Peony by Pearl S. Buck

Peony by Pearl S. Buck

Peony by Pearl S. Buck

Discussion questions

  1. What do the characters’ names foreshadow? Do they fit? In the Bible, Ezra is a high priest who returned from the Babylonian exile and reintroduced the Torah in Jerusalem; Naomi influences her daughter-in-law Ruth to abandon her native religion and embrace Judaism and Ruth subsequently becomes the great-grandmother of King David; David was a great leader of his people and it was prophesized that the messiah would be his descendant. Leah was Jacob’s first wife. He wanted to marry her younger sister Rachel but their father tricked Jacob into marrying Leah first. She bore a daughter and six sons, whose descendants became the Twelve Tribes of Israel. In Chinese culture, the peony is a symbol of spring, nobility, and value and is used as a metaphor for female beauty and reproduction. A peony in full bloom represents peace.
  1. What is Peony’s place in the House of Ezra? In Chinese society? How is her position as bondmaid in a Jewish household different than it would have been in a Chinese household? What are her duties?
  1. What is the attitude of the various Jewish characters (Ezra, Naomi, David, the rabbi, Leah, Aaron, and Kao Lien) towards their religious heritage and its rituals and traditions? How do they each struggle with their Jewish identity? Is an accurate portrayal of how people in a dwindling minority might act and feel? How much of what happens to the Jewish community and Jewish families in Peony is unique to their situation in China, and how much is universal?
  1. Hatred and kindness are two ways in which a minority population can “disappear” from a country or culture. Hatred can cause holocausts, inquisitions, hostile acts, and prejudice; kindness makes assimilation attractive. Why are the past and traditions more important to some characters than others? For instance, why does Naomi want to visit the holy land, although she has never been there? Are people who choose to assimilate turning their backs on their ancestors and their past, or embracing the present? Can one do both?
  1. What do you make of Kao Lien’s explanation to David of why the Jews have been persecuted? Does it make sense to you? How does one maintain a separate identity when one is not part of the mainstream culture?
  1. Why does David turned away from Leah to Kueilan, the Chinese woman whom he eventually marries? Is it due mainly to Peony’s influence? Do you think he would have married Leah if Peony had not interfered? Would they have been happy together?
  1. David’s mother Naomi wants to keep her Jewish heritage alive and is determined that her son will marry a Leah, daughter of the local rabbi. Do you agree or sympathize with her aims? Is there another way to strengthen the Jewish community other than through this marriage and positioning her son as the next leader of the Jews in Kaifeng?
  1. What are your feelings towards Leah? Do you sympathize with her? Why couldn’t David love her?
  1. What does the sword brought back from Israel represent? Why does David choose to keep it? Why is it ironic that Leah uses the same sword to end her own life?
  1. After Leah’s death and David’s marriage to Kung Chen’s daughter, Naomi loses much of her strength of character. While she still follows religious practices such as celebrating the holy days, she realizes that the Jewish community in Kaifeng is nearing its demise. What do you think would have happened if David and Leah had married? Could they have brought about a resurgence in the small Jewish community?
  1. The book presents two sons who are expected to follow a certain path by their parents. Aaron, the rabbi’s son, is not interested in taking his father’s place as leader of the religious community, and David is resentful of his mother’s attempt to get him to marry Leah. How do you feel towards both young men? Towards their parents? Is there any room for compromise in such situations?
  1. Why did Aaron act as he did? Why didn’t the rabbi reproached him for his actions, even when he knows his son has stolen the silver? What does the theft and sale of the silver foreshadow?
  1. In addition to the question of assimilation, the book also explores how gender, religion, and class influence our lives. How is Peony limited by her gender, cultural identity, and class? What are the advantages of her situation? What other characters are limited because of gender, religion, class, or cultural group/race?
  1. How do you judge Peony’s decision to influence David to marry Kuelien rather than Leah? Is it selfish on her part, or does she think the Chinese woman will be a better match for him than the rabbi’s daughter?
  1. While Peony enjoys a certain prestige within the household, she knows that she cannot aspire to marry David. Should she have sought to leave the House of Ezra and find employment elsewhere? Is she shrewd for staying in a comfortable environment or self-sacrificing? What characteristics do you admire in Peony? Do you consider her a good person? Is she primarily looking out for the family she serves or for herself? How does she differ from the other characters?
  1. Are the characters, both Jewish and Chinese, realistic or stereotyped? How are both cultures portrayed? What is the philosophical and religious viewpoint of each? What similarities do the two cultures have? What differences? How do they compare in matters of love, work, family, religion, aging, power, and secrets?

About the author

Pearl S. Buck was born Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker on June 26, 1892, in Hillsboro, West Virginia, when her parents, Southern Presbyterian missionaries stationed in China, were on furlough. When she was three months old she was taken to China, where she spent most of the first 40 years of her life, speaking both English and Chinese. She spent four years at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia, before returning to China, where she married agricultural economist John Lossing Buck in 1917. Buck had a hysterectomy due to a uterine tumor discovered during the delivery of their daughter Carol, who was was profoundly retarded. In 1925, the couple adopted a baby girl, Janice. From 1920 to 1933, the family lived in Nanjing, where both John and Pearl Buck had teaching positions, and spent a year in Unzen, Japan in 1927 after the "Nanking Incident," in which several Westerners were killed, before returning to Nanjing.

Buck began to publish stories and essays in magazines in the 1920s; her first novel, East Wind, West Wind, appeared in 1930. Her second novel, The Good Earth (1931), became a best-seller, won the Pultizer Prize and the Howells Medal, and was adapted into a film in 1937. She published over 70 books: novels, story collections, biography, autobiography, poetry, drama, children's books, and English translations of Chinese writings. In 1938 she became the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature.

Buck returned to the U.S. in 1934 and married her publisher Richard Walsh in 1935 after divorcing John Buck. She and Walsh adopted six more children and lived on Green Hills Farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Active in civil rights and women's rights activities, Buck established Welcome House, the first international interracial adoption agency, and the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, which sponsors thousands of children in half-a-dozen Asian countries. She died in 1973.