Literary Shelf

The “Earthy” Women Characters

of Pearl S. Buck

20th century saw the rise of many theories based on “rebellion” against the set order. Marxism, post colonialism, feminism and neo-historicism - all these philosophies sprang from the desire to revolt against tradition and rigid social order. Deep delineation of female characters became a norm. More and more women-centric novels were written. When it came to describing women characters, many feminist writers chose abstract philosophical ideas, spirituality, objectification issues, “the gaze” problem etc. Some chose to write about “earthy”, real women whose prime concern was survival. They described servants, labourers and their sweat, blood and toil. Pearl S. Buck was one such writer. “Survival” is the main concern of women characters of Pearl S. Buck. Buck is unique in many ways.

Pearl S. Buck is a strong and unconventional writer. She broke many traditional norms regarding women. She underlined the role of women in family, social upliftment labour sector, and job sector general emancipation. Her canvas was wide. Her experience in life was unique, in the sense that she had equal access to China, and United State of America. She had lived in both countries. She knew both countries very well. This is special in the sense that she combined both capitalist and communist experience. She had seen America, the doyen of capitalism and materialism. She had seen China, pinnacle of communist philosophy. In this sense the world view of Pearl S. Buck is unique and different from all other writers. She has portrayed ordinary women as strong. These memorable women have faced the efforts of the society to suppress them. Ordinary women fighting authority and traditions find place in Buck’s novels.

The fact that Pearl S. Buck was a writer, activist and also a feminist is shown very deeply in her work. Most of her women characters are ordinary Chinese women who represent their country. They represent type and person both. The critic Xiongya Gao in her monumental book Pearl S. Buck’s Chinese Women Characters has written,“ I will examine to what degree Buck’s women character are typical of Chinese women in general and to what degree they are individualized figures facing different conflicts, in variety of social, familial situation, with their respective unique, characteristics. It will be demonstrated that these characters, both typical and individualized characters aid the theme of the novels. Therefore, characterization will not be examined in isolation, but in relation to other aspects of the novels.

The following three classifications will be frequently preferred to stereo typical, typical and individualized. I will define “stereotypical” as the images of the Chinese in the western mind at that time, which are often distorted and derogatory. “Typical” will be taken in its dictionary sense, referring to a character who possess characteristics common to the type to which she belongs. “Individualized” will be used to prefer to characters who stand out from the typical and can be described as none other than themselves, characters who do things differently from those in the same type.

In presenting genuinely typical features of her characters, Buck provides her western readers with a true picture of the Chinese people, thus destroying the stereo typical images westerners have long had of the Chinese. This accomplishment, of course, grows out of Buck’s life long effort to promote understanding among all peoples and her philosophy that we should tolerate one another and live in harmony. By giving her characters, individuality, Buck makes her characters stand out vividly. Each character has her own features and traits and behaves in her own way. By skillfully combining typicality with individuality, Buck at a series of Chinese women to the gallery of imperishable literary characters, placing herself among the greatest writers in the world. There is a common characteristic among all major women characters in the novels examined in this book : they all make best use of their very limited power allowed by the society to achieve what they deserve. Their actions quite often appear calculating and manipulative. This is seen, as will become clear, not as a faulty personality trait, but as a result of the oppression that Chinese women have faced throughout their lives. In order to survive, they have to act in ways acceptable to society; but to achieve dignity, happiness, and freedom for themselves, they have also learned to use their intelligence to steer unfavorable situations to their advantages while still appearing to honor the traditions, the moral standards and the virtues society imposes on them. As Wang Ma a servant character in Peony, puts it : “obey-obey-and to do what u like. The two go together-if you are clever”(56). They take whatever life offers them and make the best use of it for the benefit of themselves as well as of those around them.” (Pearl S. Buck Xiongya Gao)

Novel after novel Pearl S. Buck has portrayed, evolved and emancipated women characters. In The Good Earth (1931)O-lan comes out as a woman of extraordinary power. Her social status is just that of a slave but she has no complain in life. With her courage, fortitude, perseverance and common sense, she becomes the moral center of the novel. The family goes through extreme high and then extreme low economically. Pearl S. Buck has described the tragedy of farmers. Through all this O-lan carries the spirit of the family. She is ready to do anything for her family. The husband shows weakness of temperament and character. It goes to O-lan to provide mental support to her children. The focus of the novel is Good Earth, the cycling of farming and faith of farmers but O-lan herself is a representation of the good earth. She carries weight like good earth. She is silent. No one knows what she is thinking and what she is going through. “She never talked, this women except for brief necessities of life. Wan Lung, watching her move steadily and slowly about the room on her big feet watching secretly stolid square face, the unexpressed, half fearful look of her eyes, made nothing of her’’. (The Good Earth Pearl S. Buck 1931 Page16).

