The Good Earth

Thinking about our discussion of The Good Earth yesterday, I had one further thought that I did not express at the time.  I think that one of the reasons this book is so hard to relate to for some people is that it is so different from everything else we’ve read, and so remote from our own experience.  Everything we know about the life of Chinese peasants of the 1920’s we have learned from Pearl Buck;  there is no other book and no other author who has written about this culture which is so different from our own in so many ways.


In contrast, when we read a book by Trollope, say, we find much that is familiar from having read Dickens, Eliot, Thackeray and the rest.  Also, although our society is very different from the Victorian it is very much a descendent of the Victorian, so we understand the characters’ values, politics, domestic relationships, romantic and economic aspirations as having at least some resemblance to our own.


The same comment applies to the writing.  We have not read any other book in which the characters speak in a foreign language, let alone a language so different from English. You could argue whether Forster’s prose is more elegant than Hardy’s, but it’s hard to say much about Pearl Buck’s.  What she is trying to achieve in conveying Chinese vernacular in English is unique, and one has no point of reference from which to say whether she has succeeded well or not.  I am reminded of some discussions we have had in the past about the language of the Victorian greats:  did people in those days really speak in such convoluted sentences?  Or is that a literary artifact, which predates the present convention of writing dialogue realistically?  I don’t know, and I doubt that anyone else does either. 


Perhaps some of us enjoyed the exotic setting of the story more than others, and perhaps some of us were able to identify with the characters in some universal or trans-cultural way more than others.  In any case, I think it is a challenge to read The Good Earth and not be frustrated by our own hopes and desires for the characters.  They have their own hopes and desires, and sometimes those are very hard to understand or identify with.


12 thoughts on “The Good Earth

  1. I’m so surprised to hear this from you John! You seemed to me the great champion, in our discussion, of the universality of this book, and I agreed with you. I felt as Rose did when she said she was “right there with them” in the story and that part of Buck’s genius is the way she made a small Chinese world completely accessible. I can easily imagine an author portraying Chinese society in a way that would baffle foreign readers, especially being, as she was, one of the first writers to describe it to a broad Western audience. But I don’t think she did baffle readers. Even with all the cultural norms, there seemed to me plenty of things that were simply human and easy to identify with.

    Is the word for this book blunt? Maybe the bluntness can leave a reader cold?

    I do like that it was a departure, in subject and style, from anything else our book group has read. It worked for me, in that way, as a refresher, even if the subject matter was sometimes anything but refreshing. It stands alone in my mind; I can’t think of anything else quite like it. I don’t know if it’s a Great Book, but I’m very glad we’ve read it.

    • Oh, I am a great champion of the book, which I loved for the reasons you stated and I quite agree with you and Rose. But it seemed to me it did baffle a couple of our members, or at least they were not able to make the connection you, Rose, and I made. I was speculating on why that might be, and trying to understand their reaction.

      The particular thing that triggered my thinking along these lines was when Thierry said he wished Wang Lung had sat his sons down and talked to them in a more intimate way, imparted some wisdom to them, or something like that. And you said something to the effect that that would just not be likely to happen in a Chinese family, that father/son relationships have different dynamic in their society than they do in ours. Hence the thought that perhaps, entering upon this strange world with our own cultural baggage, we have expectations of the characters, or hopes and aspirations for the characters that they do not have for themselves.

      I do think it’s a Great Book, and I hope someday that will be a widely held opinion once more.

  2. Well, shucks, John! I find myself disagreeing with your post in all sorts of ways! 🙂

    I sympathize with the desire to understand why a beloved book isn’t beloved by all, but your surmise as to why that might be true in this case doesn’t reflect my experience of reading The Good Earth. As Michelle pointed out, the universal nature of Pearl Buck’s themes transcend the story’s placement in rural China of the early 1900’s and her focus on the peasant class. I wasn’t particularly vocal about my support of that idea during the book group because I don’t think her success in conveying this particular human condition was enough to elevate the novel to the status of a “great” book.

    I feel like my problems with the book are subjective, and we’re not going to be able to convince one another. Which is fine! But based on what you’ve written here, I wonder if maybe I wasn’t very articulate about my particular issues? Sorry if I’m being repetitive, then, but I really don’t want to misunderstood about this because I truly don’t feel that cultural differences limited my appreciation of the book.

    There are pretty much two basic things: 1) the writing, and 2) the characters.

    Regarding the first, I didn’t like the style, but that’s not surprising to me because I don’t usually like reading books in translation. I always feel like I’m missing too much in terms of the subtlety that language can convey, connotations and cultural references that simply can’t be communicated precisely, and of course the way words fit together and the rhythm of sentences that just get lost. So for me this was a huge missing component. Her language may very well have been an accurate representation of Chinese, but I feel like it didn’t work for me as English. It was clearly a choice on her part, and may very well have been the best one, but it was a barrier to my enjoyment.

