This is the current Oprah bookclub selection, so I decided to read it along with the millions of others who'll be reading it now. It was a beautifully written book, very evocative (for me, anyway) of its setting - pre-Revolutionary China, during the reign of the last emperor. It's an interesting look at the life of a country farmer, Wang Lung, and his family.
My Overall Review . . . with a a few SPOILERS
I really enjoyed reading this book, however, I found that I didn't completely lose myself in it because I had such difficulty with Wang Lung himself. He was often a really awful person, but I can't decide whether or not I'm judging him too harshly, considering that he is a product of his environment. Somehow, that particular argument has never really satisfied me. Just because you live in a sexist society where women are considered slaves, doesn't make it right for you to treat your own wife as one. Especially because it was clear that, at times, even Wang Lung himself questioned his behaviour and his attitudes. However, he usually (always?) ended up sweeping his doubts back "under the rug," found a way to rationalise his behaviour, and continued on as before, which I found greatly disappointing. I was also disturbed by the disrespect that he showed to his gods . . . particularly the earth gods. Such fickleness and disrespect does not speak well for one's character.
I also found him somewhat unlikable because of his excessive pride, and because of the hypocrasy he showed in so many areas of his life. Again, was he merely a man of his times? I think that in order to really connect with this book, I would have liked to have seen either Wang Lung go through a powerul and lasting transformation, or even to have received a more tangible come-uppance. Of course, this would have changed the whole focus of the book. As it is, it's a lovely "snapshot" of this man and his life in a particular era of Chinese history. As such, it is beautiful. I just disliked Wang Lung enough that the positive things about the book weren't quite enough to satisfy me on the whole, and make me able to really love it. 8/10 (Library)
Questions from the WSP Edition Reading Guide:
1. The novel begins with Wang Lung's expectation of rain, the daily boiling of water for his father, and his bathing for his wedding. What might this water imagery foreshadow?
I think the water imagery here is a foreshadowing of the importance that water (or the lack thereof) will have on the events that happen later in the book . . . the drought which forces them south; the flood which forces Wang Lung into the city where he finds Lotus. In the opening chapter, he first squanders the water, and then tries to justify its use (this is also where we first see the selfishness of which he is capable).
2. Why does Wang Lung feel compelled to purchase the rice field from the House of Hwang? Why does he at first regret it?
He believes that it will elevate his status, but not only in "physical" terms. The land has an iconic importance to him; in buying it, he has purchased for himself not just more land, but some measure of greatness for himself. Also, he seems to judge his own worth by how closely he can come to the wealth of the Hwang family . . . anything which diminishes their estate while bolstering his own must seem a step in the right direction to him.
I think his regret comes from a realisation that the land really is just land and no special "magic" is granted to him with its purchase . . . certainly no one he deals with in the Hwang household is more impressed with him because of it. Perhaps he could have learned from this and changed his behaviour, but any discomfort he felt seems to have been short-lived.
3. "And so this parcel of land became to Wang Lung a sign and a symbol." What does the author mean by this?
That, in the future, whatever happens to the land (in response to the weather, etc.), will also happen to Wang Lung and his family. If the land is prosperous, so will the family be; if a plague destroys the crops, the family will suffer, as well. Again, I see this as more of a symbolic or superstitious thing, as more than just the mundane interpretation that the consequence of having a bad crop means less money coming in that season.
4. Wang Lung considers the birth of his daughter to be a bad omen. How does he come to regard this girl, who grows up to become a fool?
I enjoy his relationship with his daughter more than anything else about his character. He is kind to her, cares for her, and genuinely seems to feel a fondness for her which seems to be lacking in all the other relationships in his life. Perhaps because she does not have a "proper" place in the heirarchy of society . . . as a "normal" daughter, she would have had a proscribed future, and Wang Lung would have "known" how to relate to her because of it. But as his "poor fool," there is no existing template on which he can base his relationship, and this is the one time when he actually shows an ability to be compassionate, because there is nothing that dictates otherwise, and no tradtion upon which he can justify his ill-treatment, as he does with the other people in his life.
