The Good Wife: Reconsidering The Good Earth’s O-lan
By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham
Prequels, sequels, and alternate-perspective takes on famous novels abound in the publishing world today. In March, Geraldine Brooks imagines the life of Little Women’s absent father as his family awaits his return from the Civil War. The Wind Done Gone offers a slave’s viewpoint on the events of Gone With the Wind; a new book will soon recount Pride and Prejudice from the servant’s corner of the drawing room. Probably the most famous of these re-imaginings, Gregory Maguire’s best-selling Wicked (also a hit Broadway musical) reveals that the Wicked Witch of the West has been misunderstood by those who only know Dorothy’s side of the Wizard of Oz story. And while re-tellings have flourished in recent years, there are older examples of the practice, too: Wide Sargasso Sea (a prequel to Jane Eyre) and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (a play revolving around two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet) both appeared in 1966.
There’s also a long Chinese tradition of playing around with famous works of fiction. Dream of the Red Chamber, the country’s most famous novel, has yielded a dozen sequels or more, such as Shadows of Dream of the Red Chamber (1877) and The New Story of the Stone (1908). As far as I know, though, no one has yet given similar treatment to the most famous novel about China written in English: Pearl Buck’s 1931 bestseller, The Good Earth.
If I were to take on such a task, I’d write The Good Earth through the eyes of O-lan, long-suffering wife of Wang Lung the farmer. O-lan is the heroine of Buck’s novel, though Wang Lung is the book’s main character and the only one whose thoughts are made known to the reader. But Wang Lung wouldn’t have accomplished half the things he did were it not for the actions of his taciturn and inscrutable wife. While he recognizes this as O-lan lies dying, for most of the book, Wang Lung regards her as nothing more than a “dull and faithful creature,” almost beast-like in her ability to endure hardship without complaint.
But O-lan is The Good Earth’s most complicated character, far more interesting to me than the increasingly acquisitive, status-conscious Wang Lung. Sold by her parents at the age of ten during a famine, she spends a decade as a kitchen slave in the wealthy House of Hwang, the most powerful family in the town near Wang Lung’s farm. Wang Lung, a poor young farmer, goes to the Hwangs in search of a wife and is given O-lan as his bride. Slowly, the two work together to improve their standard of living, only to see all their gains erased when another famine hits the countryside.
This is when O-lan steps in to save the family: they travel to a southern city and she builds a hut from straw mats after Wang Lung cannot figure out how to do so. She teaches the children to beg and ensures that they have rice in their bowls. She keeps her ears open and picks up rumors of a coming attack on the city; when this takes place, O-lan and Wang Lung join a group ransacking the home of a rich man, and she finds a cache of hidden jewels. Returning to the countryside, those jewels provide Wang Lung with the capital to purchase huge amounts of land from the now-impoverished House of Hwang, and the House of Wang begins its ascent.
In time, Wang Lung casts O-lan aside for a younger, prettier concubine and O-lan is left to waste away in the kitchen as her body is eaten by a cancer that she endures without complaint. Only in her last months, feeling “some strange remorse,” does Wang Lung show O-lan any true compassion. His basic feelings toward O-lan remain unchanged, though: “When he took this stiff dying hand he did not love it, and even his pity was spoiled with repulsion towards it.”
Throughout it all, the reader is left to guess what O-lan’s thoughts and feelings might be. Buck offers us no insight into O-lan’s decision to suffocate her newborn daughter at the height of the famine, nor does she explore how O-lan might have felt during the early days of her marriage, when she and Wang Lung worked side-by-side in the fields, scarcely exchanging a word. It’s easy enough to assume that O-lan resented the presence of Wang Lung’s concubine Lotus, but we as readers cannot really penetrate her generally stoic countenance. Only rarely, such as when Wang Lung forces her to hand over two treasured pearls so he can give them to Lotus, do O-lan’s tears hint at the depth of her pain. Even then, Buck tells us, O-lan continues washing clothes upon a rock, duty-bound and uncomplaining as always. What I imagine O-lan might have thought and felt reflects more about me, a 21st-century American feminist, than what Buck tells us about her inner world.
But Pearl Buck, too, was a feminist, as Peter Conn writes in his biography of her, and I don’t think her decision to narrate The Good Earth from Wang Lung’s perspective was an insignificant one. With a male protagonist, the book avoided being dismissed as the 1930s equivalent of “chick lit”—a woman’s story written by a woman. Instead, the millions of Americans who read The Good Earth learned about the plight of rural Chinese women through scenes such as the one in which Wang Lung wonders about his wife’s past in the House of Hwang, then chastises himself for such foolish curiosity, telling himself that “She was, after all, only a woman.”
Still, I’m frustrated that O-lan remains so unknown, a martyr who rarely reveals what’s going on behind her stolid exterior. I wouldn’t want to see a new version of her story that positions O-lan as a frustrated feminist burning with desire to escape her life with Wang Lung and strike out on her own as a career woman in the city—that wouldn’t be true to Buck’s portrayal of her as a woman devoted to her husband and family. And I’d be surprised if a new take on The Good Earth ever made it to Broadway. But there is a 1937 film version, and the Best Actress Academy Award Luise Rainer won for her portrayal of O-lan reflects that there’s far more depth to her character than what Wang Lung saw on the surface. If given the chance, what would O-lan say?
Find the entire LARB China Blog here.