Monday, September 7, 2009
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
There’s something about working the land, about farming it, about feeling the earth deep under your fingernails and when mingled with sticky sweat, rubbed permanently into the grooves of your skin, soap never seeming gritty enough to remove it. I’ve seen it happen to people over and over again, my grandparents especially, and they would all probably say the same thing: It’s renewing. It’s satisfying and fulfilling. Working in the dirt, making things grow, it fills a void where none else can fill.
But where something is given, something is also taken away. Ask anybody whose ever tackled gardening. We are tied to the Earth and she is tied to us, like irremovable shackles, each one affected by the moods and actions of the other. In The Good Earth, a novel about life in pre-revolutionary China at the beginning of the 20th century, the farmer Wang-Lung understands this. He feels it in his bones, in his heart, even his very soul. When speaking of his family he says:
“Well, and they must all starve if the plants starve.” It was true that all their lives depended upon the earth.
At its very core, I believe that statement describes one of the main underlying principles of this novel. Just skimming along under the surface of the main characters lives, almost controlling their actions, it seems to make them like puppets in some grand unknown scheme.
We follow the life of the honest farmer Wang-Lung, his long suffering first wife O-Lan who bemoans her lack of beauty and his second wife, the beautiful Lotus, an orphan sold into prostitution, and later his relationships with his children and extended family, but mainly I think this novel explores the complex relationship Wang-Lung develops with his land and the consequences thereof. The consequences of success and failure with it.
Heavy, heavy stuff. It was sometimes difficult to take an honest look back in time, the poor treatment of women especially, toward principles that still lay sway today even, decades later. Are we really that predictable of a race? Are we capable of even tiny change? As a whole the book was thought-provoking and yet like its main characters, simple and true. In the end we are left wondering, do things change “when the poor become too poor and the rich are too rich?” When do the poor become justified if they must steal to survive, as Wang-Lung did at one point in the novel? What about later when his wealth ruins his children, making them greedy and complacent? Is it possible to be too rich?
I don’t know, but after reading this book, I feel not so far away from an answer. But then again, do I really want to know?
Or maybe it's more simple than that. Maybe it's like my good friend Suzette said:
It sucked to be a woman in 19th Century China, or anywhere else for that matter.
Either way, still an excellent read.