Thursday, June 2, 2016

Book 27: The Good Earth

"Moving together in a perfect rhythm, without a word, hour after hour, he fell into a union with her which took the pain from his labor. He had no articulate thought of anything; there was only this perfect symmetry of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their homes and fed their bodies and made their gods."

Dates read: March 3-6, 2016

Rating: 4/10

Awards/Lists: Pulitzer Prize

Once upon a time, many if not most people lived a predominantly agrarian lifestyle. You were born on a farm, you lived on a farm, you died on a farm, and while you were alive you ate the food you grew. Money for things you couldn't grow came from selling the things that did. And then the Industrial Revolution happened, and cities boomed, and no matter how much presidential candidates like to say the opposite when they're spending time in Iowa at the beginning of the campaign cycle, the era of the small family farm is effectively over and it's never coming back. That's not to say that no one in America lives on a family farm anymore, obviously, but the numbers are small and declining every year.

Besides Iowa, why is it that we romanticize those days so much? For my money, there's a very profound appeal of a time when it seemed like life was so much simpler, when you worked with your hands to get what you needed. Especially in this day and age, where I'm sitting at a desk typing this into a computer, but the sentimental attachment to that time seems to have been around for quite a while, because when Pearl Buck won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Good Earth, the Dust Bowl hadn't even happened yet.

The Good Earth takes place in China in the early 1900s, and tells the story of the rise and subsequent decline of Wang Lung. A peasant farmer, the book opens with his marriage to O-Lan, a former slave for the Hwang family (the wealthiest landowners in the town close to where Wang Lung lives). O-Lan is not beautiful or clever, but she's just as hard of a worker as Wang Lung himself, and together the two of them manage to run his farm well enough that they are able to buy some of the Hwang's lands. They have two sons, but just after their first daughter is born, a terrible famine strikes. When there is no longer anything to eat and the countryside is turning to cannibalism to survive, the family sells most of their possessions (but Wang Lung refuses to sell their land) and moves south to survive through cheap labor and begging in the city. When a peasant uprising happens, Wang Lung and O-Lan grab money and jewels and return north. Having learned a powerful lesson about having reserves, the family buys the rest of the Hwang land and farms diligently, to the point where Wang Lung is wealthy and can send his children to school instead of keeping them in the fields. Indeed, soon Wang Lung himself doesn't need to be in the fields, and that's when the problems start.

The book is not subtle about its equation of land and manual labor with virtue...the farther removed Wang Lung and his family get from the labor of their own hands on the earth they own, the farther they morally decline. Wang Lung becomes infatuated with a spoiled young prostitute and buys her for a concubine, putting aside his faithful wife. His school-educated sons marry petty women and have no interest in farming or running their father's the once-wealthy and powerful Hwangs in the beginning, they just want to get rid of the land and seeking their fortunes elsewhere. It's actually pretty socialist in its depiction of money as evil and corrupting and the glorification of the proletariat lifestyle.

At the end of the day, I just didn't like it very much. The characters aren't people, they're symbols who are used to illustrate Buck's parable. And they're not even particularly compelling symbols: Wang Lung is never all that sympathetic, O-Lan is a doormat, the sketchy uncle and his wife are terrible and gross right from the start. If reading all that Joseph Campbell recently taught me anything, it's that symbols done right can be incredibly powerful (for instance, Francis Ford Coppolla's The Godfather, and I'm specifically referring here to the great film rather than the mediocre book, tells a similar story about a man who becomes what he once despised in a much more interesting and emotionally resonant way). Not so here for me. The writing is solid, but not anything special enough to drive interest in the lack of a good story and characters. This particular piece of classic literature (which is a genre I've been exploring over the past few years) doesn't do it for me.

Tell me, blog you have any classic lit that you've been disappointed by?

Note: Review cross-posted at Cannonball Read


  1. I've seen a few reviews lately that pan The Good Earth and yet I really enjoyed it when I read it just a few years ago.

    Maybe I don't read deeply enough: I didn't see the symbolism you did, and read the book simply as a history of the Chinese way of life in the early 20th century. But I'm not sure that even if I had seen the analogies, I would have objected quite so vehemently. I read many things that don't concur with my own beliefs and try to keep an open mind (albeit not always successfully).

    I'm sorry that you didn't enjoy this book. :-(

    1. I actually was talking to my boss about it recently and it's one of his favorites but did nothing for me, so it definitely seems like a book that's a "love it or hate it" type thing. It's not so much that I found the ideas objectionable (I'm a liberal, so it's on my political side of the spectrum), I just found the symbolism really heavy-handed. It reminded me in some ways of The Grapes of Wrath, another book I didn't enjoy reading. I've spent the last few years reading a lot of classics, and some have been more wonderful than I'd dare hope (Anna Karenina disabused me of the notion that I don't like Russian Lit because I loved it) while others have left me scratching my head as to their enduring appeal. I wish I'd liked this one more than I did!