Pearl S. Buck deserved her 1938 Nobel Prize. The daughter of missionaries, Buck was raised in China and projected her nuanced understanding of the culture into her beautifully crafted literary works. The Good Earth, arguably her most famous piece, chronicles the life of Wang Lung, a peasant farmer who rises from humble beginnings to establish his Great House in post 1911 Revolutionary China. This protagonist is overshadowed, however, by another character, his wife, O-Lan. All her life a slave, O-Lan is finally “freed” when Wang Lung takes her as his wife.
Early in their relationship, Wang Lung is mesmerized by O-Lan’s shrewd mind and taciturn demeanor. He learns to read her silences and sees her beauty where others do not. Wang Lung marvels at this woman of his, who is able to work beside him in the fields up until the hour of birth of their first born. And only when the labor begins does she go inside, stopping in her effort to prepare his evening meal.
O-Lan’s hard work in the fields brings Wang Lung financial prosperity, and her fecundity brings him pride as son after son is born. It is through O-Lan that Wang Lung is able to ascend the social ladder. He acknowledges this as he gives her silver to buy clothes for their infant son because, “for the first time such giving was not pain” (35). The young couple works in symphony to create a future life together. Though it is evident that Wang Lung respects O-Lan and “falls to pondering about her” despite himself, he can’t help but feel “ashamed of his own … interest in her. She [is], after all, only a woman” (29). And so, love is not once mentioned.
But love is not necessary in post Revolutionary China, a time of clear cultural expectations, defined gender roles, and foot binding (a common practice among the upper social echelons). Ironically, O-Lan’s big, sturdy feet (feet that preoccupy Wang Lung until he eventually finds them repulsive) are what make her formidable. Her physical strength and her sharp mind both result from the understanding that she is considered ugly, unlovable, and unnoticed in the world. Her worth as a woman is dependent on her ability to bear sons and her obedience as a slave. The industry and initiative which lead O-Lan to follow Wang Lung into the fields (allowing for plentiful harvests and the accumulation of wealth), the stunning sense of observation and comprehension which prevent corrupt agents from exploiting Wang Lung in a time of famine (thereby saving him from selling his precious land), are irrelevant in this society. The expectation being merely that O-Lan remain subservient and meek.
While Wang Lung does harbor respect and admiration for O-Lan, often consulting with her regarding important decisions relating to family and finances, he forgets the value of her merits once he discovers Lotus. This delicate concubine with her bound feet so entrances Wang Lung that he must buy her. Despite O-Lan’s pleading and reminding Wang Lung that she has “borne [him] sons” he determines to move Lotus and her servant into the home he shares with O-Lan (194). The egregious affronts continue and Wang Lung justifies all by declaring, “I have been good enough to [O-lan], and there are men worse than I” (203).
Such is the irreconcilable disparity between function and pleasure. Women must either produce fruit (in children or through work) or relinquish their womanhood to become playthings meant to satisfy men. In the end, it is the man who decides when a woman has outlived her worth. With this deep understanding of Chinese culture, Pearl S. Buck is able to authentically portray the complex duality of womanhood and the painful realities with which women contended in early 20th century China.
In the first iteration of womanhood, there is no sense of volition; a woman’s will becomes that of her husband. Likewise, all the credit she deserves falls upon her husband and forms his reputation. These functional woman can be perceived as weak because they are powerless to self-actualize; they depend on their men. Subservience in the face of their true capacities is the only way to survive.
In the second presentation, the women are trapped in the confines of physicality. Whether suffering bound feet (or suffocating corsets, as fashionable in Europe), women are forced into a role they did not choose. The only method of combat is to beguile their captors with skillful manipulation lest they suffer abandonment (a ruthless fate for one whose life cannot sustain in the contrived patriarchal world).
These two images dismiss the third option; a woman who chooses her fate. She may seek fulfillment in her labors, or enjoy the creative process simply because it brings her joy. She can apply her intellect to solve the bigger problems of the world, or she can stay at home to raise honest, good-natured children. She may do any or all simply because she wills it. A woman with her own mind and body has no need of justifying herself to any other, save herself.
Yet nearly a century later, women are still fighting battles as we are burdened with imposed identities determined by others. ISIS fighters are wont to use women’s wombs as weapons. The sex trafficking trade is booming with girls who are abused for the pleasure of men before being discarded. Girls are becoming sexualized at younger and younger ages. Mothers are ridiculed for matronly appearance. Double standards and conflicting expectations abound. It is up to each woman to decide for herself what role she wants to play, and it is our job to support her as she navigates this Man’s World.
Buck, Pearl S. Good Earth. New York: Washington Square Press, 1958.
If you want to know more about culture, revisionist history, and established rules check out my fabulous book talk on Genghis Khan.