person when he suffers great losses during droughts, but he really didn't. His wife made incredible sacrifices for their family, and still he appreciated it very little, though he sometimes seems to think the fruits of her labors are weird lady magic. Like the things she can do are women's mysterious abilities that men could never do. But the things he can do are of course more respected and more important. Women get used and decided about; daughters do not belong to the family because they are raised to be married into other families and are a burden; O-lan appears to have murdered her newborn daughter because she was born during a famine and wasn't worth raising in those times; women's feelings don't really make sense and aren't worth considering most of the time. What's really odd about it is he DOES have compassion for the elderly (always respects and supports his father); he DOES have compassion for the disabled (one of his daughters turns out intellectually disabled and he always protects her and cares for her, though he did at one point consider selling her to get travel money); he DOES display some sympathy for a young woman who does not want to be sent as a carnal companion for a soldier. It's odd that those are his values, considering all the disregard he has for female human life in general.

I really wanted to see Wang Lung as having a redeeming factor in that he had principles (associated with being true to the land) and was kinder than some. But he kept making me hate him. I was so sad for his wife O-lan when their family was prosperous again and he just started insulting her for not looking pretty like a rich man's wife, leading to his decisions to dally elsewhere and eventually adopt a concubine. And of course the concubine was a victim of sorts too, given that she was sold into that life just because she was pretty from a young age, but she was also manipulative and spoiled, and treated like a queen even as Wang Lung's wife had to work and suffer. I was so sad for her when she gave her husband her hidden jewels and asked to keep two pearls, only to have them taken from her for no reason and given to the concubine (because pearls are for fair women, you know, and she and her marriageable daughter are too brown to deserve such trinkets). At one point he found out his daughter was in pain because he had arranged for her to undergo foot binding, and he was surprised he didn't know about her suffering beforehand, only to find that his wife had suggested his daughter not speak of it because she needed to have small feet or else her husband would not love her, as Wang Lung does not love O-lan. So he even KNEW that the women in his family knew him to care primarily for physical appearance and would prefer them tortured with a painful cosmetic process, and he doesn't really have any feelings about it.

He displays loyalty to a man who gave him a handful of beans once (although at least he was kind enough to give them to his pregnant wife so her labor wouldn't kill her), and he employs him as a major employee and gives him the highest honors he can give an employee, but he feels no loyalty is owed to the woman who bore him sons as she was expected to and worked her whole life just to please him. Neither seems to expect or want tenderness between them, but jeez, at least respect the woman when you have the means to do so, after everything she's done. And when Wang Lung becomes rich again after he becomes a provider through his land, he just forgets his roots almost entirely (except for all his lip service about the importance of land and his need to "be on the land" to maintain his connection to his origins). He spends silver on ridiculous stuff, lets those in his care spend silver on ridiculous stuff, seems to have almost no regard for people who are poor unless he's forced to take them on or he feels he owes them a debt. And he buys rich food and special stuff for his concubine because she's used to the finer things in life, even though he won't take those things to his family. He rages and becomes violent when his wife and his son each steal during desperate times and makes a big show of refusing to eat stolen meat, so where is his honor in these other situations? I guess it's supposed to be interpreted as the morals of the time and the place, but it continually irked me that Wang Lung could resentfully show respect and mercy and generosity to ungrateful relatives, gratefully employ a man who gave him a handful of beans once, but never reward the loyalty of the woman who sacrificed the most for him.

I felt like I was supposed to see him as an honorable, principled man who was rewarded for his ongoing respect of the land, but I never felt like he was a good person even though he did some good things, and most of the time he came off as selfish, disrespectful, and sexist (even though that wasn't even a word in his vocabulary). So much of what he did with generosity was done with the perception that he was obligated or that he perceived he would get something out of it. It mostly just made me sad and angry.
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Reading Progress

September 2, 2008 – Shelved
August 31, 2018 – Started Reading
September 18, 2018 – Finished Reading

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