    I did feel a distance from the characters that I think was due to a sense that we, as readers, were never invited to engage with them on any deep level. There was nothing particularly confusing or frustrating about their hopes and desires. Pearl Buck told us right up front what they were, what her characters were thinking and feeling. Everything we needed to know to understand the story was told to us directly. That didn’t leave a lot of room to wonder about the characters, to imagine them off the page, or to become invested in their lives.

    I tend to feel that it is the job of the author to make a book relatable, to make the reader care about the characters and the story, and that holds true whatever the subject matter. A reader has to meet the author partway, of course. You might say that the author fails to convey what she intended, or that the reader fails to understand what the author attempted. But what I don’t think you can say is that this or any other book is so different from anything else that has been written—in terms of subject matter or writing style—that you can’t make judgments about it whether or not it succeeds as literature, beyond its historical context. That’s the way I tried to both read and respond to The Good Earth. Just for me, it was missing some elements that are present in books I love.

  3. Sarah, I am not especially puzzled about why you don’t like the book because you have explained in some detail; but I continue to wonder why a book that was once so admired not only here but internationally is now nearly ignored. I suspect there are some PC reasons. I suspect it doesn’t fit easily into the rest of the canon.

    I will stand by these assertions: first, what Pearl Buck is trying to do with language is different from any other author we have read. Whether you think she did it well or not, the writing of The Good Earth presents unique challenges to the writer. Or, if not unique, at least I cannot think of anything comparable. I’d like to solicit suggestions from anyone else reading this: is there another book, written in English, in which all the character speak another language and in which the entire story takes place in a culture radically different from our own?

    Second, the cultural environment of The Good Earth is disorienting. This is a story of a family in which relationships are not governed by love and affection, although those things are present, but by duty. (OK, Familial Duty is a familiar theme in 19th century literature, but usually because it is at odds with Romance. FD is certainly a tattered concept in our day.) Entering the world of the Wang family as readers, our concepts of tragedy, comedy, romance, loyalty, and a dozen other things are continually challenged. To go back to the example I used before, of Wang Lung and his sons, he does not relate to his sons the way Mr. Emerson relates to George or the way Rev. Stanhope relates to Bertie or the way my father related to me. That being said, I do feel Wang Lung’s anguish. To me he seems very real, and I find his relationships with his children to be one of the most poignant parts of the book.

    So, as you said, we just disagree. I thought the writing was majestic, and I thought the characters were engaging and memorable. Oh, well. Seriously, this would be a lot less fun if we all liked the same thing.

    One last point: I am definitely not saying that the book’s success as literature cannot be judged for any reason. Obviously both of us have done just that!

    • is there another book, written in English, in which all the character speak another language and in which the entire story takes place in a culture radically different from our own?

      Good question! Here are a couple that initially came to mind:
      Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
      A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

      And these next two might not quite fit the bill, but I think they are close:
      Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje (okay, Anil does speak English, but she’s a Sri Lankan native who has returned to Sri Lanka…)
      The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru (the main character does, at some point, learn English and live in London, but this is a fascinating book because he also reinvents himself in at least three different cultures…)

      Some others that I haven’t read, so I’m not totally sure, but they might qualify:
      An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
      A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul
      The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
      A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

      I’m sure there are others!

      • Good list! I have read a few of them. I believe the characters in Midnight’s Children speak English. Not so sure about A Suitable Boy, although since English is the commercial language of India, it may be. In any case, I do not sense the authors are trying to convey the feeling of a different language–unless, perhaps the Indian idiom of English does that already.

        The only other one I have read is A Bend in the River, which has several European characters.

  4. So: a few words from a Friend Of John, if I may, ladies? (He put me onto this because I’m something of a PB fan–haven’t read much, but I’ve made the pilgrimage to the family place in West Virginia, if that counts.) What I like about TGE is that it doesn’t quite mesh with what we’ve been trained to expect from a realistic novel. I suppose in way, it’s not–more of a “romance” in the non-Harlequin sense of the word. (Full disclosure: I read Northop Frye at an impressionable age, and I have a taste for books that are NOT, excuse me John, in the tradition of Mr. Dickens.)

    Buck’s language in this book put me off a tad at first. Then I got into it, when I remembered when it was written, and squelched my urge to do a little line-editing to tone her down. Even more helpful was John’s comparison to the King James Bible in our email swap. I don’t think of it, despite her cool line about thinking in Chinese (which makes me very very jealous–I speak the language poorly, with great gobs of rust atop whatever skill I used to have), as “in translation”. There are a few idioms carried over directly, but very few, as far as I can tell. And the sentence structure, etc? No way. That is English as she is and has been so Germanically spoke!

