Sunday, April 21, 2013

Short Take: The Good Earth, Pearl Buck

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck’s 1931 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, is a compelling portrait of a rural Chinese patriarch in what appears to be the early decades of the twentieth century. When the story begins, he is a poor farmer on his wedding day. He is apparently somewhere in his twenties. His bride, whom he has never before met, is a slave in the kitchen of a local wealthy family. The novel ends with him wealthy and close to death, with his adult sons making plans for the family estate. At first, Buck seems to be using the farmer and his wife as a celebratory illustration of Protestant-work-ethic values--the ideal of hard work, and so on--but her perspective proves far more ambivalent. Hard work means nothing in the face of famine and flooding, and one’s safety from crime is pointedly shown to be arbitrary. The work-ethic values can even prove destructive; one story thread implicitly asks if pride at not begging or stealing is worth the cost to one’s children. The farmer and his wife are hardly paragons of virtue, either. The seeds of their later wealth come from a mugging and burglary, and the farmer certainly has his callous, hedonistic side--he thinks nothing of his wife’s feelings when he purchases a concubine and brings her into their home. The book also explores other consequences of building a better life, including the complications and conflicts that result from the bourgeois values that become instilled in the couple’s sons. Buck is fond of platitudes about the fulfillment found in working the land, but the virtue the book promotes is a rather cynical one: one must make the most of opportunities, and corrupt ones are acceptable. In this, the story is very similar to the Biblical tale of Jacob, whose dedication to hard work and lack of principle is quite similar to Buck’s protagonist. Buck’s prose recalls scripture as well. It’s straightforward third-person narrative that uses homiletic repetitions to both render the protagonist’s mindset and anchor the scenes. The repetitions come close to functioning like a recitative at times, and they help make the novel a fast, engaging read. Buck is in the august company of authors who have won the Nobel Prize in Literature, but the book does not rise to the level that honor promises. It is not especially profound, much less innovative or poetic. However, it is a very satisfying piece of popular fiction, and that cannot be discounted.

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