Friday, January 28, 2011

The Good Earth

During January the on-line book club in which I participate has read “The Good Earth” by Pearl Buck. This is a story of the peasant farmer, Wang Lung and his family as they lived in rural China in the early 20th century. The book was the best selling novel in the United States in 1931 and 1932. Its success helped Buck win a Nobel Prize for literature in 1938.

At the beginning of the story the Chinese, peasant farmer, Wang Lung married O-Lan. Wang Lung fit the classical Horatio Alger myth that has guided the consciousness of America. He achieved success as a farmer through his hard work, bought land, suffered from a terrible drought, dragged his family to another city where they had to beg for food, came back to their home when an army threatened the city. As they left the city he and O-Lan took some jewels from another house. That money helped them re-establish their life on the land where they previously lived. Wang Lung and O-Lan had four children; they were very successful as farmers. They eventually bought more land and bought the house where O-Lan lived as a concubine. Overtime Wang Lung fell out of love with O-Lan, brought a concubine to live in his own house while O-Lan was alive, and lived through the challenges that his family presented him. He died a very prosperous man.

Wang Lung never lost his love for the land. At the end of his life he shared with his sons his desire that his land would always stay in his family. The last line of the novel displayed the cyclical nature of fortune that Wang Lung experienced. “But over the old man’s (Wang Lung] head they looked at each other and smiled.” It was obvious that the sons would sell the property against their dying father’s wishes.

The folks in my Book Club had a vigorous discussion on how to view Wang Lung. Some saw him as a farmer who, though flawed, became very successful. He was similar to an Old Testament patriarch. His adultery could be excused because the culture in which he lived excused this behavior. Others couldn’t excuse Wang Lung’s behavior.

The question with which I think is worth reflecting on is do the cultural mores and expectations of a society excuse a person from their behavior. Because the culture in China in the early 20th century—at least according to the novel—accepted men having concubines live in their house does this excuse adultery?

This year I’m reading through the Old Testament. This morning I read Exodus 20—the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses. When God gave the Ten Commandments God gave these as universal laws. Just because a culture could accept adultery—through married men living with their concubines—this doesn’t make adultery acceptable. Universal moral principles exist—despite the setting in which they are lived out.

What would happen if a culture accepted stealing as acceptable? Would this make stealing tolerable?

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