Gateways into The Good Earth:
Myth and Archetype in Pearl S. Buck’s Classic Novel
Essay by Carol Breslin, PhD
Pearl Buck’s prize-winning novel The Good Earth is an acknowledged classic of twentieth-century literature. Now over eight decades since its publication, it continues to attract readers. Many have attempted to account for the novel’s continuing appeal, but Paul Doyle, author of the fine Twayne Authors volume on Buck, gets it right, I believe, when he says, “…The Good Earth stir[s]deep patterns of recognition within the minds and hearts of its readers,” giving the “sense,” he continues, “of ‘being shaped by eternities’” (31). Thus, despite cultural and chronological distances, each reader feels a personal connection to the struggles and sufferings of the novel’s main characters Wang Lung and O-lan.
We can account for this feeling of connectedness in many of the usual ways. First, Buck was an accomplished storyteller. She had developed and enhanced her natural gift by listening to the storytellers on the streets of the Chinese community where she grew up and by her extensive reading of Chinese and English classics. Thus, in her novel she is able to tell a compelling story, one which keeps the plot moving forward in an interesting way and one in which themes, events, and images reflect on each other, producing a pleasing richness, whether one is reading it for the first time or the fifth.
A second point of connection arises from the author’s treatment of fundamental, universal human experiences in moving, unforgettable passages. The novel may be set in the China of pre-revolutionary days, but one does not have to be Chinese or know the history of the period to be totally absorbed by the book. All are able to enter easily into the joy and apprehension of Wang Lung on the morning of his wedding day and into the solitary pain and stoic courage of O-lan as she gives birth again and again in situations of escalating tension and deprivation.
A third source of connection between the reader and the text lies in the ability of the author to create believable, three-dimensional characters about whom we care and with whom we can identify ourselves. Buck’s highest achievement here is found in Wang Lung and O-lan in whom may be seen the full range of human emotion and experience.
All of the above are obvious ways in which the novel proves itself to be a classic, continually relevant and alive in each re-reading of it. But other, more subtle devices are present as well—devices that stir our unconscious minds as we read, forging connections of which we may be unaware. One such device is the use of archetypal and biblical imagery. The latter is familiar enough. The former, as described by M. H. Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms, refers to images, patterns, and character types that appear in literature and works of art and reflect a set of very basic and “universal… mental forms” that human beings seem to hold in common and which, when encountered in literature, draw forth a deep response (224).
Interestingly, Buck is not usually credited with using such devices in her works. In fact, Doyle asserts that the critical neglect of her writing after 1939 stems from her lack of “…interest in using myth or symbolism or other elements characteristic of the modern novel” (149). This lack of interest, he says, “…gives critics relatively little to analyze and explicate. Her novels do not furnish the layers of meaning and the complexity that modern literary criticism demands” (149). Several years later, Peter Conn, author of Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography, affirms this assessment, calling The Good Earth “groundbreaking in its subject matter but thoroughly conventional in its techniques” (124). And yet, images and symbols that create multiple layers of meaning do seem to be present, and they begin to appear very early in the novel.
One rather spectacular set of symbolic devices that appears throughout The Good Earth is that of gates, doorways, walls and windows. Such structures are ubiquitous in China, as anyone who has been there can testify, so the reader is not surprised to find them as part of the novel’s landscape: “In China, palaces and temples, even hutongs are usually surrounded by a gated wall” (Chinese Architecture). What does surprise, however, is the way in which the author uses these structures beyond mere scene setting. First Buck uses them to create the architecture, the organizational framework, of the action and, second, to provide a mythic underpinning through a set of archetypal images.
Structurally, gates, walls, and windows are used to shape and organize the action of the novel. Each appears at a critical moment in the plot to signal changes in action and development in character. As the novel begins, Wang Lung awakens and tears away the rice paper at his bedroom window, letting in the spring morning and the beginning of his new life as a married man. This gesture initiates the action for Wang Lung and the reader as both look out of the window at the journey into adult life that is about to unfold. Leaving his father behind, Wang Lung walks to the city alone and enters its gates, realizing that when he comes through them again, he will be changed for, as he notes, “…there would be a woman walking behind him” (Buck 9). The monumental nature of this change is signaled most dramatically by the next gate through which Wang Lung ventures, the intimidating gate, with its mocking gatekeeper and stone lions, that stands before the House of Hwang.
