by Trevor Allen
THERE is a problem implicit in that epic film of the East, The Good Earth, which is of profound interest to every woman. Was woman meant to be a drudge, to labour and bear children, to suffer in silence, subjugate herself completely to her husband, and have no free life of her own?
Luise Rainer’s role is that of wife to a Chinese peasant-farmer, played by Paul Muni. She labours in the fields and in the house from dawn to dark, suffers dumbly when there is famine, works right to the hour of bearing her child, never complains, regards her man as her lord and master.
Played with superb dignity and restraint by an actress of genius, this woman is not only one typical Chinese slave of “the good earth,” but also the symbol of patient, suffering womanhood through the ages and in all countries, east and west.
In backward agricultural districts and in the depressed areas her type exists to-day, even in enlightened Britain. A generation or two back, before woman won emancipation, it was common. In the days of our mothers and grandmothers we still believed that “men must work and women must weep.” Incidentally, they bore a large share of the work as well; generally the larger, for they worked outside the home as well as in it and could not call an hour of the day their own.
Although the film is the story of a woman’s day-to-day life on the land in China, much of it is typical of farming and labouring life elsewhere. As it unfolds before the woman of to-day, sitting in a comfortable cinema, she can reckon her blessings and estimate how far her sex has travelled during the past few decades.
She is not watching some strange inhabitant of another world; she is contemplating her own ancestry; herself – broadly speaking – as she might have lived, had she been born half a century earlier, or in some remote rural area only yesterday. It should help cure her of some of those niggling present-day discontents when she sees what woman once had to endure – and still endure, many of them, even in an age of progress.
To-day the majority of women life a full life. They have access to Parliament and the professions. Labour-saving devices in the home give them leisure, radio brings them wide interests, they can generally choose freely the man who is to be their husband and father of their children, and – within reason – the kind of life they are to share with him.
THEY are blessed with an enlightenment which makes them the companions, not the drudges, of men. If they are unhappy, the way to freedom and a fresh beginning is not entirely closed. They exist in their own right on a fifty-fifty basis. Self-fulfillment is their lot, not merely self-sacrifice. They have their own personal lives.
And yet sacrifice of self for husband, family and livelihood is the one dominant factor in the life of the drudge of the film. When she is trampled in the city riot, and finds the dropped bag of jewels, she doesn’t think of herself; she doesn’t reflect “This is my deliverance, this will buy me my freedom from all that slavery.” She thinks only of what it will mean to her man – his ability to return to the land and make good the ravages of famine Not for a second does it occur to her to think of self, though her life has been one of unmitigated hardship and struggle.
And when she is dying in pain, again her thoughts are not of herself but of her husband. “What will he do when I am gone? How will he manage without me? Who will look after him in the home and share the labour in the fields?” It is these anxious probings which her eyes so eloquently express in her last moments with him. She seems scarcely to be aware of the cruel fate which has laid her low, or her own sufferings.
Many women to-day can recall mothers whose lives were almost as self-sacrificing. They devoted themselves, heart and soul, to home and family, worked themselves to the bone to save expense, and claimed little or nothing but the affection of husband and children as recompense.
They seldom went anywhere, or made personal friends. They grew prematurely aged drudging away at humdrum Tasks. The husband was not always appreciative of the sacrifices made for his sake. Sometimes he drank and gambled away his earnings, and the devoted wife bore the brunt of the worry and helped him get him out of his troubles.
Nothing, however, could shake her fidelity to him, the home, and the children. As long as she could keep the home intact, pay her way with the tradesmen, keep the youngsters reasonably fed and happy, she considered she was sufficiently rewarded.
Complete Denial of Self
FREQUENTLY her old age was one of penury. She eked out an existence on charity. But she accepted all that as part of a woman’s lot, and seldom complained. In her complete denial of self she was a saint and a martyr. She would go hungry that others might not go short, dress drably that others, with their lives before them, might dress well.
When she was young, and romantic, and in love, she may have been beautiful. The years of scheming and worrying robbed her of that beauty, left her faded and jaded. She was old before she was middle-aged; a domestic thrall.
She never knew the freedom of many middle-aged women of today, which enables them to dress smartly, keep slim and comely, visit the hairdresser regularly, make the most of their looks with judicious make-up, until they seem no more than elder sisters of their own daughters, and are often their daughters’ friends rather than their mothers.
There was stoic virtue in the self-sacrificing wife of the type Luise Rainer interprets so poignantly. Perhaps the present-day woman, in some instances, has gone too far in the opposite direction.
But who can doubt that self-fulfilment and emancipation from drudgery have benefited women enormously, given men true companionship, bred more intelligent children, and made the world a better, more humane place to live in? And who knows what part emancipated woman may play in the future in redeeming humanity from the scourge of brutal senseless war?
See The Good Earth and – think it over.