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.
Wang Lung is a man with contradictory impulses. His primary passion is the land; whenever he feels a need for peace, whenever he needs to get "grounded," he returns to his fields. However, during times of flood or famine, when he cannot work the land, Wang Lung falls into pursuing the things of the world. He yearns for beautiful, delicate women, for expensive teas and foods and silks, for high-status company. His purchase of Lotus represents the height of his obsession with worldly things: she hates the farmer's braid that he wears, she insists that he bathe daily, she despises the smell of garlic (a favorite food of farmers).
Wang Lung, however infatuated he may be with Lotus or other status symbols, always returns to the land. His sons and relatives, however, lack this default setting. Despite the famine in their youth, his sons have grown up in relative comfort; though they are very different, they all share a desire to prove themselves in the more abstract realms of commerce, politics, war and wealth. They are of the world. It does not bode particularly well for them that they have formed attachments to the transitory pleasures and pursuits of life, rather than rely upon the steady farming ways of their ancestors.
The Good Earth covers a great deal of time -- about forty years -- in a quite unusual way. As long as things are going well, spans of years will pass by in a single sentence. Only when trouble strikes does the narrative shift into a more focused, plot-oriented approach. The effect echoes the life of a farmer. While the cycle of seasons occurs smoothly, the rhythm of life is also cyclical. However, when this cyclical rhythm is disrupted, by flood, famine, or human factors, life must work through problems in a more linear fashion. Wang Lung, as he ages, yearns for the peaceful connection to cyclical, seasonal life, but does not achieve this until the novel's end, as crises consistently interfere.
Buck suggests that crises, too, are cyclical, though dealing with them can be an ad hoc ordeal. In The Good Earth we see two famines, a plague of locusts (which occurs cyclically), and a quite predictable recurrence of human drama following from births, deaths, weddings, losses of innocence, lousy relatives and gangs of thieves. All things -- good and bad, feast and famine alike -- have happened before. The constant point, both in terms of providing and withholding provisions, is the earth.
When the characters of the newer generations become caught up in "new" things -- the revolution, city fashions, etc. -- at the expense of "old" things -- the gods, the ways of farming -- beware. The new things aren't really new, and concentrating too intently on them blinds characters to the lessons of the past. Those who see the cycles of the earth and its people, and link their lives up with these cycles, thrive; those who don't, perish.
Throughout The Good Earth, we see repeated instances of what might be called "mass consciousness." Characters regularly think of themselves in terms of a group or a movement. They follow traditions and feel part of a group identity -- like "farmers" -- or, more radically, they actively join mass movements to affect people's consciousness, which we see in the case of the revolution.
At the beginning of the book, both Wang Lung and O-lan are very sure of their roles within society. They fulfill these roles very well indeed; Wang Lung works the fields while O-lan keeps the house. Theirs are the ways of generation after generation, and they are thus linked up to traditional patterns of life that comprise enormous numbers of people.
Meanwhile, other instances of mass consciousness in the novel run counter to these traditional forms of life. The revolutionaries and missionaries in the novel seek to disrupt past hierarchies and religious ways. They too work en masse, sweeping the discontented and disillusioned into their numbers. Wang Lung, who is so deeply connected to the traditional ways, cannot understand these multitudes.
Yet even Wang Lung is carried away by the most violent form of mass consciousness in the novel: the mob. While living in the south, he joins the mob that raids a Great House, even though he does not necessarily agree with the tenets of the revolutionaries. A greater "mind" than the individual seems to take him up, a group force -- and not a force of good -- that has a mind of its own. Similarly, Wang Lung's uncle incites the starving villagers near the beginning of the novel to mob Wang Lung's farm. Though the villagers have nothing against Wang Lung personally, their hunger and discontent breeds a mob mentality that few people seem able to resist.
Nature, too, works in mobs. The plague of locusts that devastates the fields is thematically linked to the riotous peoples of the novel. Wang Lung, who knows the ways of the earth, is able to stave off the brunt of the locusts' damage, but future generations may not bode so well against such forms of natural mass consciousness. Nor will they be able to hold off human mobs. Indeed, when Wang Lung's eldest son forces the poor to leave the House of Hwang, the poor grumble that they will return "when the rich grow too rich." Only by understanding the land can one understand the cyclical nature of the mob, and the newer generation has grown out-of-touch with the earth.
At the beginning of the novel Wang Lung appears as a very pious and superstitious man, constantly offering incense to the gods to protect his family and his crops. Later, with the famine that forces his family to migrate south, Wang Lung grows angry at the gods and dismisses them.
After he returns to the land and begins to grow wealthy Wang Lung becomes increasingly indifferent towards the gods. In fact, he openly shows his disregard for them, something that Ching cautions him against. However, as a rich man Wang Lung believes that he has control over his own life and does not need to rely on divine intervention and/or protection.
In fact, the only time Wang Lung shows any fear of the gods again is when his first grandson is about to be born. However, after the event transpires there is no more mention of the gods. Worship of the gods is a clear hold-over from the old ways, and as China changes with the revolution and the collapse of the traditional aristocracy, the gods recede somewhat.
Wang Lung might be the protagonist of the novel, but of equal importance are the women of The Good Earth. Indeed, Buck depicts women as carefully negotiating the male-dominated world of the novel, achieving status and power when they can but never outrightly contradicting the misogyny expressed by the men in the book.
O-lan is, of course, the primary female figure in The Good Earth. At first she appears to be almost impossibly submissive and obedient to Wang Lung. She works incessantly, gives birth without complaint, remains constantly quiet and fills her household role. As the novel progresses, however, O-lan's rich history and inner life emerges. She is clever, resourceful and fiercely proud. There is no doubt that she is primarily responsible for the survival of her family during times of famine, and for her husband's accumulation of wealth and status. The central tragedy of the novel is Wang Lung's failure to recognize O-lan's crucial role in his life until she is on death's doorstep.
Other women in the novel, like Cuckoo and Lotus, gain power in a male-dominated society through different means. They know men better than men know themselves, and by using their beauty and delicacy -- as well as their wits -- they achieve comfortable financial positions. For both Cuckoo and Lotus, sex is a primary tool. Cuckoo uses her sexuality to bend the Old Lord to her will, whereas Wang Lung will do almost anything to please Lotus. They, like O-lan in many other things, are remarkably clear-sighted and unsentimental about this. Though they are pretty, it is not a pretty world, and a woman must use what she can to get where she can.
The exception to this unsentimental approach comes at the end of the novel, with Pear Blossom. She loves Wang Lung because he is an old, peaceful man. She fears and hates young men, whom she sees as violent and cruel. Indeed, Pear Blossom expresses a distaste for the patriarchal society depicted in the novel that will likely ring true with a modern reader. One wonders what will become of her guarded innocence after the death of her protector, Wang Lung.
The Good Earth Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Good Earth is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.