Beyond this gate lies Wang Lung’s encounter with his new bride, the beginning of their married life, the birth of their first son, and the prosperity of their first year. Importantly, Wang Lung and his bride leave the House of Hwang, not by the intimidating front gate but by a side gate known to O-lan, saving Wang Lung from the chance of any further embarrassment by the gatekeeper and cleverly foreshadowing the practical gifts that O-Lan will bring into his life. Wang Lung’s next appearance at the gate of the House of Hwang takes place at the New Year and allows the author to present a touching and triumphant display of the good fortune that has visited Wang Lung and his family and to suggest that the House of Hwang is entering a period of decline. Through this gateway, Wang Lung and his family move into a prolonged period of prosperity and growth, including the purchase of new lands and the births of several children. This is followed by the time of the famine and the move to the South to avoid starvation. As Wang Lung and his family make their desperate journey to the South, they come once again before the gate of the House of Hwang. This time, they do not enter it, for it has been locked fast against the fleeing refugees, but it marks their and the reader’s entry into the next major action, the time of exile in the southern city.
The action in this part of the novel is circumscribed by walls and punctuated by gates that do not open for Wang Lung. Arriving in the city with many other refugees, Wang Lung purchases mats which O-Lan turns into a humble dwelling for the family, setting it against a wall that surrounds the land and house of a wealthy city family. Wang Lung takes a job as a rickshaw driver, daily transporting Chinese and foreign men and women to the gates of buildings and houses of pleasure that are closed to him. This section of exile ends when the invasion of a revolutionary army incites the peasants who inhabit the huts along the wall to breach the wall, rush through the gates, and loot the premises. Wang Lung and O-lan are among these looters, and their leap over the wall and through the gates propels them into the next phase of their lives and the reader into the next section of The Good Earth. In this next section, Wang Lung and O-lan, aided by the gold and jewels taken from the house in the South, rebuild their lives as farmers, adding many fields. O-lan gives birth again, this time to a set of twins. Their older children must be educated and placed in useful occupations. Marriages must be looked into. Most significantly here, a flood brings on a long period of idleness for Wang Lung. Unable to go to his fields, he grows bored, becomes critical of O-Lan’s appearance and manners, and eventually strays from the farm to the city where he begins a relationship with Lotus, an entertainer in a tea house, who will become his concubine. To open this new phase of his life, Wang Lung once more passes through the city gates, this time at night, the time of desire.
Beyond this gate, the reader encounters the family problems that naturally arise with the introduction of a second woman and her servant into a household, including O-Lan’s displeasure, squabbles over money, “turf wars,” and the eldest son’s growing interest in his young and pretty step-mother. But all of these become rather insignificant when O-Lan falls ill and begins to decline, and this section ends with the longed for marriage of her eldest son and O-Lan’s death and funeral.
Two last sets of gates and walls remain. Following the death of O-Lan, the Wang family takes up residence within the old House of Hwang, available now because of its owners’ needs for money to support their severe opium addiction. The gate and walls that once intimidated the young Wang Lung are now his own and mark the final phase of his life—old age. During this phase, he will have to deal with the complexities of the growing families of his sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren , and he will develop a late romance with a young serving girl named Pear Blossom. Having put to rest the problem of his thieving uncle by means of opium, he will encounter a new challenge from his nephew, now a soldier with a new revolutionary army that for a time takes up residence in Wang Lung’s courts. Eventually, the gates and walls that Wang Lung once coveted begin to oppress him and he flees them, choosing to live instead at the old farm in the company of his mentally handicapped daughter and Pear Blossom, with whom he maintains an affectionate but platonic relationship after their short and passionate interlude. The last set of walls and gates referred to in the novel anticipates Wang Lung’s demise. These are the walls of his coffin and the gate of the family cemetery where he will lie in death, surrounded by the earth that he has loved.
The gates and walls that structure Buck’s novel The Good Earth serve as interesting entry ways into the various courts of the unfolding plot, but they have another important function, that of universalizing the experiences of the characters through archetypal images that evoke common responses from readers.
Gates and walls serve as important archetypal symbols in the earliest literature that we have, appearing at critical points in the classical journey of the hero as he undergoes the adventures of separation, initiation and return described by Joseph Campbell and others (Campbell 30). In the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh, for example, the hero must pass through a set of gates guarded by lions and the scorpion monsters as he journeys in search of immortality. Upon returning to his home city of Uruk, he constructs a mighty wall on which he records the story of his travels. Allusions to the gates of heaven and the gates of hell are familiar as are references to the walls of Troy and Jericho.
