Friday, August 31, 2012

The Good Earth

I've become more aware of female characters in fiction - particularly classic fiction.  I re-read The Good Earth by Pearl Buck for book club.  The novel is a classic - Pearl Buck won the Pulitzer for it.  The descriptions are vivid; and the characters, despite differences in culture, are timeless.  Yet I was struck by the novel's misogyny and sexism.  Of course it's historically accurate.  A woman gives birth to a daughter and exclaims " another slave". 

The main character's first wife, O-lan, is the patriarchal female ideal.  I would give this book to someone to explain this ideal that women are fighting - consciously or unconsciously.  Sold into actual slavery by his parents, she is sold from the family she serves to her husband. 

Without being asked, she takes over care of the home, cooking for the main character's (Wang's) father.  She asks for nothing for herself.  When she gives birth, she goes alone into her room.  She doesn't make a sound - after giving birth she goes out into the fields.

In the book club group, we agree that she is the reason for the family's success.  But she remains unrecognized and unacknowledged.  The husband takes her only treasured possession, twp pearls, to bring a second wife into their home.

She is never supposed to complain, show anger towards her husband.  She is the ideal long-suffering, patient, devoted wife and mother. In the end during her terminal illness, she refuses to die until her daughter in law moves into the home to care for everyone.

The mother/martyr archetype is still the ideal, whether or not people want to admit it.  A woman (particularly a mother) should never want something for herself.  She should never admit she is sick, never directly ask for what she wants or needs.  She should never demand recognition of what she does.  This is the stereotype my grandmother and mother have had to fight against - and yet I wonder how they see themselves.  Would they (would I) have the self-esteem to refuse to give their prized possession to their husbands?  And would they withstand the criticism from their husbands (and society) for being selfish or narcissistic?  A good measure is whether or not men would ever be asked to make the same sacrifices. 

There is a great deal of narcissism and selfishness in modern American culture.  But let's be clear.  Women getting an education, waiting for marriage and motherhood, are not being selfish.  Families limiting their family size to those they can financially, physically and emotionally care for - not selfish.  Women having an identity outside of wife and mother - not selfish.

I'm certainly glad that times are changing.  That this explicit misogyny is no longer the status quo for the majority of American women.  I'm grateful for all the people (women and men) who fought to get rid of this second class status for half of the population.


Kathryn said...

There's a line of dialogue in the novel Mrs. Dalloway, "Politicians' wives really should't get ill," that popped into my head while reading this. I like the idea of people, male and female, being allowed to be whole people, not consigned to a role. I really hope we are moving more in that direction.

Freckle Face Girl said...

It is astounding that women have been treated and considered themselves to be second or third class citizens for so long. Thank goodness we’ve come a long way even though there is still inequality even here.