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The Good Earth | Themes


Connection to Land

"Land is one's flesh and blood," Wang Lung declares. For him and other farmers, the land is the foundation of life. Barring flood or drought, hard work done in humility will provide their families with food, shelter, and a means of survival. Because Wang Lung is so connected to his land, he reinvests his profits from good harvests back into more land.

Even when Wang Lung is forced to flee from his land due to famine, the thought of his land keeps him alive. Upon his return it seems to him "he had never been away from his land, as indeed, in his heart he never had." As long as "the good earth" is in Wang Lung's heart, his heart is "good."

Buck contrasts Wang Lung's humble connection to the land with the decadent ways of the House of Hwang. In Chapter 16 Cuckoo tells Wang Lung the mighty house fell because "in the last generation the lords ceased to see the land." The House of Hwang sold off their land "bit by bit" to support their decadent ways. "The strength of the land" left them. Wang Lung takes this to heart and resolves to set his sons to "tasks in the field." In that way they "take into their bones and their blood the feel of soil under their feet." Even Wang Lung's last speech supports his belief in the virtue of staying connected to the earth. "Out of the land we came and into it we must go," he admonishes his sons. "If you will hold your land you can live," he says.

Corrupting Power of Wealth

The House of Hwang's decadent ways contrast with the more humble existence of Wang Lung and O-lan, farmers connected to their plot of earth. The wealthy Old Lord Hwang squanders his silver on meeting the demands of his many concubines. Old Mistress Hwang's corrupting vice is opium. This combination of sex and drug addiction makes it necessary for the great house to sell off land piece by piece.

Wang Lung's life journey takes him from simple farmer for whom even taking a bath is a luxury to a lord of a great house. In Chapter 1 he goes so far as to throw his bathwater "on the earth ... and it is not all waste." The idleness that wealth brings is connected with corruption and vice. As long as Wang Lung works hard, he has no time to think of vices. But as soon as the flood in Chapters 18 and 19 makes him idle and bored, he faces his greatest temptation. It is in the form of Lotus. At first Lotus is merely a dream woman to Wang Lung. But the sly temptress Cuckoo, significantly one of Old Lord Hwang's former concubines, lures him into buying her services. "A little silver will turn [dream women] into flesh," she tells him. And so it does. Wang Lung is so enchanted with Lotus he even bathes every day. "You will die with all this washing!" O-lan warns, and the subtext is clear. Wang Lung has come far from his humble roots where bathwater was too precious. His wealth could be his downfall if he is not careful.

Once he has Lotus for his concubine, Wang Lung's obsession begins to wane. He is occupied with the trouble she brings him, and this drives him back to his land. His hard work on the land cures him of his lovesickness. In Chapter 22 Wang Lung tells Lotus, "Now you see that your lord is but a farmer and you a farmer's wife!" She disagrees, saying, "A farmer's wife I am not, be you what you like!" This is significant because she is rejecting the virtuous, humble life of the "good earth." She will always be a symbol of Wang Lung's temptation into a life of decadence and the corrupting power of wealth.

Poor Treatment of Women

In Chinese culture women were seen as inferior to men. Male children were celebrated as "good omens." Only male children could carry on the family name and later take care of the family. This is why Wang Lung's father sees his duty done by having a son and a grandson. He no longer has to work because they will provide for him. In contrast female children were unwanted "bad omens." Girls were referred to as "slaves." They were just another mouth to feed until they were sold to their husband's family for a dowry or worse, sold as work slaves. O-lan had this latter fate. She was sold as a slave as a child by desperate parents to work as a servant in the House of Hwang.

O-lan is arguably the most sympathetic character in the novel. She is a vessel with which to explore the poor treatment of women in China during this time period. She is expected to do all the housework, must walk behind Wang Lung, and does not even get to attend her own wedding feast.

In Chapter 7 Wang Lung is angry that she dare get pregnant at an inconvenient time. Because he needs her for the harvest, he will not even give her a day off in the fields to rest from childbirth because the "aching of his own exhausted body made him cruel."

His worst mistreatment of her involves his berating her for her lack of beauty and large feet. He uses this as an excuse for taking on Lotus as a concubine. He even takes her pearls to give to Lotus. After all her faithfulness, O-lan certainly does not deserve to be treated so abysmally. Wang Lung realizes this when she falls ill and tries to spend time with her to make up for it. Taking her pearls from her ends up being one of his life's biggest regrets.

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