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.