The Good Earth

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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.


Tropes used in The Good Earth include:
  • Arranged Marriage
  • Homage: The last part of the story, to King Lear. As a Shout-Out, Wang Lung consistently refers to his mentally impaired daughter (the only child he winds up caring for in the end) as his "poor fool", a quote from Lear about Cordelia ("My poor fool is hang'd").
  • Impoverished Patrician: The House of Hwang, which is forced to sell most of their properties to Wang Lung
  • Jerkass: Wang Lung to variable degrees, particularly his treatment of O-Lan. Actually, most of the characters could fall under this trope,
  • Karmic Death: Wang Lung's uncle and aunt (both of whom are complete monsters) die of an opium addiction. invoked because Wang Lung notices their addictions and sends his sons to give them more.
  • 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.
  • 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 by falling in love with another woman, which breaks O-Lan's spirit
  • 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 Disease That Shall Not Be Named: O-Lan's illness, likely cancer.
  • Unto Us a Son and Daughter Are Born: The twins.
  • Wife Husbandry: Wang Lung and Pear Blossom
  • Yellowface: The Chinese characters were played by white actors. Chinese American actress Annas 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.