Birth and Land in The Good Earth
“And Wang Lung, hearing this, felt his mouth suddenly dry and parched and his voice came from him in a whisper, ‘Silver, then! Silver and gold! Anything to the very price of my land!’” (p. 139).
That quote is on the cover of my seventh grade English portfolio because, at that time, Pearl S. Buck’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Good Earth (1931) was my favorite book. It remained my favorite book for many years, until I discovered Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose.
I think I loved The Good Earth because of its simple, straightforward prose, yet it’s exploration of complicated issues. It was my first introduction to a novel that explored the human condition in another culture. I was fascinated by the importance of the land to Wang Lung and how this pursuit of land affected his family and his status.
Although Wang Lung’s ambition and success is compelling, his wife O-Lan is the more sympathetic character. She must endure difficulties because of Wang Lung and because of her gender. As his riches (and his pride) grow, so does her oppression and the disregard he shows to her. Yet, she makes it through. Yes, it is her lot in life and she has no other choices, but she is strong and admirable in these conditions.
Her experiences remind me of how blessed and lucky I am to live in the country and era that I do. So many women in the annals of history suffered and toiled in ways that I cannot comprehend. Stories like O-Lan’s create a sense of gratitude in me for those women, not just because I am not oppressed as they were, but because they paved the way for me to have the freedoms and equalities that I do have.
O-Lan’s experiences with motherhood are also compelling to me, especially now, since I’ve had my own children. I remember one scene vividly in which she gives birth while working in the field. She squats, delivers the baby by herself, and then straps it to her back and continues working. I can’t imagine having done that, and at the time that I first read this passage, as a young girl, I was in complete awe. I am the oldest child in my family. I had seen my mother go to the hospital and give birth and not come home for a few days. I had even called my grandmother during the birth of my second sister, when my mom awoke in heavy labor, my dad was working a graveyard shift as a police officer, and we needed help. I still remember seeing my mother in so much pain and having her tell me that she could see my sister’s head. I know, TMI, but it was a painful experience for her, one that she did not want to experience alone. Yet, in The Good Earth, O-Lan calls no one, has no help, and continues to toil after it is done.
Thinking about my own birth experiences, I’m not sure I could have done what O-Lan did. After my first daughter was born (it was a sixteen-hour-long labor), I did not get out of bed for a few days, something a nurse scolded me for. The second time, I recovered more quickly (partly because the labor was faster). Although I did not give birth in a field, I did give birth in the medical minefield of medicalization.
Perhaps O-Lan’s way is better, and perhaps I could have handled it. Maybe her experience with childbirth is more natural and less fearful. She and all of the women she knew had babies that way. They squatted, instead of laying on their backs, which has been proven to be the worst position (except hanging upside down) to give birth in. Women lay down for the convenience of the doctor these days. O-Lan did not have the benefit of medicine, but proponents of home and natural birth currently claim that giving birth without medicine allows hormones to be released that increase bonding between mother and child. The medicine used to move labor along more quickly today is quite problematic, including that women are induced at the convenience of the doctor’s (golf) schedule and that pitocin creates labor and intensifies it, which in turn creates the need for an epidural. The epidural then slows the process back down. O-Lan had none of these concerns or complications. Hers were less man-made, but still patriarchal, nevertheless.
I don’t remember every detail of this magnificent novel, but I remember how much I loved it. I still do. I am afraid to reread it for fear that I will not feel the same way. I know critics use the novel as an example of the Pulitzer committee’s bad judgment in choosing winners, including Gone with the Wind, but I hesitate to agree. Sure, the style is simplistic and straightforward, but good writing often is. I also hesitate to lend credence to these claims because of misogyny. I dislike it when because something is feminine or created by a woman that it is somehow inferior or not worthy of praise or recognition.
So Pearl Buck and Margaret Mitchell supposedly wrote novels not considered to be high art and novels that were criticized for winning the Pulitzer. Is that because those novels examine the female experience and use a feminine style to relate their stories? Why are men’s achievements always considered to be the most worthy or the standard? I say these women deserved the prize, and although their work is different, that doesn’t mean it isn’t good or good enough.
I’m also in awe of Wang Lung’s connection to the land. The entire novel explores how dependent the family is to their farm and how they must use the land to rise economically (and fall). I think we’ve lost our connection to the land (at least I have), and ideas about this are presented in much of Michael Pollan’s work. We no longer have to grow our own grain, store foods in the winter, or kill animals in order to eat them. Instead, meat comes wrapped in sterile, shiny packages, absent of feathers, blood, or dirt. I’m grateful for this, being the squeamish person that I am, but am I missing something? Would my life be richer and fuller with some dirt, some fresh air, some hard work doused with sweat, and less idle time, less social media, and less entertainment-seeking?
What are your thoughts on The Good Earth? Have I missed anything important? (Have I misrepresented anything? It’s been a very long time since I’ve read this novel.)