THE GOOD EARTH / Pearl S. Buck. 1931 (260)
First Sentence: “It was Wang Lung’s marriage day.”
Prevailing Narrative Voice: A close third person hovering over the shoulder of Wang Lung, the main character, viewing the world almost exclusively through his senses. In the opening pages of THE GOOD EARTH the narrative voice utilizes each of Wang Lung’s senses as narrative input; his sight, hearing, touch particularly and then frequently dipping into the emotional excitement of his pending marriage night.
What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: Wang Lung is a farmer living with his father in a three-room, mud and straw dwelling. The day begins with a blend of the ordinary and the exceptional, his father’s ritualistic early morning “faint gasping cough” and Wang Lung’s attempt to make the house look more presentable for his bride. Wang Lung is excited and apprehensive. In the first few paragraphs the author shows Wang Lung inside his dark hut glimpsing out to the sky and his fields with the promise of rain on the gentle wind. It is an omen that promises new life for his wheat and his pending new family.
What the reader learns in the first ten pages: The author gradually paces Wang Lung through the beginning pages with the care of his father and his house with many comments on how life will be different with a woman in the house. The reader learns that everything they have is hard-won from the earth. For example as Wang Lung prepares his father’s morning bowl of warm water he splurges with two small flavorful leaves of tea. He debates the wisdom of using all their water to bathe in preparation of the evening to follow. His most recent full body bath was the previous fall. With each debate and decision he justifies his small gratifications with the promise of moisture on the wind that will bring rain. By the end of the tenth page we have not yet met his bride, a slave in a wealthy man’s house, but the reader is well on the way to that meeting. Wang Lung is a cautious man by nature, he deliberates each of his decisions, particularly as they affect the small amount of silver in his purse. It is interesting to note that the reader meets Wang Lung on an extraordinary day, which creates unusual excitement. An ordinary day would be spent in the fields, as opposed to his journey to town where he buys meat, has a shave, and goes to a great house. This unusual beginning heightens the reader’s experience of everyday life in a remote village, which was Pearl S. Buck’s intention with this story – to introduce Western readers to the East.
Character: The reader primarily meets Wang Lung and his father in the opening paragraphs and the following ten pages of narrative. There are the occasional voices of other folks as Wang Lung ventures into town to meet his bride. The generational relationship between father and son is a gentle metaphor of young man caring for older father. Wang Lung is respectful, patient and dutiful as his father expects. The father is crotchety, irascible and grateful, as is his right. Through brief, often wordless, exchanges between father and son the author reveals character aspects of these two men as well as the character of men of this region, time and place. It would be easy to see – and perhaps Buck is making this point – these characters as farmers on the plains of Nebraska, or Poland, or Guatemala. There is a universal understanding of type that Buck suggests, one that communicates clearly through the personal actions of one man in the early morning hours preparing for his wedding day.
Setting: The opening sentences place the reader into Wang Lung’s world. After the opening sentence that sets a tone of excitement and premonition for Wang Lung, the narrative brings us to consciousness of Wang Lung’s world through his first waking moments. The second sentence has him “opening his eyes in the blackness of the curtains about his bed.” With each successive sentence Wang Lung experiences his waking world via sight, sound, and sensation and the reader comprehends the setting from behind Wang Lung’s closed, sleepy eyes, building to the dawning panorama of earth and sky over an endless landscape with Wang Lung thanking Heaven for the blessing of wife and rain, a metaphor of one particular man in a small farming area in a vast and limitless world governed by forces well beyond Man’s influence. While the narrator does not say China, per se, Wang Lung’s name and the customs described are particularly rural Chinese.
Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page: The gradual pace of the first pages of this story leads this reader to expect the full story of Wang Lung’s wedding day. As this is a special day, one that has taken Wang Lung away from his fields and responsibilities, this reader would expect for the next chapters to show what every-day life holds. Some of his predictions and wishes will come true, some will not. That’s life. When I mentioned I was reading THE GOOD EARTH to a friend, she clucked her tongue said how sad a book it is. I don’t see that in the first ten pages, and yet I feel prepared for a story of life rising out of the earth like wheat and eventually making its return to dust. The eternal or endless cycle, depending on how one views the flow of life.
Random Comments: Pearl S. Buck was born in West Virginia in 1892 but raised in China by missionary parents. In writing THE GOOD EARTH and several other books about Asian culture she hoped to bring about a better understanding “between the peoples of Asia and the West.” [Author notes, Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster, 1939] She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for THE GOOD EARTH and it was made into a play in 1932 (not successful) and a major motion picture in 1937 (wildly successful). As a book, it remained on the bestseller list for its first two years and returned to the list in 2004 when it was placed on Oprah’s Book Club. THE GOOD EARTH is one of those books that, supposedly, no one escapes High School without reading…except me. I won’t escape grad school in the same fashion. I intend to read the remaining 250 pages right away.