Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

This book won the Pulitzer Prize, but I’m not exactly sure why.

It’s hard, reading books like these, years after they were published, long after the ground they first broke has been trod so many times that it’s no longer clear what the fuss was all about.

It was revolutionary, evidently, in 1931, to depict Chinese people as people—as human beings with hopes and desires and a culture all their own—and to tell one of their stories from their own point of view. For this is what The Good Earth does, and to a modern reader, it doesn’t seem like that big a deal. They don’t know who Jesus is, and they treat women like slaves and concubines, but they are people and their drama is our drama because we’re people, too, even if our culture has taught us different values. The Good Earth is unapologetic about its Chinese perspective. It is, in fact, a Chinese novel, written by a woman who had spent her entire life there.

And it is aptly named, for the goodness of the earth is the primary metaphor that drives all of its action. Wang Lung is a farmer who seeks to acquire ever-increasing amounts of land, and he and his family are rewarded with rich bounty as a result—a bounty initially reflected in the life-giving milk his first wife, O-lan, offers to their first son.

But out of the woman’s great brown breast the milk gushed forth for the child, milk as white as snow, and when the child suckled at one breast it flowed like a fountain from the other, and she let it flow. There was more than enough for the child, greedy though he was, life enough for many children, and she let it flow out carelessly, conscious of her abundance. There was always more and more. Sometimes she lifted her breast and let it flow out upon the ground to save her clothing, and it sank into the earth and made a soft, dark, rich spot in the field. The child was fat and good-natured and ate of the inexhaustible life his mother gave him.

But the earth—like the god it metaphorically represents—is fickle, and in times of drought it has no bounty for Wang Lung and the other farmers, and they are forced to go work in the city, living in shanties constructed against the exterior wall of a rich man’s house. The city is a place where wickedness and temptation reign, a place that beguiles men, and therefore the perfect place for the stout of heart like Wang Lung to struggle in order to keep themselves pure.

Most of these ragged men had nothing beyond what they took in the day’s labor and begging, and he was always conscious that he was not truly one of them. He owned land and his land was waiting for him. These others thought of how they might tomorrow eat a bit of fish, or of how they might idle a bit, and even how they might gamble a little, a penny or two, since their days were alike all evil and filled with want and a man must play sometimes, though desperate.

But Wang Lung thought of his land and pondered this way and that, with the sickened heart of deferred hope, how he could get back to it. He belonged, not to this scum which clung to the walls of a rich man’s house; nor did he belong to the rich man’s house. He belonged to the land and he could not live with any fullness until he felt the land under his feet and followed a plow in the springtime and bore a scythe in his hand at harvest. He listened, therefore, apart from the others, because hidden in his heart was the knowledge of the possession of his land, the good wheat land of his fathers, and the strip of rich rice land which he had bought from the great house.

They talked, these men, always and forever of money; of what pence they had paid for a small fish as long as a man’s finger, or of what they could earn in a day, and always at last of what they would do if they had the money which the man over the wall had in his coffers. Every day the talk ended with this:

“And if I had the gold that he has and the silver in my hand that he wears every day in his girdle and if I had the pearls his concubines wear and the rubies his wife wears…”

And listening to all the things they would do if they had these things, Wang Lung heard only of how much they would eat and sleep, and of what dainties they would eat that they had never yet tasted, and of how they would gamble in this great tea shop and in that, and of what pretty women they would buy for their lust, and above all, how none would ever work again, even as the rich man behind the wall never worked.

Then Wang Lung cried out suddenly,

“If I had the gold and silver and the jewels, I would buy land with it, good land, and I would bring forth harvests from the land!”

It’s a lesson that reinforced again and again for Wang Lung. One of the ways he is able to buy so much land is that an old Lord who lives in the city had fallen on bad times and needed to sell off his assets in order to stay solvent.

And the more he mused the more monstrous it seemed that the great and rich family, who all his own life and all his father’s and grandfather’s lives long had been a power and a glory in the town, were now fallen and scattered.

“It comes of their leaving the land,” he thought regretfully, and he thought of his own two sons, who were growing like young bamboo shoots in the spring, and he resolved that on this very day he would make them cease playing in the sunshine and he would set them to tasks in the field, where they would early take into their bones and their blood the feel of the soil under their feet, and the feel of the hoe hard in their hands.

When the land floods and Wang Lung is not able to tend it for a long period of time, he starts spending time in town again, falling in love with a high-priced prostitute. He dotes on her to distraction, until he eventually buys her outright , and brings her home with him, building private courtyards and accommodations for her and her servant. She possesses all of his attention until she ridicules his feebleminded daughter—Wang Lung’s “poor fool”—and he suddenly snaps out of his stupor just as the water finally recedes from the land.

There came a day when summer was ended and the sky in the early morning was clear and cold and blue as sea water and a clean autumn wind blew hard over the land, and Wang Lung woke as from a sleep. He went to the door of his house and he looked over his fields. And he saw that the waters had receded and the land lay shining under the dry cold wind and under the ardent sun.

