Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Good Earth - Book Review

Golden Lines:

He went in, then, and she lay there upon the bed, her body scarcely raising the cover.  She lay alone.
"Where is the child?" he asked.
She made a slight movement of her hand upon the bed and he saw upon the floor the child's body.
"Dead!" he exclaimed.
"Dead," she whispered.
He stooped and examined the handful of its body - a wisp of bone and skin - a girl.  He was about to say, "But I heard it crying - alive - " and then he looked at the woman's face.   Her eyes were closed and the color of her flesh was the color of ashes and her bones stuck up under the skin - a poor silent face that lay there, having endured to the utmost, and there was nothing he could say.

Short and Sweet Summary:

Wang Lung is a poor Chinese man who lives hand to mouth with his old father, his wife O-Lan and their children.  Wang Lung watches the rich city men and despises the way they treat those so much less fortunate but at the same time dreams that one day he will have a life even better than theirs.  With hard-working O-Lan by his side and a unwavering loyalty to his land, Wang Lung is able to do just that.  As he prospers Wang Lung finds himself making decisions that as a poor man he would have never dreamed of and dealing with the consequences of those decisions.     

My Initial Response:

I read this book as a part of the Classics Book Club Read Along.  I really didn’t have any expectations for the book…I’ve, of course, heard of it many times through the years but never really knew past the general synopsis what the book was all about. I became addicted to the characters very early in the reading...especially the character O-Lan. O-lan is a character like none other that I can think of. Calling her a tough cookie would be an understatement.  Working in the fields beside her husband all morning, giving birth to a child on her "lunch break" and returning to the fields is what O-Lan is all about.  Needless to say, modern women are weenies compared to O-Lan. 

What I Liked:

There is so much embedded in the story about the Chinese culture and history that I wanted and still want to know more about…for an author who I was totally unfamiliar with and a setting with which I had no experience, I was completely swept into this story. 

The details are vivid...I could see the city with its brick walls separating the rich from the poor,  my bones ached from hard work, and my stomach growled from hunger.  I shivered with the families as they struggled to stay warm during the nights living outside those walls and I felt the fear and helplessness in many of the female characters who were tossed around.  I didn't "like" these feelings, but for an author to be able to pull a reader (me) in so completely was astounding.

O-Lan - I totally was not expecting what happened to O-Lan and I didn't feel badly for Wang Lung when it happened...even though like many men, he realized that maybe he hadn't had it so bad after all.  Too bad!  O-Lan gave Wang Lung everything she had and was willing to work herself to the bone for his pleasure…but he still wasn’t satisfied. O-Lan was honest, hard-working, loyal, smart, a good mother, and in her own way I think she loved Wang Lung...she wanted him to be happy with their life and she had absolutely no hidden agendas.

The ending - I’m still chewing on the ending…The Good Earth doesn't end happily, but I don’t think there was another way. If the story had all ended “nicely,” it wouldn’t have been realistic. Wang Lung wanted everything he saw the city men had...whether or not it was pertinent to his life. Obviously there should be consequences for selfishness and greed.  He even managed to use something good (education) against his own children.  While I think he truly wanted what was best for his sons, I do think he wanted what was best for his sons for the wrong reasons. He was blinded by his jealousy of the city men whom he had bad mouthed his entire life and used his sons as the end this comes back to "bite him in the butt" as I like to say. 

I think there are so many life lessons here…namely being satisfied with what you have. Wang Lung spent most of his life working to obtain more…how would his life have been different and how much more happiness and less heartbreak would he have had to bear if he had just been satisfied with enough?

What I Didn't Like:

The Good Earth is an emotional roller coaster ride.  I did have some prior knowledge about the repression of women in Chinese society but to hear it spoken as in normal conversation and accepted as “the way things are” amongst men, women and children of all classes broke my heart.

I tried not to harbor much resentment toward Wang Lung because much of his behavior was expected of  a man his age and place in society. The survival and future of his family depended on Wang Lung acting his about complicated. Even if Wang Lung wanted to change things, it would have been impossible.  It became more and more difficult for me to like Wang Lung as the story went on, however, because he knew in his heart some of his actions were wrong, yet he chose to do them anyway. 
I was furious when Wang Lung began visiting the tea house. I wanted to yell for Wang Lung to get out of there and go back home…to remember where he came from and all the lean years he’d survived with his family. I was absolutely nauseous when Wang Lung took O-Lan’s pearls…at that moment he officially becomes all that he used to despise in the fat oily rich men behind the brick walls. 
My absolute last straw was the character Lotus.  Wang Lung brought this pretty much worthless woman into his household. Wang Lung had always complained about the extra mouths to feed when and if they could not pull their own weight so to speak…and then he himself brings in pretty much dead weight to just sit around and be pretty…and service him when he pleased. I thought Wang Lung so much smarter than that and it disappointed me to see that he could be duped just as easily as any other man…by a pretty woman.
The character Cukoo was ridiculous and grated on my every nerve…she has essentially sold her soul to the devil and capitalized on the objectification of women…money has become her most important asset regardless of her own self worth and pride. I pitied her as much as I felt angry with her.

What complicated all these emotions for me even more was that there were times when I could see how Wang Lun could possibly think of making some of the decisions he had to make...selling a daughter so that the rest of the family (5 other lives) could survive?  Everybody sold their daughters...if a child was born a girl, that child was called a slave...and disposed of one way or another as quickly as a true slave in another household or as a wife.  So, not such a bad thing, right??  Before you answer that question, remember I have 3 daughters :/ I'm not sure it's possible for me to completely comprehend this cultural belief.
During the war especially and the times of starvation, we all like to be high and mighty and say that we would never steal or take advantage of anyone, but how many of us know what war and starvation are like??  What would you do to save your children?

Anyone who enjoys history particularly history pertaining to the Chinese Revolution will like this novel...although it is probably more of an ethnography than a history of the in depth portrait of the Chinese people and their culture is presented in such a way that the reader while following the story accidently learns some history ;)
And, very obviously anyone with an interest of any kind in the historical treatment of women whether in China or not will find this novel an absolute must read.
This is the story of a family...its struggle to survive and prosper against all odds...and the consequences of that prosperity.


  1. This sounds like an important and heartbreaking work. The "golden lines" you included are so sad.

  2. "heartbreaking" is the perfect word, Brenna...

  3. This book had the same effect on me, and I think that is the point. I felt as though I was in China and was struggling along with everyone else.

  4. Great review, I'm loving the new format (not that I didn't love it before). This is one of those classics I've never managed to read. It really sounds like I've been missing something. Thanks for inspiring me to add this to my list.

  5. Peggy, it was amazingly real, wasn't it...

    Martha, this is definitely one to read...once you get started, you won't be able to stop.

  6. I picked this up in my local bookstore yesterday and contemplated it. Thanks for the review. I'm stopping by to let you know that I've passed along One Lovely Blog Award to your blog, because I so enjoy it. Follow the link to check it out and much book blogging love.

  7. This was one of my favourite reads of last year. A lot of it is heartbreaking, like you and Brenna were saying, but it's such a good story.

  8. This is a book I have to read. I've heard so much about it. You review is amazing!