5. As the family works and begs in the city, what do they think of the foreigners they encounter? What purpose does the author serve in including these descriptions?
The text tells us that Wang Lung seeing white people allows him to feel a kinship with the other Chinese in the city, where before he felt separate because of his origins in another place. I don't really see anything more to it than this.
6. The abundance of food in the city contrasts with the characters impoverished lives. Discuss the emotionally complex relationship Wang Lung develops with the city.
I never saw it as particularly emotionally "complex." The dichotomy between the "haves" and "have nots" is more pronounced in the city, where a greater number of resources are available, and people are a few steps removed from the agrarian lifestyle of the country, and so not quite as susceptible to its ups and downs.
7. The poor laborers in the city lack knowledge even of what they look like, a fact illustrated by the man who mocks himself in a mirror. How does a new self-awareness come to manifest itself?
No opinion/comment about this. I found the man seeing his own reflection to be comical; I didn't find any special significance.
8. When Wang Lung becomes swept up with the mob and enters the rich man's house, is the gold he receives there a curse or a blessing? Do you feel any pity for the rich man? What do you think the author intended you to feel?
I don't really feel pity for the rich man, but I did feel at the time that the gold would turn out to be a curse. In some ways it wasn't . . . I expected for Wang Lung to get his "comeuppance" near the end of the book, and he never did . . . at least not in the way I was expecting. It is obvious that his sons will not maintain the legacy he has created, but I'm not sure he was capable of having an awareness of this. He was so thoroughly self-centered, that I'm not sure the suffering of anyone else really ever made an impression upon him. So perhaps, in this way, the gold was a curse after all . . . while Wang Lung did achieve the things he set out to do, I doubt he was ever really happy. He certainly never connected with any of the other people in his life in what seemed by my standards to be a meaningful way.
9. After O-lan steals the jewels, do they function as a bad omen or good luck? Why does O-lan want to keep the two pearls? Why is Wang Lung so astonished by this? What do the pearls signify?
I think the jewels were neither good nor bad . . . merely an additional resource which Wang Lung, ultimately, exploited like any other. As to the pearls, why wouldn't O-lan want to keep them? It is difficult for me to guess at her true motives, because of the way she is presented, but I see their primary importance as something of value that is hers; either as a talisman, or symbolic barrier against future poverty, or as a physical safety net - valuables that she could sell in the event of an emergency. She might also have just wanted something of beauty in her life, to have near her body . . . something apart from the dreariness of just about every other aspect of her life. Wang Lung taking them from her was heartbreaking. Another of his many low moments in the book.
10. As O-lan dies, she bemoans her lack of beauty and says she is too ugly to be loved. Wang Lung feels guilty, but still cannot love her as he did Lotus. Neither woman can control destiny. Lotus was an orphan who had been sold into prostitution because she was beautiful, and O-lan had been sold as a kitchen slave because she was plain. For whom do you feel sympathy? Why?
I feel far more sympathy for O-lan. Lotus took her lot in life and with it chose to remain a perpetually petulant child; O-lan could have easily become bitter, or peevish, or any number of other things, but instead she kept her dignity and calmly did the things she believed to be her duty, in spite of getting so few benefits from it, and in spite of her awareness that she was greatly undervalued (particuarly by Wang Lung). Even if Wang Lung could never admire her physically, it was (IMO) the very worst part of his character that he was unable to appreciate her (and show her that appreciation) in any other way. Yes, he noticed the ways she made his life easier, but he never thanked her . . . not even, really, in his own mind. He had moments of guilt, yes, but quickly swept those away and continued on as before. I had a great deal of sympathy for O-lan, especially when she died what seemed a premature death. I always felt that the author's implication was that she died as she did because she'd been worked to death; although, in her case, perhaps death was preferable to the life she was forced to live with Wang Lung. Still, we have only rare glimpses of her feelings, so perhaps she had the sort of personality which allowed her to be content in spite of the hardships and inequities in her life.
