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The Good Earth by Pearl Buck
“The Good Earth” by Pearl Buck is the story of a simple farming family set in the early twentieth century in rural China. Wang Lung is an ambitious young man who seems to be in complete control of his destiny. But as a young farmer, he suddenly discovers that the one thing he has no control over is the important rainfall that every farmer depends on and fears. This farmer’s entire existence is controlled by rain, which has the ability to provide him with times of feast, famine, and flood. As Wang grows older, he tries to adapt to the dire times that rain or the lack of rain can bring him, but these conditions prove to be events in Wang’s life.
Wang and his purchased wife O-lan, a former slave, tirelessly cultivate the land with the help of a constant, generous summer rainy season. Wang and O-lan are grateful that the fields and crops are being watered without having to do the hard work of carrying buckets of water slung on a pole over their shoulders. Watering their fields is a small feast for the poor farmers. The small plot that Wang owns produces onions, garlic, rice, beans, corn, wheat and wheat – the fruit of the land. This small feast also helps to provide for domestic animals. The ox that plows the fields is well fed and watered, and a small collection of chickens and pigs is maintained and later consumed. In addition, it can be reasonably argued that Wang’s boys were well nourished during childhood with the healthy breast milk provided by O-lan.
During harvest, Wang is wise to sell most of his crops at market, while keeping enough food supplies for his family’s consumption during the long, cold Chinese winters. Unlike Wang’s uncle, who is also a farmer but much less successful, Wang hangs food on the rafters of his house for winter use. At the market, Wang, despite his illiteracy, shrewdly knows how to sell his crops when prices are high, while saving crops that will be sold at low prices for future times when prices are favorable. Much to Wang’s delight, his business acumen lands him a prized silver coin that he eagerly slips into his belt. Any extra silver is secretly hidden in the walls of their house for future use. Wang has great respect and understanding for his hard-earned silver because it not only represents security for him, his father and his family, but is also saved for the purchase of more valuable farmland. After buying rice land from the Hwang house, he shouts, “It means nothing to those in the big house, this handful of land, but it means so much to me!” All this rain provides Wang and his family.
But it can reasonably be said that what the rain gives, the rain can also take away. It is not difficult for the reader to see that everything is going too well for the modest farming family. Could lean time be coming? Can Wang’s fertile land fail them? Because the earth can only produce what the rainfall provides. The rains that were supposed to come in early summer held back, and day by day the sky shone with a fresh and careless glow. As the sky dries up and the clouds grow reluctant, 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 barren. He has nothing to sell at the market and almost nothing to feed his family. Animals are either starving or poached for food. The villagers remain numb from hunger and idle like scattered leaves. Children are particularly hard hit because their bodies resemble bony skeletons except for their hungry, swollen bellies. Desperation sets in as people are forced to eat grass, tree bark and even dirt. Even worse, Wang’s neighbor Ching reports his horror: “They eat human flesh in the village.”
A prolonged and relentless drought turns the villagers into evil, rabid dogs who resort to stealing from each other in mob fashion, including the last scraps of Wang’s dried beans and corn. This is a terrible event for Wang as he is without food for O-lan who is with their fourth child and her breasts are now barren and unable to feed their baby girl. The little girl cried once because of hunger, but she became silent. She was never the same because of hunger. O-lan’s strength in carrying their fourth child is a testament to her inner strength. What an agony of starvation this woman endured, as the starving creature gnawed at her from the inside, desperate for her own life! How difficult must it have been for O-lan to mercifully squeeze the life out of a malnourished, weak newborn? In better times it would have been a sin to take the life of a baby, but in such desperate, unearthly times it was probably for the better. The child, born as a female, made the young mother’s morbid decision easier. O-lan proves to be the rock and foundation of the family, and her strength and devotion to her family remain unnoticed until the moment of her death.
Years later after the rains have visited Wang’s lands again and civilized life has returned to the village, Wang faces another natural event that affects the average, routine life of this ordinary farmer. Excessive rainfall fills the river in the north and the runoff of winter snow causes the mighty river to burst its banks. The great sea is now swallowing Wang’s fields. All forms of planting, growing and harvesting cease and no work can be done. Fortunately, Wang was prepared to lose weight because he had wisely stored food rations and owed him a sum of money from the grain market. But now Wang faces a different kind of difficulty that changes his life in an unexpected way. The lack of work in the fields leaves Wang idle and unsure of what to do with his time. To occupy himself, Wang drinks tea at a tea house in town. There he watches in horror as men gamble and mingle with wicked women. But Wang becomes influenced and cannot resist the temptation of a young and beautiful woman. He chose one of the most beautiful, small, slender things, a body as light as bamboo and a small face as pointed as the face of a kitten. Wang’s wealth affords him the luxury of purchasing a young girl as his lover, and when the flood waters recede, O-lan finds himself sharing his home with the 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 had once been.
In Wang’s old age, he does not look back on all that the rain has given his life. Instead, he looks back on the vast fields he has acquired with great satisfaction. He is very proud of his flock of children and grandchildren. As Wang looks ahead to his death, he takes comfort in knowing that he will be buried on his land with the rest of his family.
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