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Portrayal of Women in The Good Earth
The Good Earth focuses around the life of a Chinese peasant, Wang Lung, who struggles to overcome a poverty-stricken life. The accounts of Wang Lung's life portray traditional China. One prominent aspect of this story is how women were depicted in society. The role of women in China is woven throughout the novel. Depending on their social status, each female character within the novel gives readers a different perspective of a woman's role during this period. In addition to their roles, the author includes the trials and tribulations these women must face as well. As a whole, the importance of these female characters are based upon their contribution to the ego's of the male protagonists and as being providers of support to both family and order in society. In Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth, women are depicted to be consistent with the authentic Chinese culture of that period.
Paul A. Doyle, a literary critic, remarks that Buck's stories were improbable and simplistic (Chauhan, 1994, 120). He later adds: "In structure, The Good Earth uses a chronological form which proceeds at a fairly regular pace. Buck's stories take the epic rather than dramatic form, that is to say, they are chronological narratives of a piece of life, seen from one point of view, straightforward, without devices; they have no complex plots, formed of many strands skillfully twisted, but belong to the single-strand type, with the family, however, rather than the individual as a unit (Buck 35). As Wang Lung and his father begin this family strand, one by one characters are introduced from Wang's viewpoint. In regards to women in his society, he objectively portrays them for what they are worth. In spite of his smooth surface, the novel shows a complicated feminism. On the one hand, the woman's situation is clearly, almost gruesomely, presented: Chinese village society is patriarchal, oppressive, and stultifying to women (Hayford, 1994, 25). The clearest illustration of this occurs through O-lan, the wife of Wang Lung.
O-lan comes about in the first chapter of the novel. At the age of ten, her parents sell her off to the Great House of Hwang, where the village's wealthiest landowner resides.
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After Wang Lung's marriage to O-lan, she starts to understand her new role as a farmer's wife. O-lan's presence brings great changes to the family (Gao, 2000, 92). She acts more as a servant to Wang Lung rather than a marital partner. O-lan not only takes over many of the household responsibilities, but she is also striving to find ways to please Wang Lung. When she prepares hot water for his father, she says, "I took no tea to the Old One-I did as you said." Wang continues to work as hard as he did before their marriage, but life is more luxurious with her presence. After working all day in the fields, he comes home to a clean house and a meal prepared for him. The next day O-lan goes to the city to pick up droppings from the animals and uses them to fertilize their fields, never once being asked to do any of these chores. Day by day, O-lan accompanies Wang out in the fields without a single complaint about the hard labor.
O-lan's diligence is typical of Chinese peasant women, however; she exceeds that of peasant women in general. One critic, Barbara LeBar, (1998), points out that O-lan makes a mockery of modern "natural" childbirth. She simply has a child, and bears it alone- without a doctor, midwife, or husband (Gao, 2000, 96). This is a valid point but LeBar overlooks the lack of affection O-lan receives throughout her life. Growing up as a slave, she is expected to work through her struggles on her own. By living in an environment without any affection from anyone, she adapts to a life without sympathy. So by the time she gives birth to her first child, her independence is extraordinary.
The novel also illustrates how a peasant woman finds happiness. After the birth of her first child, the key to O-lan's happiness is her pride. At the time of her first emergence of anger, she tells Wang "When I return to that house it will be with my son in my arms. I shall have a red coat on him and red-flowered trousers and on his head a hat with a small gilded Buddha sewn on the front and on his feet tiger-faced shoes." The Old Mistress demands that she takes the first child back to the Great House for her to see. By presenting a baby boy instead of a girl, she is praised and treated with respect by the people of the Great House, hence, allowing her to feel a sense of pride. If she were to have brought back a girl, she would have been sent back to her parents' home, if they would take her back, as a way of humiliation, or simply be discarded or sold (Gao, 2000, 39). In addition, she is proud in her success as being a wife to Wang as well as being a mother who has produced many sons for the family. Such pride, as Doyle (1980) comments, "is particularly touching because O-lan wants and expects so little from life" (Gao, 2000, 98).
