Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Beauty of the Earth

The Good Earth
by Pearl Buck

“Wang Lung sat smoking, thinking of the silver as it had lain upon the table. It had come out of the earth, this silver, out of the earth that he ploughed and turned and spent himself upon. He took his life from the earth; drop by drop by his sweat he wrung food from it and from the food, silver. Each time before this that he had taken the silver out to give to anyone, it had been like taking a piece of his life and giving it to someone carelessly. But not for the first time, such giving was not pain. He saw, not the silver in the alien hand of a merchant in the town; he saw the silver transmuted into something worth even more than life itself - clothes upon the body of his son.” 
― Pearl S. Buck, The Good Earth

I have been rereading The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. For many years this well-known novel was an unexplained void in the inventory of books that I had read. Yet, in less than two years I find myself having read and reread this amazing novel. It is amazing for several reasons, not the least of which is the deceptive simplicity of its' style. The story begins on Wang Lung's wedding day and he remains in the fore of the novel presented to the reader by the narrator as the hero of the story. However, I began to grow gradually fonder of Wang Lung's wife, O-lan, as the story progressed. Her dedication to the marriage in almost complete silence and fortitude in both work and bearing and raising the children provided her an almost mythical aura. The most moving moments of the book come when she fights to prevent her young daughter from being sold into slavery, when she is forced to give up her pearls, and when she dies. Even in death she continued to demonstrate a stoical character that made me wonder at its power and source. Surely this was not simply the result of her determination to never return to the slavery that she endured as a youth in the great house of the Hwangs.

But I said that the simple style was deceptive and by that I meant that hidden in the simple every day events, and a few that were not so common, is a picture of a culture and ethos that Wang Lung and his family lived. The work ethic of Wang Lung and his devotion to the land, "the good earth", that would keep him and his family safe was part of this culture. The depth and contrasting relationships within the family and without are displayed slowly, simply, through the actions taken and events that impinge on Wang Lung.

There is more to this story than these events and actions alone can account for. There is the action of fate through the impact of the cycles of the weather that lead to famine for those, like Wang Lung, dependent on the earth. The patronymic "good earth" turns ironic when the land lays fallow for lack of rain or the crops rot because of flooding. The vicissitudes of their life find the family of Wang Lung fleeing to the South to escape the famine, but they do not have the skills to successfully cope in the city where they end up begging until saved, through another turn of fate, by the war and the looting of the wealthy landowner's estate. It is this event that becomes a turning point in the lives of Wang Lung and O-lan as through their own loot of gold and jewels they are able to establish what will become a different life than the simple farm that they left when they fled to the South. It is this different life that, among other things, ultimately changes the family in ways that seem to prove the adage about the corrupting effect of power.

Ultimately The Good Earth is a morality tale, a parable-like story that suggests the dreams of avarice demand that the price paid is more than the silver and gold traded for land and mistresses. While most of the story seems steeped in a combination of ancestor worship and attention to evil spirits and omens, there was one episode that I found reminiscent of a parable in the New Testament when just as O-lan is dying the eldest son is recalled to be married. The celebration upon and importance of his return can have no other antecedent than the return of the prodigal son. Perhaps that moment along with others in the closing section of the novel are precursors of changes in the future greater than any experienced by Wang Lung and his family. I do not know how true the book is to the culture of pre-revolutionary China, but I do know that the beauty of the earth and the story reward its readers.

The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. Washington Square Press, New York. 2004 (1931)

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