“Wang Lung sat smoking, thinking of the silver as it had lain upon the table. It had come out of the earth, this silver, out of the earth that he ploughed and turned and spent himself upon. He took his life from the earth; drop by drop by his sweat he wrung food from it and from the food, silver. Each time before this that he had taken the silver out to give to anyone, it had been like taking a piece of his life and giving it to someone carelessly. But not for the first time, such giving was not pain. He saw, not the silver in the alien hand of a merchant in the town; he saw the silver transmuted into something worth even more than life itself – clothes upon the body of his son.”
How many times has this story been told?—a poor and humble man who lives his life in moral upstanding, then resorts to desperate measures to provide for his family during an economic crisis, then comes into a bit of money himself and rises in the community to a level of respect among his peers, only to let his new-found social and material wealth corrupt him. It’s a rags to riches to rags story that has been told and time and time and time again, and will be continue to be told as long as there are storytellers. This particular story kind of story is one we all know too well, because it is a part of the fibers of our being—the human condition. We are born into nothing, we live our lives as prosperously as we can, we die, and we take nothing with us. The futility of this is what Jesus was talking about when he said, “What good is a man who gains the whole world and loses his soul?”
Wang Lung, the main character in The Good Earth, is a poor farmer who starts off this novel with a tract of land that brings him enough money to earn a bit of money. Over the course of the next few decades, he buys up a lot more land and makes even more money. By the end of his life, he becomes an incredibly wealthy man, with a family, and a palace all to himself; but, in the last couple pages of the book, when his sons decide that they’re going to sell the land he owns once he dies, he falls to the ground in a fit of rage and takes up the soil in his hands, clutching it tightly, and shows his true nature—a man who has gained the whole world, but is still clinging tightly to nothing more than clods of dirt.
This is a pretty bleak view of the human experience, but it is pretty accurate.
What I found most interesting in this novel is Wang Lung’s slow decline into immorality. When we first meet him, he is a good man—an honest, upright citizen. He marries and has children and works his farm so that he can provide for them. It is when a famine comes that his life gets way off track—he takes his family to a wealthy area in the south of China and they resort to begging so that they can eat. When that isn’t enough, he haphazardly gets involved with a gang of bandits who loot a palace and he steals a healthy sum of money after threatening a man’s life—Wang Lung’s wife also steals jewelry from the palace. This event in his life is what sparks his downward spiral; from this point forward, he becomes a man who is obsessed with wealth and “image,” he forsakes his wife and children, he gambles, he spends nights in whorehouses, he cheats on his wife, he beats his children, dabbles with opium—all the while, never once thinking that what he’s doing might be wrong. His actions weren’t deliberate outbursts of bad behavior—he actually just haphazardly walked into that sort of life.
It was as though he were a blind man, meandering down a path and getting further and further away from it.
This is a story that has been told time and time again, but Pearl S. Buck tells it well. Unlike a lot of the writing that came out of the 1920’s and 30’s that I’ve read so far, The Good Earth doesn’t hide anything behind flowery language and pointless narrative. Buck just tells the story the way it is, and I cannot even begin to explain how refreshing this was for me. More than anything in this journey, I have been dreading books from the first 20 years of the Pulitzer Prize because some of the ones I’ve read thus far have been absolutely excruciating to get through.