I will be blogging through The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck as part of the Women’s Classic Literature Event in order to explore the various themes and make some observations along the way. So, without further ado, here are my thoughts and observations from the first 10 chapters:
Wang Lung is a poor farmer who wants to marry, but since he is poor, his father arranges for him to marry a slave girl named O-lan from the House of Hwang. They marry and she immediately becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son. The couple returns to the House of Hwang a year later to show their first born son to O-lan’s former mistress and it becomes apparent that those in the great house may be experiencing a financial crunch and as a result of this they are willing to sell some of their land. Wang Lung immediately seizes this opportunity and buys the land. Life appears to be going well for the couple, O-lan gives birth to a second son and Wang Lung is now a landowner when his uncle begins to make his life difficult by asking for money and calling upon family duty. This marks the beginning of adversity for Wang Lung and O-lan. She gives birth to a daughter, which Wang Lung views as disfavor from the gods, drought and famine devastate the land, a second daughter is born but does not survive and the family, desperate to survive, leave their home and head south in search of food.
Warning: This post may contain spoilers for those not familiar with this story.
A woman’s contribution to home
The first chapter introduces us to our protagonist, Wang Lung and to his father and new, young wife, O-lan. The subsequent chapters show us just how much O-lan adds to her new family’s life. It is because of her that Wang Lung begins to prosper financially: she sews and makes all their clothes and shoes, she seasons and prepares their food well, she searches for firewood on the ground to bring home so they don’t need to buy any, she even brings home manure from the main road to enrich the soil, all of this is in addition to working in the fields beside her husband. It is interesting to note that Wang Lung immediately notices and is disappointed by her unbound feet; natural feet were unattractive, but it was precisely because her feet were unbound that she was able to work beside her husband in the fields. In addition to all of this, she even returns to the fields to help her husband after giving birth! Wang Lung was angry that she had ‘chosen’ harvest time to give birth when he needed her help-as if this were something she had any control over.
In essence, she went from a slave in a big house to a servant in a small one, only now she does it for her family instead of someone else’s. This typifies how women assumed the role of a servant/helper and O-lan is an example of a good wife because she excels in this role. But this also depicts the value of women like O-lan in the home, illustrating their countless and selfless contributions to their family and home. Would Wang Lung have prospered as he did without O-lan’s help? Probably not.
Changes and growth:
Both Wang Lung and O-lan change and grow from our first introduction to them. Wang Lung initially timidly goes to the great house, the House of Hwang, to retrieve his wife, but he returns confidently not only with his wife and son, but with new clothes and money with which to buy land.
O-lan also returns to the House of Hwang with pride. A year before she was a slave in that house, now she is returning as a wife proudly displaying her first born son to her former mistress; she has gone from slave to wife and has reason to be proud.
Things now begin to take a turn for the worse. These next few chapters portray a change in circumstances, from abundance to poverty, which Wang Lung attributes to the gods. We see the sometimes complex nature of family relationships and obligations which are made worse during times of hardship. Wang Lung also begins to see himself as a landowner and because of this, he sees himself as above others in his village and family and is determined to purchase and acquire even more land. We begin to see the conflict between filial responsibility and personal ambition: Wang Lung intends to improve his own status by acquiring more land. He feels duty bound to give his uncle silver, which he saved to purchase more land and as a result, he is bitter and angry. Later, during severe drought and famine, while watching his family starve, he purchases land rather than using the money to try to buy food. Wang Lung is an honest and hardworking man, but he cares too much about the opinion of others. He honors his father and even helps his lazy and manipulative uncle because he doesn’t want those in his village to look down on him as someone who doesn’t respect his elders or tradition. He sees himself as above others not only because he is a landowner, but because he owns land that formerly belonged to “the family of a prince”.
We also see in these chapters the family undergo devastating loss: of finances, of food and worst of all, of life. It was sad to see them loose so much after working so hard, but it was worse to watch the family starve, to see their young children and infant daughter go hungry and become malnourished, but the worst of all was when O-lan made a choice to end her new born daughter’s life. I think she did it because she knew the child was so weakened it would die and O-lan needed all her strength for the long journey South. I get the distinct impression that this was not an uncommon practice at that time, but it left me shocked and incredulous. I wonder if O-lan thought about her in later years. Did she look back and see her actions that day as merciful or cruel? Did she see her actions as necessary for the family’s survival? Or, did she look back at all? We don’t get inside O-lan’s head to know her thoughts and I really wish we did because I think there is much more to her than anyone realizes.
The family is now about to head south in search of food and we will follow them to see what happens next.
Have you read this novel? What do you think of Wang Lung, O-lan or their family? Do you have anything to add or share up to this point in the book? If so, tell me in the comments below.