To Indian readers, O-lan seems to be an incarnation of the mother earth. She is strong, productive, beneficial, devoted and un moving. She provides earth like support to her family. She is trustworthy, as she hands over all the jewels to her husband which she has looted. She remains by his side steadfastly. O-lan expects little from life.

This is the style of Pearl S. Buck. She paints ordinary, real women with extraordinary quality. Pear S. Buck clearly states in the novel that O-lan is not beautiful. It is through her behavior that she comes out as beautiful. Buck has described the pain and struggle of the common woman. The key is to portray women as human beings with vulnerability and folly of the human nature. Her women are not goddesses.

Sons came in 1932 and it was received as a sequel to The Good Earth. This is the story of three sons of Wan Lung who refused to be farmer and chose to go other professions. In this sense they rejected the good earth. The novel presents dark reality of the Chinese life and has nothing to do with female character or psyche. However the next novel, The Mother which came in 1933 is all about mother and motherhood.

The novel presents a cosmic image of women. The Mother is the head of a poor farming family. Here again the man is not interested in the profession of farming and the woman has to steer through the tumults of her life and the life of her family. This novel is particular by special as it portrays the unfulfilled desires of mother. How the mother craves for pleasure and how sacrifice is forced on her. We can say that this novel is about the hidden life of a woman. Under the garb of the title “mother”, so many instincts and desires are buried. The mother is also a human being with normal human hunger for sensual pleasures. Many critics also say that Pearl S. Buck had depicted western concept of desire and fulfillment through this Chinese woman. This lady is different from O-lan in The Good Erath. Pearl has described all those desires which the mother has to forgo. The mother tried to strike a balance between desire and commitment. Back to the tempo of The Good Earth, although not connected with either that book or Sons, in any way. In this moving story of a Chinese peasant woman, to whom the daily round of toil and pain and poverty and birth seems inevitable and not to be questioned, Pearl S. Buck has recaptured the rhythm of the soil again. It is a lighter story than either The Good Earth or Sons: a more concentrated picture of a family.

A House Divided came in 1935 and is again considered to be a sequel The Good Earth. This is the story of grandson of O-lan and Wang Lung .This novel describes how west sees the Chinese. This novel is not very significant, in terms of family emancipation. Family characters are mostly in the sideline. The only glance at the family psyche at comes when older women talk with amusement about the freedom that younger Chinese women enjoy and which, they themselves could never relish.

The next novel This Proud Heart which came in 1938 is important for understanding empowered women characters created by Pearl S. Buck. “This Proud Heart narrates the experience of a gifted sculptor and her struggle to reconcile her absorbing career with society’s domestic expectations. Susan Gayland is talented, loving, equipped with a strong moral sense, and adept at anything she puts her hands to from housework to playing the piano to working with marble and clay. But the intensity of her artistic calling comes at a price isolating her from other people at times, even from her own family. When her husband dies and she remarries she finds herself once again comparing the sacrifice of solitude to that of commitment. With a heroine who is naturalistic yet compellingly larger than life This Proud Heart is incomparable in its sympathetic study of character”.

This Proud Heart is a very powerful novel about the dilemma of a capable, talented, passionate and self-reliant woman, Susan Gaylord. She is a sculptor by profession. The conflict in her life is between choosing art and independence one hand and the security of marriage on the other hand. She starts by marrying and ends by living on her own. Between her wedding and her living alone, lies this novel of four hundred pages which beautifully describes the conflict of the working women. Susan cannot deny the call of creativity. As a creative woman, she realizes that she cannot have it all. The husband is not supportive of her independence. A tragic turn comes when Susan’s husband dies of typhoid while she is deciding whether to defy him by traveling to France for additional study. Soon after the funeral, she takes her son with her and sets out for Paris and there she settles into a small apartment, and gets enrolled in the studio of a famous master who always remains unnamed in the book and bears an unmistakable resemblance to Rodin. As soon as this man sees Susan, he recognizes that she is an artist of great talent. He insists that she should work only on marble as only marble was large enough for all her powers. Marble, indeed, is a sculpture’s most arduous mediums’ and it is used to be the preserve of male artists. There comes a second marriage for Susan but liberation comes in living alone. The character of Susan is all about the individual call within a woman of substance. While love, marriage and family are basic needs, this woman cannot deny that thinking and artistic expression are equally basic.

