An overwhelmingly prolific writer, Pearl S. Buck’s (1892-1973) reputation for excellence as a writer of fiction rests primarily on The Good Earth and segments of a few of her other novels of the 1930’s. The appeal of The Good Earth is undeniable and easy to explain: Its universal themes are cloaked in the garments of an unfamiliar and fascinating Chinese culture.
The Good Earth
Echoing many elements of life, The Good Earth speaks of animosity between town and country, love of land, decadent rich and honest poor, marital conflicts, interfering relatives, misunderstandings between generations, the joys of birth and sorrows of old age and death, and the strong bonds of friendship. Added to these universal themes is the cyclical movement of the growth and decay of the crops, the decline of the House of Hwang and the ascent of the House of Wang, the changes of the years, and the birth and death of the people.
Buck fittingly chose to tell her story in language reminiscent of the Bible, with its families and peoples who rise and fall. Her style also owes something to that of the Chinese storytellers, to whom she paid tribute in her Nobel Prize lecture, a style that flows along in short words “with no other technique than occasional bits of description, only enough to give vividness to place or person, and never enough to delay the story.” Most of Buck’s sentences are long and serpentine, relying on balance, parallelism, and repetition for strength. Although the sentences are long, the diction is simple and concrete. She chooses her details carefully: Her descriptions grow out of close observation and are always concise. The simplicity of the diction and the steady, determined flow of the prose fit the sagalike plot. In Chinese folk literature, the self-effacing author, like a clear vessel, transmits but does not color with his or her personality the life that “flows through him.” So, also, Buck presents her story objectively. Her authorial presence never intrudes, though her warm feeling for the characters and her own ethical beliefs are always evident.
The strength of the novel also lies in its characterization, particularly that of the two main characters, O-lan and her husband Wang Lung. Whereas characters in Buck’s later novels too easily divide into good and bad, the characters of The Good Earth, like real people, mix elements of both. Ching, Wang Lung’s faithful, doglike friend and later overseer, early in the novel joins a starving mob that ransacks Wang Lung’s home for food; Ching takes Wang Lung’s last handful of beans. The eldest son is a pompous wastrel, but he does make the House of Hwang beautiful with flowering trees and fish ponds, and he does settle into the traditional married life his father has planned for him. Even O-lan, the almost saintly earth mother, seethes with jealousy whenWang Lung takes a second wife, and she feels contempt and bitterness for the House of Hwang in which she was a slave. Her major flaw is her ugliness.Wang Lung delights the reader with his simple wonder at the world and with his perseverance to care for his family and his land, but he, too, has failings. In middle age, he lusts for Lotus, neglecting the much-deserving O-lan, and in old age, he steals Pear Blossom from his youngest son. Rather than confusing the morality of the novel, the intermingling of good and bad increases its reality. Buck acknowledged literary indebtedness to Émile Zola, and the influence of naturalism is evident in The Good Earth in its objective, documentary presentation and its emphasis on the influence of environment and heredity. Unlike the naturalists, however, Buck also credits the force of free will.
The Good Earth aroused much fury in some Chinese scholars, who insisted that the novel portrays a China that never was. Younghill Kang criticized the character of Wang Lung. Professor Kiang Kang-Hu said that Buck’s details and her knowledge of Chinese history were inaccurate. Buck defended herself by granting that customs differed in the many regions of China. In later novels, she retaliated by harshly portraying Chinese scholars such as Kang and Kiang, who, she believed, distorted the picture of the real China either because of their ignorance of peasant life or because of their desire to aid propagandistic efforts of the Chinese government. Other native Chinese, including Phio Lin Yutang, sprang to Buck’s defense, insisting on the accuracy of her portrayal.
Like The Good Earth, The Mother follows the cyclical flow of time: The protagonist, who begins the novel in vigorous work, caring for an elderly parent, ends the novel as an elderly parent himself, cared for by the new generation. The Mother is also written in the simple, concrete, and sometimes poetic style of The Good Earth. The old mother-in-law, for example, in her early morning hunger, “belched up the evil winds from her inner emptiness.” The Mother, however, portrays a different side of Chinese peasant life from that seen in The Good Earth—a more brutal one. The main character, named only “the mother,” is carefully drawn; the other characters are flat and undeveloped, serving only as objects for her attention.