    Characters? Well, who knows about Chinese peasants in the 1920’s? There are some books by Chinese intellectuals of that era. I think she’s got the general outlines right, and I dig Wang Lung both for his particularity and for all those features and feelings that work for me (shooting self existentially in foot, for example) right here, right now. But there’s a great phrase in the HGilary Spurling bio of PB that John put me on to that hits ’em: stylized. The whole book–no, no, I really mean: the book I construct out of the aspects I like most–is more like a poem or an opera (Italian? Chinese? hmmm) than like a report from the field. Even though I suspect it’s a darn good one of those.

    Great or not-great? How about: might close? But no way I’m going to enter that fray with fine folks like you, to whom I have not yet been properly introduced. I’ll just thank you all for stimulating tthoughts, and wish you a pleasant afternoon….

    • Hello, Jeanne! Thanks for joining the conversation!

      Yes, I really shouldn’t have used the word “translation” since that isn’t what she was doing. I did have the impression, however, that some of what I considered awkward and not particularly lovely about her sentences had to do with a choice she made to try to convey a feeling of the Chinese with her written English. I thought that might be why I struggled with the writing style. I haven’t read anything else by Buck that I can compare it with. Possibly this is just her style!

      I know it sounds as though I didn’t like the characters, but actually I did like both Wang Lung and O-lan, and I think they made a lot of sense as people. But funnily enough, I liked them without really feeling deeply about them, which is odd and unsatisfying for me.

      I’m intrigued by your idea of looking at the book more like an opera. I had been thinking that it would make a great movie–although I’m told one was filmed that wasn’t particularly good. There is an epic and dramatic aspect to the story that would maybe work well in that format. Opera even more so!

    • You know, I think I shouldn’t have tossed NF’s name into my typo-studded rant. By “romance” I just mean books like my recent, gulp, discovery, Moby Dick or, I dunno, Gravity’s Rainbow or Hawthorne or all my magical realism faves: books that aren’t really aiming to capture daily life. I found this on line from Frye’s famous 1957 book about interesting ways to categorize lit: “Myth, then, is one extreme of literary design; naturalism is the other, and in between lies the whole area of romance, using that term to mean… the tendency…to displace myth in a human direction and yet, in contrast to “realism,” to conventionalize content in an idealized direction.”

      (Myth / idealization = operatic, doncha know.)

      Phew! I can’t bear to go back to what I slogged through back in school but check out paragraphs 13 and 14, if I counted right , at . Or better: let me just say again I don’t think Pearl Buck’s book really is about doing what Dickins and, yes, Miss Jane Austen do so well. PB is playing a different game. Might not be y’all’s game, but there it is.

      Thanks for letting me luck, all…

  5. Hi, John. For some reason I can’t reply below your last comment, so new comment here.

    Do the characters in Midnight’s Children speak English? I’d either not realized that fact at the time or have since forgotten it. It’s been a while, and I confess I didn’t like the book so much. I’m not a fan of magical realism. Hmmm. It’s starting to seem like I have a lot of dislikes!

    I also had forgotten that some of the character in A Pale View of Hills do, in fact, speak English. But the parts that take place in post-WWII Japan are the ones that made a stronger impression on me. I so recommend this book and, really, anything by Ishiguro. I’m such a fan–at least, of what I’ve read so far.

    • Hey, Sarah. Well, here’s something we can agree on: I didn’t like Midnight’s Children either! Magic realism works for me sometimes, but not there. I read it years ago, didn’t care for it. Then I saw a three hour interview with Salman Rushdie on CSPAN, which was fantastic, so I tried again. No go.

      I’m not sure what language the characters are speaking. According to my researches, Hindi, spoken by 42% of Indians, and English, spoken by 12% (more than any native language except Hindi) are the two official languages. (49% of Pakistanis speak English, and the characters, like the author, are Muslims. A good bit of the book takes place in Pakistan.) There are literally hundreds of other languages in use in India, with English preferred by non Hindi speakers for official business. I would expect it is nearly universal among the educated classes and commercial classes, although not necessarily the language spoken at home.

      I’m not sure it matters what language they are speaking–I think PB is trying to do something different from the authors of any of the books you mentioned, or any I could think of. Mythic, operatic, Biblical… any of those descriptors will suit. Among the books that meet the criteria I proposed above are Jeanne’s three novels of ancient China, which are quite mythic-operatic (gods and demigods poking their noses into human affairs all over the place) and one of which was actually made into an opera! Sorry to blow your cover, Jeanne. Care to comment on how you thought about Chinese vs English when writing the books?

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