We can see that Pearl S. Buck is highly sensitive to the issues of women. She has delved deep into various aspects of the lives of women. Desire, creativity, productivity, spirituality, and professionalism, all these aspects are described in detail when it comes to woman characters in early novels of Pearl S. Buck. The men want women to be content with husband and family but they themselves know that this is not enough. Women like men want to express themselves and have their own identity and independent existence. The joy of life is in struggling, not in sitting aloof. There is no point in keeping oneself safe from the hardships of life. Freedom and respect are gained by hard work, passion, failures, and struggles. The human soul, both male and female craves for more and more. The journey is the end. There is no end or final destination of human life. Effort is everything. Women should not be kept away from effort and struggle. The material things, silk, gold, diamond, all are prison walls. The liberated women want fulfillment in effort.

In simple words, feminism is an aware woman’s perspective of the world. It deals with women who are conscious of the disadvantages of being a woman in a male centric world. Feminism refers to movement aimed at defending, establishing equal political, economic, and social rights and equal opportunities for women in a male centric world. Right from Mary Woll Stonecraft to Simone de Beauvoir to Jane Austin and beyond, women have been demanding their rights in a male centric world. Pearl Sydenstricker Buck, the Nobel Laureate, contributed a great deal to the rapid expansion of feminism in America as well as China. Pearl S. Buck was able to shape America perceptions of China more effectively and positively than other feminists and other missionaries. She brings out the pathetic condition of women in patriarchal Chinese society.

We would like to call the feminism of Pearl S. Buck “earthy” feminism as she portrays ordinary women like farmers, house wives and servants as strong. Her feminism does not dwell in abstraction. She is not full of lofty ideas as such. Buck is not dwelling with sophisticated issues like religion, philosophy, mythology, or the issues of the gaze, property or spiritual rights. She deals with hungry, disrespected women who are leading very hard lives. They are poor. They face domestic violence. They face war violence. They are rape victims. And yet these women rise above their hardships and face life. They even resort to unethical methods like looting, poisoning and assaulting. But these desperate moves show their desire to live and survive. Survival is the focal point.

In 1942, Pearl S. Buck published Dragon Seed. This is a novel depicting horrendous cruelty. In a scene of war women are the worst sufferers. The novel is based historical events when China is invaded by the Japanese. In this scene of savagery and cruelty, about twenty thousand women were brutally raped and some even murdered. Even dead bodies were not spared. This event hurt the conscience of Pearl S. Buck. She keeps the concerns of women central to her work.

Amidst utter gloom, Pearl portrays, courageous and brave woman. One woman is named as Jade. Jade exemplifies the traditional as well as new China. She is a woman of free and independent thinking at same time she is devoted to her husband and family. She is literate and feels pride in her achievement. She takes equal pride in her household works. She is against war and killing. But when the opportunity arises, she poisons many Japanese officers. Characters like Jade and Mayli reflect Pearl’s anxious hopes for female victory in China.

One online review says, “There are phrases and descriptions in the book that show that women were trivialized in those times. Phrase like-“in the end, she is only a woman” Jade’s character captured changes in women in those times. Jade is an independent and forward thinking woman that wants to do more than rear children. Her husband seeks her advice in tough times and she demonstrates a lot of talent and intelligence”.

In 1945 came the next novel The Townsman. Pearl S. Buck published this novel under the pseudonym Johan Sedegs. The use of this pseudonym shows how keen Pearl was in her observation about the gender politics of literature. She felt that if a writer wanted to be taken seriously, she should take a male name. Men were considered to be serious, responsible and mature writers. Women howsoever good were not taken seriously. Pearl S. Buck fully understood this discriminatory attitude of society. Therefore she took a male name. In this year 1945 Pearl S. Buck also published another novel Portrait of a Marriage. This book is considered to be autobiographical in nature. It deals with marital love. Buck compassionately imagines both sides of the complex marriage and in addition, creates a wonderful vivid picture of America leading up to the Second World War. This novel is significant in understanding the female psyche as it describes a mismatched marriage. William Barton is a talented painter and comes from a very good family. His wife Ruth is a farmer. The novel shows the scarifies of a woman in managing her married life.

