Rather than post a plot summary of this book, I’d rather take you through my thoughts about the story as I went along.
This book blew all my expectations out of the water, simply put. I expected to read a great, miserable saga of poverty and survival. When Wang Lung buys his first addition to his family’s land, I saw it as a pivotal moment of folly, spending his last bit of money instead of saving, a gateway to a future of pain and degradation. For awhile, my suspicions were confirmed, but then the family’s fortunes reverse, and the sting of starvation wasn’t quite as harsh. As the family became wealthier, I had to change my reading perspective. I began to see that this wasn’t a book about the misery of poverty, but the misery of wealth – not a terribly common sentiment at the time. There were, of course, books like House of Mirth, which showed how miserable the upper echelons of society could be, but even House of Mirth concentrates on the misery of the lesser elements of rich society, the hangers-on, those trying to retain their wealth. Not those at the very top, in any case. I can’t recall a single pre-1930s book offhand (though I’m sure there are some) that discuss how horrible it is to be the very richest among one’s compatriots, and to have the ability to get whatever one desires. They are always about the struggle to get more, or the struggle to retain what one once had. Not so with The Good Earth.
So my expectation changed, and I read the book with my new point of view in mind, until near the end, when everything changed for me again. By the time I finished, I realized two things. Maybe not everyone will interpret The Good Earth this same way, but this is what I got out of the book. First, whether a person is rich or poor, they will have moments of happiness and moments of misery. Their lives will be complicated, and there will be little rest. Second, every person’s life is more important to themselves than to anyone else. Just as Wang Lung hardly notices his sons, for example, and thinks of them only in relation to him, they, at the end, hardly notice him, and even while taking care of him, only think of him in relation to them. We are an inherently self-focused species. It didn’t take a selfish character to make me see this, but rather only a contrast of ordinary people in different stages of life. It was brilliant.
There is so much that can be talked about in this book – the treatment of women in that time/place, the value of family, the value of land, poverty versus wealth, and more. It’ll be a fun book to discuss next month at my book club. The book is written with complete naked honesty, and in the end it’s neither miserable nor hopeful. It is simple in style, very realistic in everything it discusses, and universal in its themes. I’m glad I own this one, and will likely read it again someday.