11. Toward the end of the novel we encounter the belief that things will change "when the poor become too poor and the rich are too rich." Discuss the ambivalence of this statement -- a mixture of both hope and despair -- and how it reflects upon the whole of The Good Earth.
Obviously a reference to revolution . . . which was happening "offstage" throughout much of the book. When the poor become too poor (because, in theory, the rich are hoarding all the wealth), they'll rise up and take it back, as we saw in the southern city. I think there's more to it, though. In the end, we see that it is not a political revolution that will ultimately destroy the legacy Wang Lung left to his sons. Rather, it is a different problem associated with the rich being too rich . . . the boys, raised to wealth, were too rich to understand what it meant and how to respect, manage and maintain it.
12. Pearl Buck wrote a first-person novel from the point of view of a Chinese man, which was controversial because she was of a different culture. What are some of the challenges of this undertaking? How might this book have been different had it been written by a Chinese person? Compare Buck's novel to other books written by authors striving to transcend culture or gender (e.g.: Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone).
Challenges? Finding an authentic voice . . . the most difficult thing, I think, would be to have enough of an understanding or empathy for someone of another culture and gender to create a realistic persona.
As for the second question, it's impossible to know how the book would have been different . . . that's not really a reasonable question, because the book was written as it was by an individual . . . no one else could have created it, so it's really a moot point (and a mildly annoying question, IMO). Perhaps a Chinese author would have had a more "authentic" voice, or chosen different aspects of life on which to focus, but we really have no way of knowing. We have the novel that Pearl Buck wrote. Any novel by a different author would be . . . well, a different novel.
Here are some discussion questions from Oprah's website:
NB: Oprah is presenting these questions in three parts . . . so far, only the first part has been published. I also learned that she is "reading" the book at a spread-out pace . . . only a few chapters each week (I'm not sure of the precise schedule), so the book will take several months to read. I read it straight through, so it's been a bit difficult for me to give clear answers to some of these questions that presume that one has only read the first 10 chapters - I have future knowledge that I'm not "supposed" to have. :D
1. Read the first few paragraphs, which discuss the morning of the Wang Lung's wedding day. What do you notice about the writing and the details provided?
This is our first introduction as to how selfish Wang Lung can be, something I attributed to his youth at that point in the book. Sadly, he never grew out of it. There is also the water imagery which seems to foreshadow the importance of water later on . . . how their fortunes are tied to the land, and the weather that happens upon it.
2. Talk about your first impressions of the simple life of Wang Lung. Does it seem appealing to you? What specifics about Chinese traditions or culture do you learn early in the novel?
No, his life does not seem appealing, but not because of the simplicity . . . rather because I am a woman, and would not (being the person I am at this time) want to find myself transplanted into a culture where I would be considered a slave because of my gender. It's hard for me to say whether or not I'd enjoy the farming life . . . it seems rather dull by comparison to living in the "Information Age" as I do, but actually, it might have been a satisfying life. For a man, or even a woman who was in a family where she was valued (something O-lan obviously did not have in her favour).
Specifics of culture . . . I was aware of most of the general cultural things portrayed, including a surprising (to me) number of things I've learned through studying Feng Shui. I was surprised about Wang Lung purchasing a slave to be his wife. I also found the extreme heirarchy of the society to be interesting . . . the respect that he was forced to show his lay-about uncle (this before we learn about the uncle's banditry). Rather than learning a lot of individual details about Chinese tradition, what was new for me was seeing those things all woven together in a narrative like this . . . a unified picture of Chinese life.
3. How would you describe Wang Lung's attitude towards his wife O-lan? As an arranged marriage, how did you expect their initial union to be?