In 1946 came the Pavilion of Women, “ Set in pre-world war China, Pavilion of the Women is the story of Madame Wu, the highly respected matriarch of an expansive and wealthy family. In many ways traditional and conservative in terms of morality, spirituality, and household practicality, she undergoes a significant transformation on all three levels as the result of a series of encounters with the European tutor of one of her sons. By the novel’s conclusion, she has come to a new and deeper understanding of herself, her family, and her culture.

As the novel begins, Madame Wu is celebrating her fortieth birthday with a momentous decision – she is going to bring a concubine (sexual companion) for her husband into the household. Because her word is viewed and acted upon as law in the multi-generational Wu family. Those whom she tells of her decision suppress their shock and resentment. The one family member who is less successful at that suppression is Mr. Wu, who protests that he still loves Madame Wu and still finds her desirable. Convinced that her decision is the correct one, Madame Wu maintains complete control over the situation, chooses the orphaned Ch’iuming, and withdraws to a separate part of the family compound, convinced that she has shaped events in the family to give her long-standing peace.

Madame Wu’s peace does not last long, however. Her two older sons have difficulty with their wives; her flighty best friend proves simultaneously warm and irritating; and the visits of a female Christian missionary become increasingly annoying, to the point when Madame Wu becomes inclined to ban her from the house. Her inclination changes, however, when she realizes that her youngest son, in need of developing a more peaceful relationship with his new, worldly educated wife, needs a private tutor. Madame Wu asks the missionary whom she recommends, and the missionary arranges for the Wu family to be visited by the formidably, gently learned Brother Andre.

When Madame Wu meets Brother Andre, she finds himself immediately drawn to his ideas and his teachings: a secret reader and an introspective thinker in circumstances when women were valued solely for their reproductive capabilities, Madame Wu finds her mind and spirit reawakening as the result of Brother Andre’s teaching. Meanwhile, her son’s marriage improves; the relationship between Mr. Wu and Ch’iuming results in a pregnancy for the latter; and the environment of the household is changed by the sudden death of Mr. Wu’s mother.

Eventually, Brother Andre’s pupil resolves to leave the family home and travel to America. For a while, Andre’s visits stop, but they eventually resume. Madame Wu is unwilling and/or unable to let her own education come to an end. She finds her intellectual and spiritual awareness deepening, frequently losing herself in contemplation, much to the consternation of her family. Over time, a series of further difficulties (including the deaths of both Brother Andre and another of her sons, and the arrival of another concubine) sends Madame Wu even further into spiritual searching, and she finds both herself and her life reaching new depths of enlightenment. The novel concludes with Madame Wu’s dawning realization that her soul is truly immortal”.(

In 1948 Pearl S. Buck came with one of her best works Peony-Life of a Bondmaid. This book reflects the sensitivity of Pearl. S. Buck towards servants. Peony is a derivation of the word peon. Peony is the main character of this novel who is a bonded maid of the Ezra family. Peony is a combination of a servant, cook and governess at the Ezra household. The novel describes psychology of servants. Peony secretly adores the son of the master of the family. The son David is of a similar age. Peony is psychologically vulnerable. The lady of the family, Madam Ezra always doubts Peony and even ill-treats her. A servant, bond maid has no place to go if the master asks her to leave the house. Buck shows that servants cannot love. Peony learns to be practical. She removes David from her head and heart. She even helps him in marrying another girl of their status. Peony refuses to be used by David physically. After all the conflict, tension, mental struggle, Peony leaves the house and becomes a nun. Buck has very efficiently shown the tragic, weak condition of servants through this novel. Peony proves to be a strong character as she avoids exploitation. However she cannot avoid emotional and mental exploitation,“ Peony has her eye on the son of the house, but class distinction prevents marriage, as religion does concubine, forcing her into the kind of prudent compromise which Miss Buck thinks of as indigenously Chinese. She whips up David’s interest in a pliable Chinese girl who will at least not threaten her present secure status. Since David has developed an environmental preference for small girls with flat noses, it looks in the demure early section of the book, as if a little poetry and Peony can easily accomplish his seduction to China”.

