Author: Pearl S. Buck
Finished reading on 7/25/17
Pearl S. Buck’s novel is unconventional in several ways, especially for her time. First of all, she a Westerner (American) wrote from the perspective of a local Chinese person. Secondly, she a woman wrote from the perspective of a man. Writing convincingly from a perspective so whole removed from her own is a feat that writers of all times should praise. Typically a writer can realistically transcend a gender role, a social role, or a cultural difference but to do all three at once, I can’t help but applaud. It does however make me wonder what a pre-revolutionary Chinese farmer would think of her novel.
There is much to talk about with this book but I will start with the obvious binary relationship between men and women. Seeing the status and treatment of women in pre-revolutionary China through this book especially and in others, I can’t help but have one small sympathy with Mao Zedong, he liberated women at least partially. This novel makes it very apparent that women were little better than slaves at the best, and something to be got rid of at the worst. Even the main character, Wang Lung who to all accounts is an abnormally empathetic and compassionate man, sees as merely means to an end, though at time he experiences guilt over this. He has no understanding of this guilt because culturally he treats women much better than they “deserve.” In many ways the novel, though told through Wang Lung’s eyes, is essentially about the women in his life. The reader’s sense of Wang Lung’s first wife and his own perception of her is vastly different. He thinks she is stupid because she is slow moving, silent, and goes above and beyond what is expected of her. However, the reader sees that there is much more going on beneath the surface especially when she foresees an opportunity to get riches for the family and she seizes it. She often sees situations in the family before, Wang Lung does. When she grows fatally sick, Wang Lung finally realizes what he is losing in her but he never is able to look at her with respect or as an equal. He still thinks she is ugly and slow of mind. Despite, Wang Lung’s hampered respect of women, at the end after all his trouble with his sons, he realizes in some small way the worth of his two daughters.
Some reoccurring themes include the presence of shame and the absence of peace. All of his life Wang Lung, though ambitious, is really just seeking some peace and comfort. However, it always eludes him. Once he achieves financial peace, his incurs all sorts of troubles with his family. More on this later. Shame is also a large motivator in this culture. We see it plaguing especially Wang Lung and his eldest son. They have a certain amount of vanity and when their vanity is wounded they feel ashamed and seek to correct the situation which caused it. Wang Lung’s ambitious pursuit of wealth was at first fueled by his encounter as a poor farmer with the great family of the town. The great family made Wang Lung feel ashamed of his position and thereafter he was never satisfied with it.
These two themes work well with the contrast between ill-gotten wealth and the land. Wang Lung and his family were simply subsisting on the land when a famine came and they were forced to move to the south. While there, an opportunity came to loot the house of a rich family. With their stolen riches they were able to buy more land, increase their profit, hire help, and buy more land. However, now that Wang Lung is a rich a man, he must deal with all the troubles that a rich family brings. His sons are spoiled and indulged, none of them follow in his footsteps to work and love the land. He himself gets entangled with a “flower” girl from town and makes her his second wife which gives him trouble with O-lan. His uncle, head of a band of robbers, is jealous of his wealth and so imposes himself and his wife and son on Wang Lung. The peace that he thought his money would buy him is fleeting to say the least. However, it is the land that pure, cleansing and represents true goodness in the novel. When Wang Lung is on his land, he is cleansed, healthy and whole. But when he is away from his land and caught up in his wealth, his troubles never cease.
Though the book is set in the last dynasty of China, it in many relates to the American life, especially when American blood was full of land being pioneers, settlers, and farmers for the most part. The desire for peace and wealth relate quite easily to the American dream and its devastating consequence for those who sell their soul to get it. In these two ways, I agree that this book is an American classic and completely worthy of the Pulitzer Prize. It’s an easy read and not long at all; give it a go.