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Naturally, The Good Earth thematizes the relationship between people and the land. Farms, fields, land, earth, dust, soil -- these terms pop up over and over again in the novel, as Wang Lung, O-lan and the other hard-working characters of the novel work the land. If the earth means merely one thing in the novel, it suggests constancy. Some years the harvest is plentiful, some years the harvest fails, but as long as a person owns a piece of the earth, comfort and nourishment will come again. Wang Lung's prosperity directly corresponds to the amount of land he owns, and his family's wealth follows from his understanding of and love of the fields. Moreover, O-lan, the character most responsible for his success, is thematically linked to the earth in terms of her brown color, her plain determined personality, and her fertility.
The earth also quite literally evokes tradition and ancestry. By the end of the novel those characters closest to the earth -- Wang Lung's father, O-lan, and Ching -- have been consigned to the earth. They are the earth once more, just like their ancestors. Their lessons, their wisdom, and even their bodies thus enter the cycle of feast and famine that follows from the earth.
By the novel's end, the connection between Wang Lung's family and the earth is almost totally severed. Wang Lung's sons have all chosen different paths, and though their comfort has been build from land-ownership and farming, they have little interest in continuing these pursuits. The novel ends with Wang Lung's sons speaking about selling the land, something that greatly distresses Wang Lung but that strikes the reader as inevitable.
"There was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods . . . Some time, in some age, bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses had stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth. So would also their house, some time, return into the earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth. They worked on, moving together—together—producing the fruit of this earth." (Chapter 2)
This quotation from Chapter 2 describes Wang Lung’s and O-lan’s connection to the land. Buck emphasizes the cyclical nature of the earth. The repeated motions of “turning this earth of theirs over and over” parallels the image of people, homes, and fortunes rising up and falling back into the earth over and over again. This quotation is important as an early explanation of Wang Lung’s ethical and spiritual connection to the land, and also as an emphasis on the recurring motif of the earth’s permanence compared to the fleeting lives and fortunes of human beings.
"But Wang Lung thought of his land and pondered this way and that, with the sickened heart of deferred hope, how he could get back to it. He belonged, not to this scum which clung to the walls of a rich man’s house; nor did he belong to the rich man’s house. He belonged to the land and he could not live with any fullness until he felt the land under his feet and followed a plow in the springtime and bore a scythe in his hand at harvest." (Chapter 14)
Explanation for Quotation 2 >>
This quotation from Chapter 14 depicts when Wang Lung, now in the city, looks back on his land with longing. His connection to the simple life of the earth has been affirmed by his time in the poverty-stricken urban chaos of the city. This quotation is important because it shows Wang Lung thinking in terms of economic comparisons. He has always had a tendency to think of money, but this tendency has been strengthened by his experience of acute poverty in the city. His longing for the tangible connection to his land provided by the plow and scythe—the symbols of planting and harvest, and of effort and reward—also indicates the acute loneliness he feels.
"Sell their land! Then indeed are they growing poor. Land is one's flesh and blood." Chapter 5, pg. 37
The Good Earth