The Good Earth
Ah! It's the all-American success story. The poor, small-town boy makes it to the big city and comes back rich. Except, you know, that Wang Lung is Chinese. And sure, he makes it to the city and gets rich, but this is no happy ending.
The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck's best-selling novel, has a pretty simple story. Wang Lung is a farmer who tries hard, even through bad times, and eventually makes it rich. He is tempted over and over again by the vices of wealth, but he always comes back to his roots and to the land.
The book became an instant hit. It was the best-selling novel in 1931 and 1932, and it was translated into more than 30 languages. It also won the Pulitzer Prize (and nearly every other prize that it could win), and helped Buck become the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize. Plus, it was made into a $2.8 million movie, which was a huge deal at the time. Not bad for your second try at a novel.
Timing was everything for the book's popularity. America was in the middle of the Great Depression, so Americans saw themselves reflected in Wang Lung's suffering. The novel also appeared shortly before the beginning of World War II. The United States would be allied with Chinese forces against the Japanese, and the novel helped to humanize Chinese people for American audiences. Instead of choosing intellectuals or upper-class Chinese as her subjects, Buck chose normal, everyday people who did normal, everyday things. That appealed to—you guessed it—normal, everyday Americans.
Before you start thinking that Buck was a goody-two-shoes, there was some controversy. Even though it wasn't her fault, the movie adaptation of The Good Earth used white actors in yellowface for all of the main roles. That wasn't a problem at the time, but it's pretty clear now that was more than a little racist.
The other controversy happened in China. In the 1930s, Buck was just as popular there as she was in the United States, but after the Communist revolution in the 1940s, her books were banned. By the 1960s, she was considered an enemy of China and a symbol of American cultural imperialism. It became so bad that right before she died in 1972, Buck still wasn't allowed to return to China.
We know that's sad, but cheer up, Shmoopers: there's some good news. In 2004, Oprah Winfrey chose The Good Earth to be part of her book club, and the book became more popular than it had been in decades. She's become more popular recently in China, too, and people are starting to look at her works anew to find out who this lady was and what she had to say.
Why Should I Care?
We see you sitting there with your arms crossed, looking at us like, "Go ahead, Shmoop. Tell me why I should care about a poor Chinese farmer in the early 1900s. I dare you." All right. Challenge accepted.
Let's not go with the obvious: Wang Lung's rags-to-riches story is universal. Isn't that why we watch reality TV shows? To see some kid from the sticks make it big like Justin Bieber?
But how about this: you know what you have in common with an early 20th century farmer? You live on the earth—only she's been looking a little worse for the wear lately. You know: melting ice caps, dying honeybees, and water so polluted that it gives entire villages cancer—stuff that really takes a toll on a planet.
Back in the day, Wang Lung was pretty sure that the bounty of the earth wasn't going anywhere. There was so much of everything, it didn't seem possible to him that people might lose it some day. Today? We're not so sure.
After hundreds of years treating the earth like dirt (ba-dum ching), we're starting to remember its importance. So everywhere you go, it's "green" this or "organic" that. Suddenly it's hip to care about the earth again.
But you know who could have told us that our lives were dependent on the earth a long time ago? That's right: a little farmer named Wang Lung, dreamed up by a lady named Pearl.