Deserted by her irresponsible, gambling husband, the mother lies about her spouse’s absence to protect her family and cover her shame. She proves easy prey for her landlord’s agent, by whom she becomes pregnant, later aborting the baby by taking medicine. Her eldest son eventually supports her, but his unfeeling wife will not tolerate having his blind sister underfoot. A husband is found for the blind girl, but when the mother travels to visit her daughter after a year, she discovers that the husband is witless and her daughter, after much mistreatment, has died. Even more sorrow darkens the mother’s life. Her younger and most beloved son joins the Communists, is used as their dupe, and finally is arrested and beheaded.
This is not the honest-work-brings-rewards world of Wang Lung, but a world of victims, deformity, hatred, and cruelty. It is a portrait of the life of a woman in China, where girl babies routinely were killed and young girls of poor families were sold as slaves. Only new life—the excitement of birth and spring—balances the misery of the mother’s life.
In The Good Earth and The Mother, Buck provides compelling visions of old age. Her children are mostly silent and inconsequential, her adolescents merely lusty and willful, but her elderly are individuals. The old father in The Good Earth cackles with life, drawing strength from his grandchildren-bedfellows. Wang Lung drowses off into a peaceful dream with his Pear Blossom. The mother-in-law basks in the sun and prides herself on wearing out her burial shrouds. The elderly mother in The Mother is frustrated because she no longer has the strength to work the land but remains as active as possible, trying to save her blind daughter and her Communist son, finally turning her affections to a new grandchild.
The main flaw in The Mother is that the mother seems too distant, too self-contained, for the reader to identify with her, to accept her as the universal mother that Buck intends her to be. The mother’s story is interesting, but one does not feel her shame or her misery as one does O-lan’s, nor does one feel her delight or her pride as one does Wang Lung’s. Also, Buck’s feelings about Communism are blatantly evident in the simplistic and oft-repeated phrase that the Communists are a “new kind of robber.”
As Buck became more interested in social and political issues and in the media— magazines, film, and radio—her fiction began to deteriorate. She claimed, “The truth is I never write with a sense of mission or to accomplish any purpose whatever except the revelation of human character through a life situation.” Her fiction, however, did not demonstrate this belief: More and more it became a forum for her own social and political ideas rather than an exploration of human character and life. Further, Hollywood and women’s magazines began to influence her stories: They became drippingly romantic.
Dragon Seed is one of Buck’s most popular post-1930’s works, with the first half of the novel containing many of the strengths of her earlier work. Her characters are not as fully realized as the mother or Wang Lung, but the story is intriguing. A peasant farming family works the land, much as their ancestors have done for centuries, until the coming of war—flying airships and enemy troops—thrusts them into a world of violence and deprivation. As long as Buck keeps her eye sharp for details, describing the atrocities the people must endure and their struggles to understand what is happening to them, the novel remains interesting.
In the second half of the novel, however, Buck’s purposes split. Rather than concentrating on the war story—the people and their experiences—she uses the novel to argue that the Western world is blind and uncaring about the troubles of the Chinese in World War II. In contrast to this didacticism are the Hollywood-style love stories of Lao-Er and Jade and Lao San and Mayli. The dialogue between the happily married Lao-Er and Jade seems straight from a B-film, and the overly coincidental coming together of Lao San and Mayli is a women’s magazine romance of the selfmade man and the rich, beautiful woman. Buck tries to portray the strong new woman of China (and the Western world) in Jade and Mayli, but they are too strong, too clever, almost always posturing with a defiant chin against the sunset. At one point in the novel, Buck even writes that Jade is so skillful in disguising herself that she should have been a film actor. O-lan, in her stoic silence—grudging, jealous, yet loving— is a believable woman; Jade and Mayli are creatures of fantasy.
