The Good Earth
Pearl S. Buck, 1931
Simon & Schuster
Winner, 1932 Pulitzer Prize
Wang Lung, rising from humble Chinese farmer to wealthy landowner, gloried in the soil he worked. He held it above his family, even above his gods. But soon, between Wang Lung and the kindly soil that sustained him, came flood and drought, pestilence and revolution.
This great modern classic depicts life in China at a time before the vast political and social upheavals transformed an essentially agrarian country into a world power. Through this one Chinese peasant and his children, Nobel Prize-winner Pearl S. Buck traces the whole cycle of life, its terrors, its passion, its persistent ambitions and its rewards. Her brilliant novel—beloved by millions of readers throughout the world—is a universal tale of the destiny of men. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—June 26, 1892
• Where—Hillsboro, West Virginia, USA
• Death—March 6, 1973
• Where—Danby, Vermont
• Education—schooled in China; B.A., Randolph-Macon
Woman's College (Virginia); M.A. Cornell University
• Awards—Nobel Prize; Pulitzer Prize
Pearl S. Buck spent most of her life in China. She was the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, "for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces. The Good Earth won her the Pulitizer Prize, as well. (From the publisher.)
Pearl Sydenstricker Buck, also known by her Chinese name Sai Zhenzhu, was an award-winning American writer who spent the majority of her life in China. Her novel The Good Earth was the best-selling fiction book in the U.S. in 1931 and 1932, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. In 1938, she became the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, "for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces."
Pearl was born in Hillsboro, West Virginia to Caroline Stulting (1857–1921) and Absalom Sydenstricker. Her parents, Southern Presbyterian missionaries, traveled to China soon after their marriage on July 8, 1880, but returned to the United States for Pearl's birth. When Pearl was three months old, the family returned to China, to be stationed first in Zhenjiang (then often known as Jingjiang or, in the Postal Romanization, Tsingkiang). Pearl grew up bilingual, tutored in English by her mother and in classical Chinese by Mr. Kung.
The Boxer Uprising greatly affected Pearl and her family. Pearl's Chinese friends deserted her and her family, and there were not as many Western visitors as there once were.
In 1911, Pearl left China to attend Randolph-Macon Woman's College, graduating (Phi Beta Kappa) in 1914. From 1914 to 1933, she served as a Presbyterian missionary, but her views later became highly controversial in the Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy, leading to her resignation.
In 1914, Pearl returned to China. She married an agricultural economist missionary, John Lossing Buck, on May 13, 1917, and they moved to Suzhou, Anhui Province, a small town on the Huai River (not be confused with the better-known Suzhou in Jiangsu Province). It is this region she described later in The Good Earth and Sons.
From 1920 to 1933, Pearl and John made their home in Nanking, on the campus of Nanjing University, where both had teaching positions. Pearl taught English literature at the University of Nanjing and the Chinese National University. In 1920, the Bucks had a daughter, Carol, afflicted with phenylketonuria. In 1921, Pearl's mother died and shortly afterward her father moved in. In 1924, they left China for John's year of sabbatical and returned to the United States for a short time, during which Pearl earned her Masters degree from Cornell University. In 1925, the Bucks adopted Janice (later surnamed Walsh). That fall, they returned to China.
The tragedies and dislocations that Pearl suffered in the 1920s reached a climax in March 1927, during "Nanking Incident." In a confused battle involving elements of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist troops, Communist forces, and assorted warlords, several Westerners were murdered. Since Absalom was a missionary, the family decided to stay in Nanjing until the battle reached the city. When violence broke out, a poor Chinese family allowed them to hide in their hut while the family house was looted. The family spent a day terrified and in hiding, after which they were rescued by American gunboats. They traveled to Shanghai and then sailed to Japan, where they stayed for a year. They later moved back to Nanjing, though conditions remained dangerously unsettled.
In 1935, the Bucks were divorced. Richard Walsh, president of the John Day Company and her publisher, became Pearl Buck's second husband. In 1935, she bought a sixty-acre homestead she called Green Hills Farm and moved into the one hundred year-old farmhouse on the property with her second husband and their family of six children. There she spent the next thirty-eight years of her life, raising her family of six children, writing, pursuing humanitarian interests, and gardening.
She completed many works while living in Pennsylvania: This Proud Heart (1938), The Patriot (1939), Today and Forever (1941), Pavilion of Women (1946), and The Child Who Never Grew (1950).
During the Cultural Revolution Buck, as a preeminent American writer of Chinese peasant life, was denounced as an "American cultural imperialist." Buck was "heartbroken" when Madame Mao and high-level Chinise officials prevented her from visiting China with Richard Nixon in 1972.
