The Good Earth by Pearl Buck

“The Good Earth” by Pearl Buck is a story of a simple farming family set in the early twentieth century in a rural area of China. Wang Lung is an ambitious young man who appears to be in full control of his destiny. But as a young farmer he abruptly discovers that the one thing he is not in control of is the important rainfall that every farmer both depends on and fears. This farmer’s entire existence is controlled by the rain which has the ability to provide him with times of feast, famine, and flood. As Wang ages he attempts to adapt to abysmal times that the rain or lack of rain may bestow upon him but these conditions prove to be water shed events in Wang’s life.

Wang and his purchased wife O-lan, a former slave, tirelessly work the land with the help of a steady, generous summer rainy season. Wang and O-lan are grateful that the fields and crops are being watered without having to do the backbreaking work of carrying water buckets slung upon a pole across their shoulders. The watering of their fields provides something of a small feast to the meager farmers. The small plot of land that Wang owns yields onions, garlic, rice, beans, corn, grain, and, wheat – the fruit of the earth. This small feast also helps to provide for the farm animals. The ox that plows the fields is well fed and watered and the small collection of chickens and pigs are sustained and later consumed. In addition, one can reasonably argue that Wang’s boys are well nourished during infancy with the healthy mother’s milk that O-lan provides.

At harvest Wang is wise in selling most of his crops at market while retaining just enough food supplies for family consumption during the long, cold China winters. Unlike Wang’s conniving uncle, also a farmer but much less successful, Wang hangs food from rafters in his dwelling for winter use. At market Wang, despite his illiteracy, is shrewd in knowing to sell his crops when prices are high while storing crops that are selling at low prices for future times when pricing is favorable. Much to Wang’s satisfaction his business savvy provides him with the cherished silver coinage which he eagerly lines his girdle with. Any additional silver is secretly hidden in the walls of their dwelling for future use. Wang has a great respect and understanding for his hard earned silver because it not only represents security for him, his father, and his family, it is also being saved for the purchase of more treasured farm land. Upon the purchase of rice land from the House of Hwang he shouts, “To those at the great house it means nothing, this handful of land, but to me it means how much!” All this the rain provides to Wang and his family.

But one can reasonably say that for what the rain gives, the rain can also take away. It is not difficult for the reader to see that all is going too well for the humble farm family. Can lean times be ahead? Can Wang’s fertile land fail them? For the land can only produce what the rainfall provides. The rains which should have come in early summer, withheld themselves, and day after day the skies shone with fresh and careless brilliance. As the skies dry up and the clouds become unwilling, Wang faces a devastating drought that nearly destroys him, his family and his fellow villagers. The lack of rain leaves Wang’s fields dry, cracked, and fruitless. He has nothing to sell at market and almost nothing to feed his family. Animals either starve or are poached for food. Villagers are left numb with hunger and idle like scattered leaves. The children are particularly hard hit as their bodies resemble boney skeletons except for their famished swollen bellies. Desperation sets in as people are forced to eat grass, tree bark and even dirt. Even worse, Wang’s neighbor Ching, reports to him the horror, “In the village they are eating human flesh.”

The extended and relentless drought turns villagers into evil, rabid dogs who in mob fashion resort to stealing from each other including the last bits of Wang’s dried beans and corn. This is a dire event for Wang because he is without one pearl bank showflat nourishment for O-lan who is with their fourth child and her breasts are now barren and not able to feed their infant girl. The little girl once cried with hunger but fell quiet. She was never the same as a result of the hunger. The fortitude of O-lan in carrying their fourth child is a testament to her inner strength. What agony of starvation this woman had endured, with the starved creature gnawing at her from within, desperate for its own life! How difficult must it have been for O-lan to mercifully squeeze the life out of the malnourished, feeble newborn? In better times it would have been a sin to have taken the life of the infant, but in such desperate, unearthly times it was probably for the better. The child, having been born a female, made the morbid decision easier for the young mother. O-lan proves herself to be the rock and foundation of the family and her strength and devotion to her family goes unnoticed until the time of her death.

Years later after the rains revisit Wang’s lands and civilized life returns to the village, Wang is faced with yet another natural event that effect’s the average, routine life of this common farmer. Excessive rainfall fills the river to the north and runoff from the winter snows cause the mighty river to burst its banks. A great sea now engulfs Wang’s fields. All forms of planting, farming, and harvesting ceases and no work can be done. Fortunately, Wang was prepared for lean times as he wisely stored food rations and is owed sums of money from the grain markets. But now Wang faces a different kind of hardship that changes his life in an unexpected way. The lack of work in the fields leaves Wang idle and not knowing what to do with his time. To occupy himself Wang takes to sipping tea in the tea house in town. There he watches in horror as men gamble and mingle with evil women. But Wang becomes influenced and cannot resist the temptation of a young and beautiful woman. He chose one most beautiful, a small, slender thing, a body light as a bamboo and a little face as pointed as a kitten’s face. Wang’s wealth allows him the luxury of purchasing the young girl as his mistress and when the flood waters recede O-lan finds herself sharing her home with a new addition to the household. Of course, O-lan was hurt by the sudden and unexpected change in her husband’s behavior but she accepted it and continued to serve Wang as the slave she once was.

 

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