Chinese mythology includes gods of walls and moats. Named Chheng-huang, these gods controlled the ravages of beasts who might destroy the harvest, broke droughts, halted excessive rain, and brought peace and prosperity. Door guardians were even more common. These spirits seized demons who harmed men and handed them over to were-tigers for destruction. Pictures of these guardians were often hung or pasted on either side of doors to invoke protection (Christie 119).
Gates often signal the heroic rite of passage into a new phase of human experience. Thus, it is not surprising that when Wang Lung goes to pick up his bride, he must first pass through the gate at the House of Hwang: “He stood at the gate for a long time, looking at it. It was closed fast, two great wooden gates, painted black and bound and studded with iron, closed upon each other. Two lions made of stone stood on guard, one at either side. There was no one else. He turned away. It was impossible” (Buck 11).
Seeing the formidable gate, Wang Lung is completely intimidated by it. He feels faint and decides to eat a little before he approaches the gate again. His return to the gate after a meal of noodles and tea is described by Buck in language that is both humorous and mythic:
This time, since it was after high noon, the gates were ajar and the keeper of the gate idled upon the threshold, picking his teeth with a bamboo sliver after his meal. He was a tall fellow with a large mole upon his left cheek, and from the mole hung three long black hairs which had never been cut. When Wang Lung appeared he shouted roughly, thinking from the basket that he had come to sell something.
“Now then, what?”
With great difficulty Wang Ling replied,“I am Wang Lung, the farmer.”
“Well, and Wang Lung, the farmer, what?” retorted the gateman, who was polite to none except the rich…
“I am come — I am come —“ faltered Wang Lung.
“That I see,” said the gateman with elaborate patience, twisting the long hairs of his mole.
“There is a woman,” said Wang Lung, his voice sinking helplessly to a whisper. In the sunshine his face was wet.
The gateman gave a great laugh.
So, you are he!” he roared. “I was told to expect a bridegroom today.”
At last Wang Lung said with anxiety, “Shall I go alone?”
The gateman affected a start of horror. “The Old Lord would kill you!”
Then seeing that Wang Lung was too innocent he said, “A little silver is a good key.”
With his face burning and his head bowed, he walked through court after court, hearing that voice roaring ahead of him,
Then suddenly when it seemed to him he had gone through a hundred courts, the gateman fell silent and pushed him into a small waiting room. (14-16)
One cannot overlook the fairytale, mythic character of the scene. The hero/protagonist, very much in the manner of Campbell’s archetypal hero, experiences a life-changing moment, a young man’s rite of passage. He has left behind his childhood and prepares to pick up the responsibilities of the adult. Before he can attain his bride and his future, he must get past the gate with its lions and monstrous gatekeeper. He must offer a silver bribe to the guard, a kind of magic key that lets him pass through the one hundred courts before he arrives at the room of his audience with Mme. Hwang. There he crosses the threshold into a new realm, the realm of the unfamiliar, as described by Campbell (30), where he must overcome the power of darkness in the person of Mme. Hwang. She sits on a dias smoking opium, His fate in her withered hand, Wang Lung emerges victorious from this adventure, his new bride in tow, having gifted her with several green peaches as a sign of his newly won power.
When Wang Lung visits the House of Hwang for the second time, about a year later, he is accompanied by O-lan and his newborn son:
Then Wang Lung had his reward at the great gate of the House of Hwang, for when the gateman came to the woman’s call he opened his eyes at all he saw and he twirled the three long hairs on his mole and cried out,
“Ah, Wang the farmer, three this time instead of one!” And then seeing the new clothes they all wore and the child who was a son, he said further. “One has no need to wish you more fortune this year than you have had in the last.”
The gateman was impressed with all he saw and he said to Wang Lung,
“Do you sit within my wretched room while I announce your woman and son within.” ( 49)
This time the description of the gate is much less fearsome and mysterious. It is merely a “great “ gate, and the gatekeeper is merely a gatekeeper who is clearly impressed with Wang Lung’s prosperity and quickly offers him his meager hospitality while O-lan goes to show off her child to those within the great house. No fairytale elements appear. All is within the realm of the real and possible for Wang Lung, whose passage into maturity is marked here.
