23 January 2005

The Good Earth

I finished The Good Earth yesterday. I loved it. I'd usually wait to write about all the books for this week on Monday, but I have been thinking about this book a lot, especially in relation to the conversations about women's roles that have been floating around some LDS sites. O-lan was the focus of the book for me.

The book is set in China about 100 years ago. O-lan is the principal woman in the book. Her entire role is defined as Wang Lung's wife. Her life in spent in service, first as a slave, and then to her husband. Wang Lung's financial prosperity would never have happened without O-lan, but he never realizes this. Everything she did was for him and his children, and she never received even a kind word.

Yet O-lan was a fortunate woman. She had plenty of food, even during most of the famines. Her husband didn't beat her. She was lucky enough to have 3 sons. She only had one child die in childbirth.

Historical fiction usually portrays women's lot in life a lot more positively than it really was. It seems that women and girls in books are always learning how to read, marrying someone rich, or living in one of the upper classes. It is rare to read about women doing what women really have done for thousands of years- bearing child after child; starving; watching her children die; working in the fields, even hours after childbirth; being beaten by their husbands or sold by their fathers. True, those books are there, but it seems in historical fiction that women and girls are not realistic. It was nice to read a more honest book.

I hadn't ever read this book, mostly because it's one you're "supposed" to read. That has always been a big turnoff for me, and it's too bad, because I have thoroughly enjoyed many of the classics that I've finally read in the last few years. Giants in the Earth, Return of the Native, Madame Bovary, and Heart of Darkness, to name a few more, are rightfully on Great Books lists.


  1. It's great to have someone to talk with about a book!

    I focused on O-Lan, too. When you remember that a woman is writing, it is interesting to think of the structure of the book as a device to link the author, reader, and O-Lan.

    First: "She only had one child die in childbirth." Don't you think that she killed this child? Remember that it was during the famine, and that the husband saw two marks on the child's neck.

    I *totally* agree with you about the problem of making all women in historical fiction into proto-feminists. It makes the work entirely unbelievable. On the other hand, it is *very* hard for a modern reader to relate to a non-liberated woman, and I admit that I had that problem with O-Lan. I felt like there was nothing there to like.

    I'd like to hear you say more about (1) why you liked the book, (2) how you think it relates to the latest battles in the blogosphere's gender wars, and (3) can you answer my question about what the 'moral' was behind the fall of the house of Wang Lung?

  2. oops, I didn't see your post below about choices. I guess you did address the gender thing. Also, are you reading Carolly Erickson because I gushed so much, or did you find her independently?

  3. I had seen Carolly Erickson recommened somewhere else- maybe when MFS had people send in what was on their nightstand? It was on my list, but your comment about what a good author she is prompted me to check the book out now. I'm enjoying _Great Catherine_ very much.

    I answered your other questions, with a little more about the "gender wars" above on Tuesday, if you didn't see it.