So people sometimes ask me, “What’s the point of your Classics Challenge?”
I usually say something like, “It’s important to expand your reading list. You can’t just read the same authors over and over, there are so many great books. You have to explore…” blah blah blah.
Now I can boil my argument down to one book: “The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck. It was the best-selling book in 1931 and 1932, won the Pulitzer Prize, helped earn Buck the Nobel Prize for Literature and has never been out of print. Its themes still resonate today, perhaps even more so, as I couldn’t stop thinking to myself: Do we ever learn? Had there been no Classics Challenge, I don’t know that I ever would have read this novel. That would have been a great loss.
Written in 1931, “The Good Earth” feels like a fable, and in a way it is. More than just the story of one man, Wang Lung, and his selfless wife, O-lan, it is the story of the rise and fall of a family. In a way, it’s a bookend of sorts to this year’s Classics Challenge as it echoes the themes of “The Magnificent Ambersons,” which I read earlier this year. This book was chosen by my wife — the category being a classic chosen for you — and it was a great gift. She read it for the Pulitzer Prize category and said it was her favorite book she read this year.
“I can only write what I know, and I know nothing but China, having always lived there,” Buck wrote. This daughter of missionaries, though, also knows about human nature and that knowledge is felt on every page, and it informs each nuance, plot twist and insight. For instance, when a character begins his inevitable moral decline, Buck writes that he ascends stairs and it is the first time he has ever climbed stairs inside a building and he is disoriented. This shows knowledge of the country, its rural people, its architecture; it’s a detail that also serves as a symbol of the uncharted territory he’s about to explore. Buck also knows history, not just of China, but of mankind, and the novel can also be read as an allegory of the history of mankind. But try not to do that, it will make you feel hopeless.
When we first meet Wang Lung, he is a simple farmer, too poor to even add tea leaves to a cup of hot water for his ailing father. He decides it is time for him to have a wife and the father purchases O-lan, a slave from the big house, to be his son’s wife. Because they are poor, they can only afford an ugly woman, but Wang Lung is fine with this, especially because she proves herself to be a steady rudder in the most treacherous tides.
She also proves her worth by providing him with sons. It is interesting that after she gives birth to their firstborn (unaided, then goes out to help plow the field!) Wang Lung asks her: “Is it a boy or a slave?” O-lan herself had been sold into servitude during a famine because her family needed the money to eat and girl children were useful only as currency. This contrasts nicely with the fate of their oldest daughter, who is simple-minded. He considers selling her at one particularly low point, but fights against doing something that is well within his rights as a father in that culture, because she touches a part of his soul. She seems to ground Wang Lung, and whenever he does something awful, which he does from time to time, a reader can’t help but still see his humanity because of his undying love for her.
Together, Wang Lung and O-lan rise then fall then rise even higher, all through Wang Lung’s simple pursuit of land, the source of all good things. Success, of course, changes Wang Lung and O-lan feels the brunt of those changes more than anyone. Readers will wish for happiness for her, but that is not her fate, and even she knows that. Her lot is to help her husband and expect nothing.
The reason “The Good Earth” reads like a fable is that so many people do not have names. Their sons are called The Elder Son and the Second Born, Wang Lung’s father and a cousin and an aunt, all of whom figure prominently in the narrative are, likewise, unnamed. Even their simple-minded daughter is only called “the poor fool.” Buck makes this work easily and it never gets in the way. One could argue that not all the characters are fully drawn—villains only because a villain is needed—but that may be part of the point: In every age there are people who take advantage of others, who lie and cheat just because they can.
“The Good Earth” is a thought-provoking and moving work that will capture you, anger you, and leave you sadder and a little wiser about the nature of humans, whether they lived in pre-revolutionary China or in America today.
Thanks for the great gift, I’m passing it on and hoping others love it, too.