Why The Good Earth did not make #theLIST is beyond me. Perhaps I had forgotten, in these many years since high school, the masterful novel following the arc of life for Wang Lung, the poor Northern Chinese farmer. In a revised list, The Good Earth becomes a must – it is a book one should read before one dies.
Much has been written about the main plot points of the story, which begins on Wang Lung’s wedding day to an unseen slave from the House of Hwang, O-Lan. It begins with Wang Lung thinking that his wedding morning would be the last morning that he would be responsible for lighting the fire and heating the plain water that greeted the start of each day for him and his father. And it was the last day that he undertook a task in the household. Thus began the long road of change for Wang Lung. It seems that many reviewers get lost in Wang Lung’s relationship with O-Lan, who is a masterfully drawn sympathetic character. She probably speaks less than twenty lines in the entire work, but her presence is Wang Lung’s first step out of grinding poverty. Where Wang Lung dreams, O-Lan acts. Her stoicism seems admirable and her realistic appraisal of their situation is necessary to move Wang Lung to action.
Early on, Wang Lung is intimidated by the House of Hwang and has little respect for the Old Mistress and Old Lord – particularly the Old Mistress, who is lost in opium addiction. Little by little, Wang Lung raises his family from poverty – even through a stint of fleeing a famine that leaves his first daughter profoundly retarded. He toils in the city as O-Lan , his children, and his father beg. For a year, they make no progress, but fortunate turns of events in a revolution give him and his family the means and opportunity to return to a barren land. There, Wang Lung fills his spirit with working the land, and fills his pride by educating two of his sons. As his prosperity increases, he is able to hire laborers and turn his attention to those things that idle men do. He gives no real thought to the consequences of his actions on the family; he is led astray by prosperity.
Over the course of time, Wang Lung rises to the level of the Old Lord, living in town, in the courts of the House of Hwang, and generally at the mercy of his better-educated sons. Like his father before him, he lays in the son and attends to his fool, the profoundly retarded daughter O-Lan gave birth to during the famine. He strays from his love of the land to grow fat and oily while his sons quarrel and their wives quarrel and his servants quarrel. All his life, Wang Lung searched for peace. The only time he really ever had peace was in his early years with O-Lan and his final years with Pear Blossom. Peace comes hard for Wang Lung, and the final encounter with his sons does nothing to promise him peace in death.
Many reviewers stop with the death of O-Lan, who is the sympathetic character. But it is Wang Lung’s story. His journey from peasant farmer to wealthy Lord is both a testament to the value of work and a caution against losing sight of core values. Wang Lung follows his sons in their paths away from the earth, only to desire nothing more than to return to his earthen hut on the farm to die. Wang Lung seeks peace but there is no peace to be had.
This is not some panoramic epic set against the backdrop of revolution. To the poor, revolutions really have no meaning. The system of government barely scratches the surface of Wang Lung’s life. This is also no love story – this is real life, where love shifts and changes over time. This is no story of rags to riches or the emptiness of worldly wealth. There are a lot of things this story is not. In my eyes, it is the story of a man in a place and time. His joys and his sorrows are laid bare before the reader; his follies and mistakes are matters of fact, not tragedy. This is a story of a soul, not the story of a body. There is no judgement; there is only what is. I saw the world through Wang Lung’s eyes, from their youthful clarity to the aged filminess. And, at times, I saw myself. I am not horrified; I am edified.
Buck’s style is supremely clean – spare but rich. It comes as a breath of fresh air as I have waded through so many works that excel in rolling periods of prose. Buck’s simplicity in style reflects the simplicity that is Wang Lung. The Good Earth is the first in a trilogy that I must complete. As for #theLIST, I hereby evict Jules Verne and welcome Pearl S. Buck as a must-read.
10/10 Hearts. Everyone should read this. We will all see ourselves somewhere along the line, and not always as we would have liked.