The third sighting of the Hwang gate appears during Wang Lung’s flight from starvation during the famine:
They were close to the gate of the great house now, but it was locked fast, the iron doors reared full to their height and the stone lions grey and wind-bitten on either side. Upon the doorsteps lay cowering a few dingy shapes of men and women who gazed, famished, upon the closed and barred gate, and when Wang Lung passed with his miserable little procession one cried out in a cracked voice, “The hearts of these rich are hard like the hearts of the gods. They have still rice to eat and from the rice they do not eat they are still making wine, while we starve.” ( 90)
These gates are a far cry from those that intimidated the young and inexperienced bridegroom. Here there is no gatekeeper who might be bribed to let one enter, no opportunity to cross the threshold into a new realm where opportunity may be won. These are the gates of misery, locked fast against the poor and starving. Wang Lung will get no help here. He must pass by and hope to survive. The gates and walls of the rich are obstacles and challenges to the hero, who is forced to make his way as a refugee in a new city.
When Wang Lung and his family settle in the southern city, they find some degree of security and a subsistence-level existence within the city walls. But other walls, inside the city, effectively symbolize the difficulties endured by the poor as they attempt to achieve dignified, secure lives. Wang Lung and O-lan build a shelter of mats that clings to the walls surrounding the house of a rich family. While O-lan and the children beg on the streets, Wang Lung wears himself out with back-breaking labor as a rickshaw driver. Every day he carries passengers to the gates of rich houses and fancy office buildings, but never enters them himself. Instead of scaling these walls and entering the gates, thereby achieving the prize that lies within them, Wang Lung and his family are effectively shut off from economic opportunity. They cling to the walls like “fleas to a dog’s back” (Buck 97), a symbolic rendering of their slip into sub-human status:
And at night he knew that he drew men to big tea houses and to places of pleasure, the pleasure that is open and streams out upon the streets in the sound of music and of gaming with pieces of ivory and bamboo upon a wooden table, and the pleasure that is secret and silent and hidden behind the walls. But none of these pleasures did Wang Lung know for himself, since his feet crossed no threshold except that of his own hut, and his road was always ended at a gate. He lived in the rich city as alien as a rat in a rich man’s house that is fed on scraps thrown away, and hides here and there and is never a part of the real life of the house. (107-108)
The walls of the rich are eventually breached, when the revolution encourages the refugees from the shacks to enter the courts of the rich house. The bugs that clung to the walls do their work of erosion and deterioration. Wang Lung ends up with a treasure of gold when he surprises one of the house’s last inhabitants as he tries to escape, but it is O-lan who symbolically brings the wall down as she removes a brick from the wall of an inner chamber to disclose a cache of jewels that will set her family on the road to prosperity. This prosperity will lead Wang Lung to acquire the House of Hwang. The very walls that shut him out when he was young and poor and the gate that once intimidated him now become his own.
Near the end of the story, Wang Lung makes a visit to his old farm. Here is the enclosed cemetery where his parents and O-lan lie. Wang Lung reflects on his own coming death and orders his coffin, a final set of walls, to be placed inside the enclosed cemetery, the final gateway of his journey through life.
The archetypal resonance of the images explored above is clear and, in that resonance, we connect to the characters of Buck’s novel on a deep, unconscious level. Our lives, like that of Wang Lung, may be viewed as a series of gates that open and close, as walls that shut us out or close us in. Buck’s use of such images, as much as anything else in the novel, helps make The Good Earth a modern classic, likely to endure for at least another eight decades and worthy of close, continuing, critical scrutiny.
Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 6th ed. Forth Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.
Buck, Pearl S. The Good Earth. Intro. and ed. Peter Conn. 1931. New York: Washington Square Press, 1994.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Bollingen Series XVII. New York: Pantheon Books, 1949.
“Chinese Architecture.” Chinese Culture. Beijing, China. 14 July 2008
Christie, Anthony. Chinese Mythology. London: Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1968.
Conn, Peter. Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.
Doyle, Paul. Pearl S. Buck. Rev. ed. TUSAS 85. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.
Carol Breslin is professor emeriti of English at Gwynedd-Mercy University. Her research interests focus on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, especially those that reflect on issues of justice and law; women in medieval literature; and the life and work of the twentieth-century author and humanitarian Pearl S. Buck.