At the onset of famine, O-lan's loyalty as a wife surfaces. Instead of condemning Wang for his inability to provide for his family, she stands by his side with hope. Times are so harsh for the family that they need to beg to acquire food. Since Wang sternly stresses he is not a beggar, O-lan says "I and the children can beg and the old man also." She cries to the villagers, "A heart, good sir- a heart, good lady! Have a kind heart- a good deed for your life in heaven! The small cash- the copper coin you throw away- feed a starving child!" She has now taken control of the family's welfare, and even Wang Lung seeks her guidance. Afterwards, the couple joins a mob in the raiding of a rich man's gates, and O-lan shows Wang the jewels she retrieves. She hands over all the jewels to her husband to invest in land. She keeps just two small pearls for herself. Wang's greed sets in; he begins to lavishly spend money on material goods. He also engages in sexual affairs with a concubine (an equivalent to a prostitute) named Lotus Flower. Additionally, he buys her lavish gifts. His greed overcomes him, and he demands the two pearls from O-lan. Even though they are the only possessions that have any monetary value to her, she hands them over to her husband without a word. She continues to accept the situation and stands by her husband's side in spite of his selfish demands and his affair with the concubine.
Another perspective of the role of Chinese women is illustrated with Lotus Flower. As explained earlier, Lotus is Wang's concubine. Since there was no such thing as divorce, concubinage, as Lin (1935) said, "in a way takes the place of divorce in Western countries" to solve the complicated familial and social problem (Gao, 2000, 39). In many ways she is O-lan's opposite. She dresses silk and jewelry along with having an enticing scent. Her feet are bound so she is not expected to work. Her weight becomes a problem since she binges on sweet meats and sits around all day everyday. Lotus's demeanor towards children differentiates from O-lan as well. She tells Wang "I will not stay in this house if that one (Wang's mentally handicapped daughter) comes near me, and I was not told that I should have accursed idiots to endure and if I had known it I would not have come- filthy children of yours!" Wang finds her remark intolerable nevertheless; she comes back two days later to please him and things are back to normal. Even as a concubine, Lotus holds more power than O-lan.
Wang and O-lan's daughters introduce the last and most important time in Chinese women's lives. Unfortunately, O-lan strangles her first-born due to their lack of money to provide for a feeding mouth. Not much is spoken from Wang after this occurs because it is their third child and it's a girl- an evil omen. Their eldest daughter receives little attention and nurturing throughout her first years and as a result, she grows to be mentally handicapped.
O-lan's youngest daughter demonstrates the fate of an attractive girl in a well off Chinese family. At the age of ten, her mother binds her feet against the girl's will. She hates the fact her feet are like this because the pain is excruciating and she cannot sleep at night. However, when an argument about foot binding arises with her father she tells him, "and my mother said I was not to weep aloud because you are too kind and weak for pain and you might say to leave me as I am, and then my husband would not love me as you do not love O-lan." Her father comes back in response by saying, "Well, and today I have heard of a pretty husband for you, and we will see if Cuckoo (their neighbor) can arrange the matter." Days later, Wang sends her off to her new husband where her new authority will be her mother-in-law.
The theme in Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth is more than just one man's struggle to rise to economic success. The underlying theme focuses on the depiction of Chinese women in that era. The novel portrays these women with great realism by including traditional Chinese practices like foot binding, wife purchasing, and concubinism. O-lan's character thoroughly taps into the struggles and accepted ways that lower-class women must deal with. In addition, readers do sympathize with O-lan and her daughter's sacrifices made to maintain the household's well being. Lotus Flower, on the other hand stirs up feelings of resentment for the hurt she inflicted on O-lan by intruding on their marriage. Furthermore, The Good Earth exemplifies a dynamic portrayal of women in traditional China through the novel's female characters.