Literature / The Good Earth

The Good Earth is a novel by Pearl S. Buck, first published in 1931. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932, and topped the best-seller lists in the United States for 1932 and 1933. It is the first, and much the best known, book in a trilogy which continues in Sons (1932) and A House Divided (1935). Though Buck was an American, she spent most of her early life in China, and The Good Earth is credited with doing much to humanise and demythologise China and Chinese people to Americans. By contrast, the book's unflinching depiction of some of the grimmer aspects of life in China have made it less than popular there.

The story concerns Wang Lung, a pre-revolutionary farmer who works his fingers to the bone to become successful with the help of his arranged-marriage wife O-Lan, only to drift away from his roots when he does achieve success.

The Good Earth was adapted for the stage in 1932, and a film version was released in 1937. The film starred Paul Muni as Wang Lung. For her role as his wife O-Lan, Luise Rainer won an Academy Award for Best Actress. The film also won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, and was nominated for Best Director, Best Film Editing and Best Picture. Despite Pearl Buck's objections, all the leading roles were given to white actors in yellowface.

Contains the following tropes:

  • Arranged Marriage: Two
  • Attempted Rape: Wang Lung's nephew assaults his beautiful younger daughter. He's able to separate them before it can go any further, but the man's complete lack of remorse spurs him to marry the girl off as soon as possible.
  • Beauty Is Bad: Wang Lung's father specifically denies Wang Lung a beautiful woman, saying that a beautiful woman would not make a good wife to him and would only think of material things. He is ultimately right: a pampered, beautiful woman like Lotus with her bound feet would not have been able to work the fields with him. However, the pampered and beautiful Pear Blossom is a kind character who genuinely cares for Wang Lung and the "poor fool" in his old age.
    • Wang Lung's father also points out, probably fairly, that no pretty girl raised as a slave in a large household would be allowed to grow to maturity as a virgin. He tells Wang Lung that it is better to be the first with an ugly girl than the thousandth with a beauty. O-lan later, tragically, confirms that this is true. When discussing her upbringing, she reported that she was beaten every day. Wang Lung asks if that was the case for all the girl slaves, and she responds "Aye, beaten or carried to a man's bed".
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Though Buck was a die-hard feminist, she depicts traditional Chinese practices (such as concubines and foot-binding) fairly straightforwardly.
    • Played with to some extent. Wang Lung never questions his right to take a concubine, and never thinks about the impact it has on O-lan until the day that his young daughter accidentally drops a Truth Bomb on him. The soft-hearted Wang Lung feels sorry for his daughter, who is having her feet bound, and she mentions that her mother has told her that it must be done or that she will never be loved by her future husband; "even as you do not love her". Later, after O-lan's death, Wang Lung can't bring himself to look at Lotus for a while, and he respects O-lan's wishes that Lotus should never come into her rooms or touch her things.
  • The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: O-Lan's illness, which she refers to as "a fire in my vitals": likely cancer. All but confirmed as uterine cancer, when the doctor refers to "a rock the size of a man's head in the womb".
  • Downer Ending: All the sympathetic characters are either dead or no longer sympathetic, Wang Lung has learned absolutely nothing and is just as much of a Jerk Ass - if not more - as when the novel started, and it's heavily implied that Wang Lung's sons are no better than he is, and they won't honor his wishes after his death.
  • Generational Saga
  • Hollywood Mid Life Crisis: Wang Lung has a massive one.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Suspected of Wang Lung's aunt and uncle during a period of famine: They appear much better fed than their neighbors, and some of their children disappear and are never seen again.
  • Impoverished Patrician: The House of Hwang, which is forced to sell most of their properties to Wang Lung
  • Jerk Ass: Wang Lung to variable degrees, particularly his treatment of O-Lan. Many of the characters are none too kind.
  • Karmic Death: Wang Lung's uncle and aunt die of an opium addiction. Invoked because Wang Lung notices their addictions and sends his sons to give them more.
  • May-December Romance: Wang Lung and Pear Blossom
  • Mistaken for Servant: Wang Lung realizes that he, in all respects still a peasant despite his great wealth, would look like a servant next to his well-dressed son. He doesn't like this realization.
  • Morality Pet: Wang Lung develops some affection for his mentally handicapped daughter.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Subverted. When Wang Lung pulls a rickshaw, he gets a generous payment from a foreigner, but he soon realizes that she doesn't know how valuable the payment she gave was.
  • No Name Given: Most characters in the narrative are not named, including all of Wang Lung's relatives and their spouses.
  • Oblivious to Love: It's strongly implied in the novel that O-Lan has fallen in love with Wang Lung (a rarity in old fashioned arranged marriages, especially in China) but Wang Lung mistakes her devotion and obedience as slowness and stupidity, and repays her years of faithful servitude—and her having given birth to several sons, especially a first-born one—by falling in love with another woman, which breaks O-Lan's spirit.
  • Offing the Offspring: A particularly tragic example, when O-lan is implied to have killed her newborn daughter during the famine.
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Subverted. O-lan is indeed the perfect wife to Wang Lung, but since she is not beautiful Wang Lung can't love her.
  • The Quiet One: Wang Lung's third son.
  • Rags to Riches
  • Self-Made Man: Wang Lung.
  • Shaming the Mob: O-Lan manages to disperse an angry, starving mob who try to steal food from the equally poor and starving Wang Lung household.
  • The Sociopath: Wang Lung's uncle.
  • The Stoic: O-Lan
  • Traitor Shot: In the ending, Wang Lung's sons pretend to agree to his Last Request, but look at each other over his eyes and smile, indicating that they intend to go back on their word.
  • Unto Us a Son and Daughter Are Born: The twins.

Tropes unique to the 1937 film:

  • Blade-of-Grass Cut: Some closeups of stalks of wheat.
  • Book Ends: The movie begins with Wang Lung's wedding and ends with his son's wedding.
  • Circling Vultures: They aren't circling. But vultures are seen perched next to a dead dog during the drought, and they are perched and waiting a couple of shots later after the camera catches dead refugees in various states of decomposition along the roads.
  • The Swarm: The big climax has Wang Lung and the villagers setting fires in an attempt to ward off a horde of locusts that threaten to eat their entire harvest.
  • Tempting Fate: Wang Lung starts bragging about his fine sons and his five fields and how everything is awesome. His wife recoils in superstitious fear. Right after this a devastating drought strikes.
  • Time Skip: Multiple time skips shown by the tree O-lan plants in the yard—first a seed, then a sapling, then a full-grown tree.
  • Yellowface: The Chinese characters were played by white actors. Chinese American actress Anna May Wong wanted to play O-Lan; however, she was not allowed to play Paul Muni's wife, due to The Hays Code's anti-miscegenation rule.