The Adelphi, June 1931
This is a very exceptional book. It starts uncertainly, and it is handicapped by a bad style, rather like the style of Lang’s crib to the Odyssey. But one scarcely worries about this, the story goes so straight to the very heart of truth. There is no plot, and yet not a single redundant incident; no words spent in pity, but a fidelity to life which simply withers optimism. The account of the life of rickshaw coolies in an eastern city is particularly moving. Anyone who has seen that vile sight of men running between shafts dice horses, will welcome this description. The author evidently knows China as her native land, but has been away from it just long enough to notice the things which a Chinaman would miss. The Good Earth can be added at once to the very small list of first-rate books about the East.
It is the story of Wang Lung, a Chinese peasant. Born into crushing poverty, he digs his field with a wooden hoe, drinks hot water, because tea is too expensive, eats meat only on feast days. He is the very type of the oriental, narrowly dutiful, abysmally ignorant, brutishly industrious. He has the hunger for land which outlives all other passions and turns everything else—every vice and every altruism—into nonsense. He loves land as some men love beauty. All his wisdom is summed up in this, that to own land is good, to sell land the ultimate folly. He is a peasant.
Perhaps the best-done thing in the book is the story of Wang Lung’s relations with his wife, O Lan. O Lan is a slave girl, chosen for her ugliness, because pretty women (women with small feet, that is) are no use on the land. She bears child after child to Wang Lung, works at his side till the very hour of her confinements, obeys him like a dog. Wang Lung’s feeling for her has nothing of love as we know it, only duty. Certain things are due to her, as certain things are due to an ox, and in these he never fails. But she is only a convenience; to love her would be slightly shameful, a kind of infatuation, like loving an ox. How could one love a woman with large feet? Love is for concubines. When O Lan lies dying, worn out with work and childbirths, Wang Lung looks at her and thinks how ugly she is. He knows that she has been a good wife, even dimly feels that he might be sorry for her. But he is not sorry; her big feet repel him too much. Still, he knows his duty. He buys her an expensive coffin.
E. A. B.
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Note: The Good Earth was awarded the “Pulitzer Prize for the Novel” in 1932. It was the best selling novel in the United States in both 1931 and 1932 and was an influential factor in Pearl S. Buck’s winning the “Nobel Prize for Literature” in 1938.