Both Rudyard Kipling and Pearl Buck provided their readers with a realistic view of life in the East. Kipling’s Kim was a detailed account of the variety of life in India at the end of the 19th century. Buck’s The Good Earth, chronicled the lives of a peasant family in China as it dealt with the challenges and obstacles of famine, poverty, and oppression. Both authors were very successful in conveying the problems of everyday life in the East to Western readers: each work was hugely popular and captured the imagination of the West by supplying vivid details and characterization through a realistic lens—a lens that only could have been supplied by an author who had personally been there and seen first-hand how life was led in China and India. For that reason, Kim and Buck were able to convey a real sense of the East to people in the West who had never experienced it for themselves but who could, in a world on the brink of globalization, finally experience it through the artistic novel form and obtain a better sense of what the world was like on the other side of the Earth.
The extent of Buck’s success in conveying the problems of everyday life for an ordinary peasant family in 19th-20th century China can be measured in the stunning descriptions and realism found on every page of The Good Earth. Buck’s style of writing is simple and direct and not encumbered by abstract or metaphorical prose that obliterates the narrative structure of some works. Buck’s method of telling the story is straight-forward and the introduction to the saga of Wang Lung and his family is given with precision and simplicity: “It was Wang Lung’s marriage day” (Buck 1) is how the novel spanning decades during which the ups and downs of tremendous dramatic swings are experienced begins. This easy introduction into the world of the Chinese is inviting for the Western reader, as it does not forbid entrance with any circumspect or indecisive approach in which the author questions her own ability to tell the story. She simply begins to tell and she tells it without pomposity, condescension or irony. The words are free of any malicious intent: there is, instead, a great spirit of sympathy that is intertwined with Buck’s descriptions of Wang Lung and the other characters, such as O-Lan and “Poor Fool,” the wealthy landowners who gradually lose their wealth as a result of over-spending and opium usage, and many others who populate the novel.
Buck’s sympathetic portrayal of these people helped Western audiences to understand them more deeply and on a personal level. The story of Wang Lung, who at times acts nobly and at other times acts reprehensibly (for instance, when he betrays O-Lan and gives her jewels to his concubine) reveal the true extremes to which a man can go—extremes that Western readers would appreciate as they themselves in their own histories involving wars and revolutions experienced. At the same time, Buck does not twist or manipulate her characters into the kind of larger than life heroes and legends that are found in the Old World myths or in Romantic novels. Buck’s characters are common, down-to-earth: they do not express profound sentiments that would seem alien to a peasant’s way of thinking; their concerns are primarily in the here and now. Wang Lung wants to own land. He wants to work hard and obtain savings for his family. His children face sickness. His wife sacrifices the life of her child that the others in the family might live. When they are in the city, they are swept along with the common mob that enters into the home of the wealthy man: they are not apart or separate from these incidents but are rather right there involved in them, caught up in the tides of events as they are happening at the moment. Wang Lung seeks to hide from the Chinese army when in the city because he does not want to be conscripted. A Western reader could surely appreciate this fear, even if it does not seem particularly honorable. However, Wang’s honor is depicted in other ways—such as when his son brings home a slab of meat that he has stolen. Wang Lung throws it on the ground and refuses to eat stolen meat because he wants to teach his children not to steal:
“Beggars we may be but thieves we are not” (Buck 111). This sentiment could be appreciated and respected by any Western reader—but so too could O-Lan’s when she picks up the meat and cooks it to feed her family in spite of what Wang Lung says. Buck depicts this action without commentary, neither praising nor condemning her actions. The author simply tells what happens and lets the reader process it. The Western reader is almost sure to sympathize with O-Lan: She knows what is in the child’s heart, that he only stole in order to feed the family and that Wang Lung’s pride is more the motivation for his expressing himself in this manner. There is nothing in these characters that rings out as particularly unique: they are, instead, manifestations or representations of people in China found in everyday life, everywhere one looks—a people suffering from disadvantage, dealing with hunger, trying to keep a family together while attempting to hold on to their own sense of dignity and pride.
The story is also not without its own enchantment, however. Just as every Westerner is familiar with the concept of the American Dream, Buck puts this kind of dream within the heats of her characters and allows it to come true, if only by way of happenstance. Wang Lung and O-Lan just so happen to be swept up by the mob as it enters into the wealthy man’s home, and he just so happens to pay Wang Lung in order to be spared, and O-Lan just so happens to find jewels in the house which she takes. Again, Buck does not condemn her characters but rather depicts them with empathy, showing that though they did not set out to rob or extort, when given the option of taking from the wealthy to benefit themselves, they do not let the opportunity pass. They see it is an instance in which they can finally obtain the dream they desire for themselves.
In short, Buck is able to appeal to the Western sentiment by showing ordinary lives of an ordinary Chinese family. She does not sentimentalize their struggles or romanticize them. She presents them simply and without affectation, judgment or commentary. She also gives them the opportunity to pursue what every Westerner also seeks to pursue—that is, the dream of prosperity and wealth; the Chinese spin, of course, is that no matter how hard an individual works, the environment and the plight of the…