Pearl S. Buck died of lung cancer on March 6, 1973 in Danby, Vermont and was interred in Green Hills Farm in Perkasie, Pennsylvania. She designed her own tombstone. The grave marker is inscribed with Chinese characters representing the name Pearl Sydenstricker.
During her life Buck combined the multiple careers of wife, mother, author, editor and political activist.
Buck was highly committed and passionate about a range of issues that were mostly ignored in her generation; many of her life experiences and political views are described in her novels, short stories, fiction, children's stories, and the biographies of her parents entitled Fighting Angel and The Exile. She wrote on a diverse variety of topics including woman's rights, Asian cultures, immigration, adoption, missionary work, and war.
In 1949, outraged that existing adoption services considered Asian and mixed-race children unadoptable, Pearl established Welcome House, Inc., the first international, interracial adoption agency. In nearly five decades of work, Welcome House has placed over five thousand children. In 1964, to support children who were not eligible for adoption, Buck established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation to "address poverty and discrimination faced by children in Asian countries."
In 1965, she opened the Opportunity Center and Orphanage in South Korea, and later offices were opened in Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam. When establishing Opportunity House, Buck said, "The purpose...is to publicize and eliminate injustices and prejudices suffered by children, who, because of their birth, are not permitted to enjoy the educational, social, economic and civil privileges normally accorded to children."
In the late 1960s, Pearl toured West Virginia to raise money to preserve her family farm in Hillsboro, WV. Today The Pearl S. Buck Birthplace is a historic house museum and cultural center. She hoped the house would "belong to everyone who cares to go there," and serve as a "gateway to new thoughts and dreams and ways of life."
Long before it was considered fashionable or politically safe to do so, Buck had challenged the American public to on topics such as racism, sexual discrimination and the plight of the thousands of babies born to Asian women left behind and unwanted wherever American soldiers were based in Asia. Anchee Min, author of a fictionalized life of Buck, broke down upon reading Buck, because she had portrayed the Chinese peasants "with such love, affection and humanity"
Peter Conn, in his biography of Buck, argues that despite the accolades awarded her, Buck's contribution to literature has been mostly forgotten or deliberately ignored by America's cultural gatekeepers.
Pearl's former residence at Nanjing University is now the Nanjing University Science and Technology Industry Group Building along the West Wall of the university's north campus.
U.S. President George H.W. Bush toured the Pearl S. Buck House in October 1998. He expressed that he, like millions of other Americans, had gained an appreciation for the Chinese through Pearl's writing. (Author bio adapted from Wikipedia.)
The Good Earth has fulfilled [the promise of Pearl S. Buck's first book] with a brilliance which passes one's most optimistic expectations.... It is an excellent novel [with] style, power, coherence and a pervasive sense of dramatic reality. In its deeper implications it is less a comment upon life in China than upon the meaning and tragedy of live as it is lived in any age in any quarter of the globe.
New York Times (3/15/1931)
To read this story of Wang Lung is to be slowly and deeply purified; and when the last page is finished it is as if some significant part of one's own days were over.
1. The novel begins with Wang Lung's expectation of rain, the daily boiling of water for his father, and his bathing for his wedding. What might this water imagery foreshadow?
2. Why does Wang Lung feel compelled to purchase the rice field from the House of Hwang? Why does he at first regret it?
3. "And so this parcel of land became to Wang Lung a sign and a symbol." What does the author mean by this?
4. Wang Lung considers the birth of his daughter to be a bad omen. How does he come to regard this girl, who grows up to become a fool?
5. As the family works and begs in the city, what do they think of the foreigners they encounter? What purpose does the author serve in including these descriptions?
6. The abundance of food in the city contrasts with the characters impoverished lives. Discuss the emotionally complex relationship Wang Lung develops with the city.
7. The poor laborers in the city lack knowledge even of what they look like, a fact illustrated by the man who mocks himself in a mirror. How does a new self-awareness come to manifest itself?
8. When Wang Lung becomes swept up with the mob and enters the rich man's house, is the gold he receives there a curse or a blessing? Do you feel any pity for the rich man? What do you think the author intended you to feel?
9. After O-lan steals the jewels, do they function as a bad omen or good luck? Why does O-lan want to keep the two pearls? Why is Wang Lung so astonished by this? What do the pearls signify?
10. As O-lan dies, she bemoans her lack of beauty and says she is too ugly to be loved. Wang Lung feels guilty, but still cannot love her as he did Lotus. Neither woman can control destiny. Lotus was anorphan who had been sold into prostitution because she was beautiful, and O-lan had been sold as a kitchen slave because she was plain. For whom do you feel sympathy? Why?
11. Toward the end of the novel we encounter the belief that things will change "when the poor become too poor and the rich are too rich." Discuss the ambivalence of this statement — a mixture of both hope and despair — and how it reflects upon the whole of The Good Earth.
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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