Wednesday, April 8, 2015

East Wind, West Wind by Pearl S. Buck

An unremarkable debut
East Wind, West Wind is the debut novel of Pearl S. Buck, winner of the 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature. It was published in 1930, just one year before Buck would become a literary superstar upon the publication of her second novel, The Good Earth. Though born in America, Buck was raised in China, where her parents worked as missionaries. She lived there for most of the first forty years of her life, departing in 1934. The story of East Wind, West Wind is narrated by a Chinese woman named Kwei-Lan, as told to an American woman (presumably Buck herself) whom she addresses as My Sister. The purpose of the novel is to contrast the traditional marriage customs and family life of the East (China) with those of the West (America). To that end, it is quite successful in educating Western readers about Chinese customs and values. As far as literary quality is concerned, however, it’s not quite up to the standard of Buck’s better-known works, but it does reveal some promise of great things to come in her future career.

Kwei-Lan comes from a family of relative wealth. Her mother and father are married, yet her father also supports three concubines and their children in the household. According to Chinese custom, Kwei-Lan’s parents arrange a marriage for her. She enters into this union with enthusiasm, willing to serve her husband and his family as tradition dictates. Her husband, however, has a different perspective on things. He was educated in America, where he experienced firsthand the Western way of life. He wears Western clothes, practices Western medicine, and favors Western attitudes toward relationships and family. He honors the obligation of his marriage to Kwei-Lan, but treats her more as a roommate than a wife. He refuses to let her assume the traditional subservient role towards his family and insists they get a house of their own. As a doctor educated in modern medicine, he considers the practice of foot binding barbaric, and urges Kwei-Lan to unbind her own feet. Each break with tradition is painful to Kwei-Lan, as her inability to fulfill the customary obligations of a Chinese wife makes her feel like a failure in her matrimonial duties. Her husband is alien to her, yet she resolves to win his love, even if she must adapt to his modern Western ideas.

East Wind, West Wind probably would have been a better novel if it were written in the third person. China has had some strong and powerful women in its history, but Kwei-lan isn’t one of them. Though the reader wants to root for her, Buck’s main purpose for the character is to portray her as a victim to China’s antiquated customs. The reader soon grows tired of her relentless obsequiousness and naiveté. The slightest deviation from the norm sets her off into a paroxysm of shock. “Oh, My Sister!” Buck seems to grow tired of it too, as she switches gears to a different story line in which Kwei-lan’s brother refuses to go through with his own arranged marriage and weds an American woman instead. Once again this makes for some fascinating culture clash, but the histrionics with which it is rendered becomes tedious at times.

East Wind, West Wind is an OK book, but not a great one. As in all her works, Buck’s humanity and optimism shine through, but stylistically this novel is much more melodramatic and contrived than classics like The Good Earth or Dragon Seed. It’s worth a read for diehard Buck fans, but if all of her novels were of this caliber she wouldn’t have won a Nobel Prize.
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