Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Good Earth

The Good Earth starts with Wang Lung's wedding day. He ventures out to the wealth house of Hwang to retrieve his wife, a humble slave girl, O-Lan. She is a hard worker, and he treats with the appropriate diffidence that was expected in the culture. Wang Lung is a farmer and loves to work the land. In part due to some financial difficulties in the wealthy landowners, he is able to buy a little bit of land for himself. Through the years he is able to acquire more, and eventually (due in part to some jewels pilfered by his wife), he is able to become a wealthy landowner. In the end, his family moves into the house previously occupied by the house of Hwang. However, he longs to return to the land, and lives his dying days in the old farmhouse. He has gone full circle, even to the extent that his sons are now contemplating selling the land. Wang Lung does not want that and makes them promise not to do it.

The novel provides a glimpse into peasant life of pre-communist China. The cultural norms are foreign to us (and probably even to modern Chinese), but are believable representations of an illiterate, hard-working peasant life. Wang Lung is able to end his life knowing that his family is now in control of a great deal of land. However, the communist revolution would come within a generation and collectivise all of the land. Even if internal conflict would not destroy the family, the external factors would eradicate the material achievements. Did they really make themselves much better by obtaining all the wealth?

During the course of the novel, we also see conflicted emotions in the characters. Wang Lung always always respects his wife as a great worker, but his love and compassion ebbs and flows. Many of the difficulties in their relationship are brought about by financial gain. (While the physical trials are often the high point of their relationship.) His relationship with his uncle was also conflicted. He was a greedy hanger-on. But, he was also the leader of a robber gang and provided protection. We see Wang Lung and his many defects, but we also see great compassion (taking care of his sick wife, and making sure his handicapped child is cared for.) Similarly, most of the other characters are well rounded, with even the most vile characters often having positive attributes.

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