Then a voice cried out in him, a voice deeper than love cried out in him for his land. And he heard it above every other voice in his life and he tore off the long robe he wore and he stripped off his velvet shoes and his white stockings and he rolled his trousers to his knees and he stood forth robust and eager and he shouted,

“Where is the hoe and where the plow? And where is the seed for the wheat planting? Come, Ching, my friend—come—call the men—I go out to the land!”

Wang Lung’s poor fool is another very interesting part of the novel’s subtext. The introduction to the edition I read describes her as a nameless child, who serves throughout the novel as a symbol of humanity’s essential helplessness, and her few and scattered scenes are all the more poignant when read with that interpretation. Here Buck describes her ignorance of her mother’s impending death.

Only the poor fool knew nothing, and only she smiled and twisted her bit of cloth as she smiled. Yet one had to think of her to bring her in to sleep at night and to feed her and to set her in the sun in the day and to lead her in if it rained. All this one of them had to remember. But even Wang Lung himself forgot, and once they left her outside through a whole night, and the next morning the poor wretch was shivering and crying in the early dawn, and Wang Lung was angry and cursed his son and daughter that they had forgotten the poor fool who was their sister. Then he saw that they were but children trying to take their mother’s place and not able to do it, and he forebore and after that he saw to the poor fool himself night and morning. If it rained or snowed or a bitter wind blew he led her in and he let her sit among the warm ashes that dropped from the kitchen stove.

We are all helpless like this, in our own way—the men in the city as distracted by their baubles and their women as Wang Lung’s poor fool is with her bit of cloth. But Wang Lung has something to save him from this helplessness. Wang Lung has his land.

Then the good land did again its healing work and the sun shone on him and healed him and the warm winds of summer wrapped him about with peace. And as if to cure him of the root of his ceaseless thought of his own troubles, there came out of the south one day a small slight cloud. At first it hung on the horizon small and smooth as mist, except it did not come hither and thither as clouds blown by the wind do, but it stood steady until it spread fanwise up into the air.

The men of the village watched it and talked of it and fear hung over them, for what they feared was this, that locusts had come out of the south to devour what was planted in the fields. Wang Lung stood there also, and he watched, and they gazed and at last a wind blew something to their feet, and one stooped hastily and picked it up and it was a dead locust, dead and lighter than the living hosts behind.

Then Wang Lung forgot everything that troubled him. Women and sons and uncle, he forgot them all, and he rushed among the frightened villagers, and he shouted at them,

“Now for our good land we will fight these enemies from the skies!”

But there were some who shook their heads, hopeless from the start, and these said,

“No, and there is no use in anything. Heaven has ordained that this year we shall starve, and why should we waste ourselves in struggle against it, seeing that in the end we must starve?”

And women went weeping to the town to buy incense to thrust before the earth gods in the little temple, and some went to the big temple in the town, where the gods of heaven were, and thus earth and heaven were worshipped.

But still the locusts spread up into the air and on over the land.

Then Wang Lung called his own laborers and Ching stood silent and ready beside him and there were others of the younger farmers, and with their own hands these set fire to certain fields and they burned the good wheat that stood almost ripe for cutting and they dug wide moats and ran water into them from the wells, and they worked without sleeping. O-lan brought them food and the women brought their men food, and the men ate standing in the field, gulping it down as beasts do, as they worked night and day.

Then the sky grew black and the air was filled with the deep still roar of many wings beating against each other, and upon the land the locusts fell, flying over this field and leaving it whole, and falling upon that field, and eating it as bare as winter. And men sighed and said “So Heaven wills,” but Wang Lung was furious and he beat the locusts and trampled on them and his men flailed them with flails and the locusts fell into the fires that were kindled and they floated dead upon the waters of the moats that were dug. And many millions of them died, but to those that were left it was nothing.

Nevertheless, for all his fighting Wang Lung had this as his reward: the best of his fields were spared and when the cloud moved on and they could rest themselves, there was still wheat that he could reap and his young rice beds were spared and he was content. Then many of the people ate the roasted bodies of the locusts, but Wang Lung himself would not eat them, for to him they were a filthy thing because of what they had done to his land. But he said nothing when O-lan fried them in oil and when the laborers crunched them between their teeth and the children pulled them apart delicately and tasted them, afraid of their great eyes. But as for himself he would not eat.

Nevertheless, the locusts did this for him. For seven days he thought of nothing but his land, and he was healed of his troubles and his fears…

Wang Lung’s god of the land is not one to reward the idle. To earn his bounty one must press his nose to the grindstone as Wang Lung does, struggling every minute of every day to wrest from him his blessings. But the bounty one receives is great indeed—peace, and the ability to face one’s troubles with equanimity.

This spirit of Wang Lung’s is evidently symbolic of the old China that was passing away at the time Buck wrote the story, and the final message of the novel is clear that this fealty to the land will not long survive in China. For Wang Lung’s sons, despite all his efforts to focus them, see no value in the land that their father has spent so much time and money acquiring, and the book ends with them whispering over Wang Lung’s befuddled and elderly head about their plans to sell it as soon as Wang Lung has passed on.

Hmmm. Now that I think about it, maybe it did deserve to win the Pulitzer.

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