In 1949 Buck published the novel Kinfolk. The novel described the life of a Chinese man in America. Ling talks about Chinese philosophy to Americans. His wife is a peasant. She is sturdy and uneducated. This novel depicting an unusual hybrid experience shows the tremendous natural wisdom of the wife even though she is not educated. From the feminist angle, it can be said that it offers a portrait of two sisters who struggle to find their own identity in a complex world. The elder daughter is not able to face native Chinese harshness and comes back to America to marry a white American. The other sister accepts traditional Chinese life style and stays back in China. The female characters of Pearl S. Buck show remarkable mental strength.

In 1952 came the novel The Hidden Flower. This is the poignant story of how a marriage is failed by social pressure. A Japanese woman and American man marry each other out of love but their marriage is finally defeated by prejudices and ill will of society both in America and Japan. The negative social force makes their life insupportable. When this novel was written marriage between whites and non-whites was not legally allowed. Pearl S. Buck was ahead of her times and she knew that love knows no boundary. Josui is in family way but she keeps Allen unknown with this fact and decides to leave her baby. A generous and kind hearted woman who is a physician by profession and wishes to battle American racial discrimination adopts the baby.

The novel shows the defeat of passion. The man initially marries the woman but the marriage is not legal. The old attitude of society comes to haunt, “Asian girls are for fun, white girls for marriage”. We can see how liberal, enlightened and open minded Pearl. S. Buck is. She wants a woman to be valued as a human being. Marriage should be based on mutual love and faith and not on a social prejudice.

In 1956 Pearl S. Buck wrote Imperial Women .We can see the continued engagement of the writer with issues of gender, status and authority. Pearl was impressed by Empress Dowager, Tz’ u-his, a historical woman who had been very powerful. She had ruled over China when Pearl was a girl. Pearl liked the Empress very much since her childhood. Often she referred to her in her letters and essays and compared her with Mu-lan, the woman warrior of Chinese folklore.

This remarkable novel fictionalizes the extraordinary life of the last Empress of China. The novel is enthralling from start to finish. Chosen to be a concubine, she rose to become the head of the Qing Dynasty through her intelligence, diligence and careful planning. She studies determinedly to understand affairs of politics and state. She eventually rules with a mixture of altruism, serenity and extreme ruthlessness. Only a writer as great and skilled as Pearl S. Buck could have brought such a complex and ambiguous character to life so vividly. The reader empathies so deeply with the Empress that even her acts of cruelty and violence seem necessary to sustain the integrity of the nation. Her central struggle is the preservation of Chinese identity, traditions and ancient ways against Western industrial and culture influence.

In 1969 Pearl S. Buck published The Three Daughter of Madame Liange. The novel brings out the hypocrisy of the Chinese society. Madzne Liange is an elegant woman in her fifties. She is rich. She runs an expensive restaurant in Shanghai. Communist party cadre, army officers and rich people visit her restaurant. Her three daughters are living in America. They have successful carriers.

The dictatorship forces Madame Linge to bring her daughters back. Being rich becomes her crime. She is beaten to death by a mob. And this is how the life of the strong woman ends.

The whole career of Pearl S. Buck as writer revolves around portraying strong women. The fight between an intelligent woman of substance, on one hand and patriarchal society on the other hand is very real and true. The depiction is close to life. Pearl. S. Buck has described Chinese women set in traditional Chinese society. The fight is that of survival. Nothing is more important than survival. These women do not hesitate in looting, assaulting, poisoning and dominating when their survival is threatened. When they lose, they are beaten, raped, assaulted and even murdered. This is the dynamics in the novels of Pearl S. Buck. We may like it or not, her feminism is ‘earthy’. Her concept of the liberation of women is not lofty, philosophical, spiritual, or heavenly. Her women are made of blood, flesh and bones. They are not made up of ideas. The conclusion that we draw after studying all the novels of Pearl S. Buck is that material needs are supreme and intellectual needs come later.

Works Cited

  • Gao Xiongya.2000. Pearl S. Buck’s Chinese Women Characters. Susquehanna University Press.109.(ISBN157591025)
  • Buck, Pearl S. 1931. The Good Earth. New York: Johan Day.16
  • America’s Midieval Women, Harper’s Magazine, August1938 Pearl S. Buck.

(This lecture was delivered by Prof. Shubha Tiwari at Academic Staff College, GG Central University, Bilaspur C.G. India on 30th June 2017.)


More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

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