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Much has been written about Pearl Buck's style of writing in The Good Earth. One critic calls it "almost Biblical," while others compare it to ancient folk epics. Another critic describes it as a mixture of the King James Version of the Bible and a traditional Chinese epic.
A writer's style can't always be traced to the influences of his or her childhood reading, but in Pearl Buck's case the two influences mentioned above did exist. As the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, Buck was brought up on the Bible. And although she read widely in English literature, she also read Chinese novels.
As Buck herself explained, Chinese novels were written for a wide popular audience. They developed from the tales that professional storytellers once told to a crowd of people sitting on the ground around them, at a time when most Chinese-like most people everywhere-could neither read nor write. Buck translated one of these Chinese novels into English, and she lectured and wrote on the popular art of the Chinese novel.
Buck wrote The Good Earth at great speed, finishing it in three months. It was as though the story and all its characters had been growing in her mind like seeds in the earth, until the right moment came for them to blossom in the pages of her novel.
Buck's writing style reflects this swift stream of inspiration. There is nothing forced or difficult about her style. Her sentences and paragraphs flow clearly and easily, without effort. She tells us Wang Lung's thoughts and feelings in the simple words in which a farmer who could not read or write might think and feel them.
Because her characters are not given to much talk, she does not use much dialogue. When they do talk, their turns of phrase seem to suggest that they are talking in their native language. Yet every word and every sentence they utter is good, simple English.
Try reading aloud some passages of dialogue from the novel. See if you can tell what makes them sound as though they might be speaking Chinese. Is it perhaps the rhythm, rather than the words? Buck once said that she thought out all her stories in Chinese first, before writing them down in English.
POINT OF VIEW
The Good Earth is a third-person narrative, but the story it tells is Wang Lung's. Everything that happens is described as he experiences it and as it affects him. The narrator explains Wang Lung's thoughts and feelings but almost never those of other characters. You understand them through their words and actions.
This is obviously a rather limiting way of telling a story. In staying strictly within Wang Lung's experience, the narrator can't be all-knowing. You might think that the novel could have been written in the first person, with Wang Lung as the "I." But this hero is an uneducated, indeed an illiterate farmer, and if the story were told in his words the novel would be limited not only to his experiences but to his vocabulary. In using the third-person form the narrator has somewhat more scope.
Yet the scope is quite limited. For example, when O-lan brings a bowl of tea to her husband on the first morning of their marriage, you know that she is afraid of him only because he sees the fear in her expression. Later you see that O-lan comes to trust her husband from the way that she goes about her work, taking her full share of the toil as an equal partner, and also from the way she offers advice to Wang Lung on the rare occasions when a crisis moves her to break her customary silence.
Just as the characters are described only as they affect Wang Lung, every event is told only as it relates to him. Drought, flood, locusts-all are part of the story only as they affect Wang Lung. Wars are fought all over China and robber bands plunder and murder in the villages, but we learn of these dire events only as Wang Lung does. His uncle turns out to be a member of a notorious band of brigands. He learns that a robber band raided the House of Hwang during the famine. His cousin brings a band of soldiers into his house. He learns that his third son has become a high official in the "revolution."
The narrator does not explain aspects of Chinese life that would be outside of Wang Lung's knowledge or comprehension, even though they might be interesting to a European or American reader. The novel pursues an unswerving story line, faithfully following the experience of the central character. Wouldn't you think that this would be too narrow a point of view to be interesting? Would you expect one simple Chinese peasant's life in a remote country village to make an absorbing, suspenseful story?
FORM AND STRUCTURE
The Good Earth is a novel in the form of a biography. The story is told chronologically from the hero's young manhood to his old age, a period covering roughly forty years.
The novel is made up of thirty-four chapters and falls into two main parts. The first fourteen chapters establish Wang Lung's commitment to the land and depict his solid family relationships with his wife and father. His achievement of modest prosperity is followed by a sudden reversal in the form of poverty and famine which drives him and his family to the city to beg and perform hired labor. Chapters 11 to 14, which take place in the city, provide a striking contrast to the earlier depiction of country life and its traditional values. The climax of the first part of the book occurs in Chapter 14 when city unrest leads Wang and his wife, O-lan, to join a raid on a rich man's house. The money and jewels they steal enable them to return to the land. The illegal gain proves the turning point of Wang's life and fortune.
The second part of The Good Earth follows Wang's fortunes from his return to his village, through his acquisition of more and more land (Chapters 15 to 19), to his eventual acquisition of the mansion of the former grand family of the district, the Hwangs (Chapters 26 to 29). His rise in wealth and status is accompanied by his fall from a state of contentment as he alienates himself from the land and his family. The last five chapters reveal the price Wang pays for his wealth. He is alone; his wife is dead and so is his father. His sons are unsympathetic to traditional ways and to the land, and even his grandchildren laugh at him for his old-fashioned ways. He moves back to his farmhouse with a young slave girl who acts as a daughter and with his own mentally retarded daughter whom nobody else would care for.