I didn't perhaps expect their initial union to be any different than it was (although I could have hoped it would be warmer). I was appalled with Wang Lung's attitude toward O-lan, however, and continued to be throughout the book. It is the way he treats her that does not allow me to see him as anything but a selfish, egotistical, compassionless ass. I know the argument here is that he was a man of his times - this was the expectation, his actions were culturally appropriate. Yes, certainly I can understand those arguments, but it doesn't make me like him, nor does it make me feel that his actions were somehow morally acceptable. I believe there are some things that transcend culture, and compassion, gratitude, the ability to empathise with others all fall into that category. Wang Lung was unable to do any of those things. I found him despicable much of the time.
4. What do you think about the fact that O-lan refuses to have anyone with her during her the birth of her first child? She continues working and rises the day after birth to prepare breakfast. What is your impression of this attitude?
I took this for an unwillingness to appear weak in front of people (particularly her husband) who would distain her for her weakness. She could not allow herself to appear as anything but strong, or her value might decrease in their eyes. I do wonder, though, if perhaps this strategy backfired on her . . . if she'd shown more vulnerability, perhaps Wang Lung would have felt more protective of her, and seen that she might have liked being cared for now and again, as she was willing to do for others.
5. Discuss the New Year preparations. What do you find particularly fascinating about them?
The cakes that she baked to take to the Hwang House - making them so much more delicious and beautiful than the ones she made for her own celebration. This seems wrong to me, somehow, but I can understand the desire to impress those who had in the past treated you badly. I was also interested to see that Wang Lung had no issue with this . . . I half expected him to demand that his guests receive the best quality cakes.
6. At the beginning of Chapter Six, it says, "This piece of land which Wang Lung now owned was a thing which greatly changed his life." Talk about how this metaphor for prosperity grows throughout the first 100 pages.
Well, his life is tied to the land in many ways. On the physical level, when the weather is favourable, the land will produce and provide wealth. But I think there is also a symbolic aspect to it, as well. I can't think of much else to say about this right now.
7. What do you think of some of the tangential characters—Wang Lung's father, Uncle, Old Mistress and Uncle's wife? Do you find it curious that none of them have names?
I hadn't noticed until now that none of them were named. The thing I thought curious while reading was that he hadn't named his own sons. So yes, I do find it curious. I suppose it's meant to be seen as a cultural attitude, but considering Wang Lung's egotism, I'm not entirely sure it wasn't just an individual trait of his . . . an inability to see others except as defined by the way they relate to him personally.
8. Poverty and starvation are depicted in stark terms. What are your feelings about the hardship Wang Lung's family—and province—endured in the middle of this section?
They were fortunate to survive. Of course, in a perfect world, this sort of poverty would not happen. But this perfect world has yet to exist on this planet (at least as far as I can tell; it's certainly not that way now). As long as there are people who are determined to put their own greed before any compassion towards others, I think situations like this will exist. I do respect Wang Lung and O-lan both for their ability to survive.
9. In Chapter Nine, Wang Lung cries recklessly, "Oh, you are too wicked, you Old Man in Heaven!" Talk about this in relation to other religious elements in the book so far. What does the Chinese attitude towards religion seem to be?
I found the attitude towards the gods to be rarely neutral, or what I'd consider "healthy." There was an excessive (to my mind) amount of superstition and fear on the part of many people; on the other hand, Wang Lung himself is shamelessly disrespectful of the gods. I don't feel that either stance is correct . . . I think it's good to have respect, yet not live in fear. But that's just me.
10. Talk about the family's sojourn away from their land and the injustice of Wang Lung's treatment by those in his society who have more.
I didn't think there was a lot of injustice shown towards Wang Lung as an individual during this period. It was more the overall situation of inequity between rich and poor which was disturbing. I found the attitudes of those in his home villiage before and after the trip to the city far more interesting. But that's probably going to be another question later on.