Buck’s power as a novelist derived from her intelligence, her humanity, her interesting stories, and her ability to make Chinese culture real to readers from all over the world. Her weaknesses as a novelist include didacticism, sentimentalism, and an inability to control her energy long enough to explore deeply, revise, and improve.In her later novels, she lost control of her point of view, her language, and her characterization. Her legacy is an enduring masterpiece, The Good Earth, and an inestimable contribution to cultural exchange between China and the West.
Principal long fiction • East Wind: West Wind, 1930; The Good Earth, 1931; Sons, 1932; The Mother, 1934; A House Divided, 1935; House of Earth, 1935; This Proud Heart, 1938; The Patriot, 1939; Other Gods: An American Legend, 1940; China Sky, 1942; Dragon Seed, 1942; The Promise, 1943; China Flight, 1945; Portrait of a Marriage, 1945; The Townsman, 1945 (as John Sedges); Pavilion of Women, 1946; The Angry Wife, 1947 (as Sedges); Peony, 1948; Kinfolk, 1949; The Long Love, 1949 (as Sedges); God’s Men, 1951; Bright Procession, 1952 (as Sedges); The Hidden Flower, 1952; Come, My Beloved, 1953; Voices in the House, 1953 (as Sedges); Imperial Woman, 1956; Letter from Peking, 1957; Command the Morning, 1959; Satan Never Sleeps, 1962; The Living Reed, 1963; Death in the Castle, 1965; The Time Is Noon, 1967; The New Year, 1968; The Three Daughters of Madame Liang, 1969; Mandala, 1970; The Goddess Abides, 1972; All Under Heaven, 1973; The Rainbow, 1974.
Short fiction: The First Wife, and Other Stories, 1933; Today and Forever, 1941; Twenty-seven Stories, 1943; Far and Near, Stories of Japan, China, and America, 1947; American Triptych, 1958; Hearts Come Home, and Other Stories, 1962; The Good Deed, and Other Stories, 1969; Once Upon a Christmas, 1972; East and West, 1975; Secrets of the Heart, 1976; The Lovers, and Other Stories, 1977; TheWoman WhoWas Changed, and Other Stories, 1979.
Nonfiction: East and West and the Novel, 1932; Fighting Angel: Portrait of a Soul, 1936; The Exile, 1936; The Chinese Novel, 1939; Of Men and Women, 1941 (expanded, 1971); American Unity and Asia, 1942; What America Means to Me, 1943; China in Black and White, 1945; Talk About Russia: With Masha Scott, 1945; Tell the People: Talks with James Yen About the Mass Education Movement, 1945; How It Happens: Talk About the German People, 1914-1933, with Erna von Pustau, 1947; American Argument: With Eslanda Goods, 1949; The Child Who Never Grew, 1950; My Several Worlds: A Personal Record, 1954; Friend to Friend: A Candid Exchange Between Pearl Buck and Carlos F. Romulo, 1958; A Bridge for Passing, 1962; The Joy of Children, 1964; Children for Adoption, 1965; The Gifts They Bring: Our Debt to the Mentally Retarded, 1965; The People of Japan, 1966; To My Daughters with Love, 1967; China as I See It, 1970; The Kennedy Women: A Personal Appraisal, 1970; Pearl S. Buck’s America, 1971; The Story Bible, 1971; China Past and Present, 1972.
Children’s literature: The Young Revolutionist, 1932; Stories for Little Children, 1940; The Chinese Children Next Door, 1942; The Water-Buffalo Children, 1943; The Dragon Fish, 1944; Yu Lan: Flying Boy of China, 1945; The Big Wave, 1948; One Bright Day, and Other Stories for Children, 1952; The Man Who Changed China: The Story of Sun Yat-Sen, 1953; Johnny Jack and His Beginnings, 1954; The Beech Tree, 1954; Fourteen Stories, 1961; The Little Fox in the Middle, 1966; The Chinese Story Teller, 1971.
Translations: All Men Are Brothers, 1933 (of Shih Nai-an’s novel).
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.