The Mother

by Pearl S. Buck
[John Day, $2.50]
BJÖRNSON once wrote a story, of only four or five pages, entitled ‘The Father,’ in which, with the grave simplicity of a Biblical parable, he symbolized the love of father for son in all times and places of the world. Some such conception as this Pearl Buck has expanded to three hundred pages in The Mother, a narrative of the life of a Chinese woman from the birth of her third child to her death. Deserted by her husband, she tills her farm herself. Her elder son marries; the second becomes a communist and is executed; her daughter, who is blind, is married into a degraded family and dies. At the end the mother, old and helpless, returning from the execution, learns of the birth of a grandson: ‘But even as she wept her son came running. Yes, he came running over the sun-strewn land and as he ran he beckoned with his arm and shouted something to her but she could not hear it quickly out of all her maze of sorrow. She lifted up her face to hear and then she heard him say, “My son is come — mother — ” and then she heard him cry, “ My son is come — your grandson — mother!” . . . She laid her hand upon his arm and began to laugh a little, half weeping, too. And leaning on him she hurried her old feet and forgot herself.’
The quotation illustrates the style. It is a story of labor, food, childbirth, death, desolation, with rare moments of happiness. The characters, who are not named, live almost solely on the plane of tradition, feeling, and instinct; their life a never-ceasing battle merely to live; their interests seldom moving far from the primary necessities and satisfactions of life. One hardly pities the mother, despite her suffering, because the forces of nature move so strongly in her. She lives only for her children, and in her is symbolized the indomitable current of life from generation to generation. It is like the terrible persistency of vegetation, growing in the dark, to reach the light. But some of the incidents are almost too true to be endured. Such is the episode of the daughter — her soreness of the eyes, ending in blindness, her mute patience, the fatalism with which her disease is accepted, the marriage to get rid of her, and tier death among barbaric strangers. Her mother and brothers know some happiness, but her life is like that of some gentle, lovable animal that suffers and “openeth not his mouth.’
This is no book for tender-minded persons. It is uncompromising in its recording of physiological fact, and some readers may ask why it need be quite so literal. There is no doubt, however, that it is true to the life of millions of humble women the world over. One might ask whether the parabolic style is suitable for so long a narrative; but that is a question on which there is not likely to be any general agreement. The absence of proper and place names certainly affects its reality, but also heightens its grim power and enforces its universal significance, although at the same time it may lessen its popular appeal.
R. M. GAY