Friday, January 20, 2012

First Up in the Back to the Classics Challenge: The Good Earth

The Good Earth
The Good Earth
Pearl S. Buck

I chose to read The Good Earth as part of the 2012 Back to the Classics Challenge because it is one of those books that I always thought I should read but never actually got around to. Or so I thought.

After reading the first few pages, I kept thinking it seemed awfully familiar. Oh, well - I probably picked it up and skimmed it at some point. I kept reading, thinking I'd come to a point that I hadn't read before. Finally, I was forced to realize that I have read this book. I think it must have been a few years ago, when I was teaching high school. I once had my students read a historical fiction book and then research what that time period was really like and compare it with the book they read. While I was preparing this assignment I checked out several books from the school library and read them. This must have been one of them.

Anyway! On to the book.

The Good Earth is set in pre-WWII China, although the exact dates are fuzzy. From what I've read, it's intended to be rather contemporaneous with its writing (it was published in 1932) but at the same time, it spans about 50 years. The protaganist, Wang Lung, begins the novel as a young man of about 20, and is in his seventies by its conclusion.

Wang Lung starts life as a poor man, forced to marry a slave girl in a rich house as there is no one else for him. Still, Wang Lung is excited about his wedding day. The first scenes in the novel were my favorite of the whole book:
This cauldron he filled partly full of water, dipping it with a half gourd from an earthen jar that stood near, but he dipped cautiously, for water was precious. Then, after a hesitation, he suddenly lifted the jar and emptied all the water into the cauldron. This day he would bathe his whole body. Not since he was a child on his mother's knee had anyone looked upon his body. Today one would, and he would have it clean.
His wife, O-lan, ends up being the best purchase he ever made.  At first, it seems that Wang Lung recgnizes this, although he would never admit it aloud to anyone, nor does he truly admit it even to himself. As the years go by and struggles pass, he takes her for granted more and more. It's heartbreaking.

None of the relationships in the book seem to make much sense, at least through an American lens (and of course, it was an American who wrote this). The traditional Chinese concept of filial loyalty seems hopelessly flawed. Family members take advantage of one another, and use threats to ensure compliance with "proper" behavior. At the same time, this system seems to be falling apart in the younger generation.

Wang Lung is caught in this time of upheaval. He's and old fashioned farmer with traditional values trying to do the best he can in an era of uncertainty. He worries what will happen after he's gone. Will his sons continue to work the land, which was been the family's source of social and financial ascension? Or will they abandon it for other, more cosmopolitan pursuits? And if they leave the land that has given them so much, what will happen to them?

The answers, at least for Wang Lung, are unknowable.


Amy said...

I read this book years ago and actually own it. I don't remember some of the detail, but I remember that I liked this one. Maybe it's time for a reread. Great review!

MJ said...

@Thanks, Amy! If you liked it, there are another two in the trilogy - "SONS" and "A HOUSE DIVIDED."

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

I haven't as yet read his and since it is not on any of my reading lists it will take a while for me to read it. Reviews like this fill the gap, somewhat, for me.

Sarah Reads Too Much said...

Isn't it awkward when you sit down to read a book, and then find that you've already read it? Even more awkward when you see how long it took to realize? I've done it so many times, it is embarrassing.

This is yet another book I'd heard of, but haven't read - so thank you for your review!

MJ said...

@Nana: Glad to help :-)

@Sarah: It's so awkward! I'm glad I'm not the only one it happens to.