The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck, is a tale of a farmer who rises from a commoner to a wealthy land owner. The setting is pre-Revolutionary China, sometime in the 20th century. The story is one of a farmer who becomes a wealthy man through hard work while facing droughts and floods. He becomes very rich, but forgets his true love, the earth, which got him to where he was. The mood of the story is serious. Droughts and floods affect the outcome of crops, which in turn, affect the people who need them to survive. As the story progresses, the mood changes to become more light hearted and careless. It is typical of today’s society of how the main character becomes rich and then forgets what it was like to be on the other side. He spends money carelessly and neglects to remember how his life was just a few months before. The main element of the story is definitely character. We look through the eyes of the main character and see how he, as a person, grows and matures.There are many characters in the story. The first is Wang Lung, a farmer and the main character of the story. The author tells the story through his view of life. We see Wang Lung at the beginning of the story as a young man, full of energy and love for his land. He has been raised on the land he now farms and takes great pride in maintaining it. Later in the story, he becomes a rich man, and forgets his land, “One’s flesh and blood.” As he finds out that money is not everything and cannot by happiness, he realizes his fault and returns to the earth.
O-lan is Wang Lung’s wife in the story. She was a slave girl raised in the great House of Hwang. Wang Lung buys her from the house, but he sees that “there is no beauty of any kind in her face.” But Wang Lung cannot afford a beautiful wife, for he is only a farmer. O-lan is a strong, but quite character. She bears hardships as they come and gives Wang Lung four children. Wang Lung seems to care for her, but she in return shows very little emotion. She is a hard character to reach and only before she dies, do we see the real side of O-lan.
The next main character is Lotus, a prostitute living at the tea shop in town. During the story, Wang Lung becomes ashamed of his plain wife. He ventures into the tea shop in town and pays for a prostitute, Lotus. She excites him and “kept him fevered and thirsty, even if she gave him his will of her.” Wang Lung falls in love with this woman and buys her to live in his house. She is a woman of delicacy and elegance, the complete opposite of O-lan, who she comes to dislike. The two live in opposite parts of the house, which keeps them happy. Lotus is another character who is blocked out from the reader. We only know that she is a material person, asking for jewels and expensive clothes and food from Wang Lung.
There are many other characters who play fairly large, but not main parts in the story. Wang Lung has four children, three boys and a girl. The two oldest boys become rivals later in the story and offer Wang Lung “no peace” in his old age. The girl, who he affectionately calls “the fool,” does not speak, but with her empty smile and sweet gaze fills Wang Lung with intense love and sadness. Wang Lung also lives with his father, who in his old age, sits in the sun most of the day only calling out to be fed.
The story begins on Wang Lung’s wedding day. He heads to the House of Hwang where he buys his wife, O-lan, from the Old Mistress there. He finds his wife plain, but a good worker and a strong-willed person. She works beside him on his land, harvesting the grain to sell. It is not long before she bears his first child, a son. But after birth, she returns to the fields to finish with the day’s work. This shocked me and gave me an idea of how strong a person she really was.
Year after year, O-lan and Wang Lung worked the fields, saving the extra money for whenever they needed it. O-lan bore three more kids, two sons and a daughter. Life seemed to be good for the simple farmer, but not for long. A four year drought hit that halted the planting and harvesting of crops. The local town suffered tremendously and there was not “a bean or a handful of corn to be had.” This drought affected everyone. Even the rich felt the wrath, for there was no food to buy, at any price. The drought caused Wang Lung and his family to head south. They ended up in a southern town where, with the little money they had left, brought rugs to make a small house. Here they begged for money to live on and Wang Lung went to work pulling a ricksha through the town, only making enough money to eat for that day. Wang Lung knew in his heart that he “must get back to his land.”
At this time in China, there were many civil wars going on. Chinese soldiers walked through the town and raided the houses of the rich. People robbed the houses breaking in and initiating riots throughout the city. In the confusion, Wang Lung stole jewels and silver from a wealthy house in the city. With his newly found wealth, Wang Lung and his family headed back to their land. With the money they left over, they bought mats to repair their house, an ox, and seeds “the likes of which he had never planted before.”
The family had many prosperous years, the children growing strong and the harvests yielding much money for Wang Lung and his family. Wang Lung had now conceived the idea that he was no longer a poor man. He hired men to work with him on his land, ate the best foods, and even sent his two oldest boys to school, for he could not read the contracts for seeds and land himself. Wang Lung used his great wealth to buy land from the once mighty House of Hwang. The Old Mistress was willing to give the land at a very cheap price, for the years of drought had weakened the people of the land. The money poured like silver and Wang Lung never lived with money problems again. But he was not happy. He found no beauty in O-lan and he was “longing for a young and beautiful woman.”
Wang Lung found this woman at a tea shop in the city. Her name was Lotus. She was a prostitute, but a lovely girl, nonetheless. Wang Lung found her exciting and she left him never completely satisfied. With Wang Lung’s riches, he bought this young girl and moved her into an inner court that he built on his house just for her. This stunned me at first. In today’s society, you never see two women living with one man, one for pleasure and one for work. But I realize that this might have been a usual action in Chinese culture. I did, however, find comic relief in this part of the book. Wang Lung’s father, who says few words throughout the entire novel, begins to yell, “There is a harlot in the house!” I found this quite funny because the father realizes this one thing and yells it every time he sees Lotus.
Wang Lung lived happy again and aged as the years passed. The two women never talked to each other and this both please and hurt Wang Lung. He hired men to work for him and rented out his land, which brought in more and more money. Suddenly, O-lan became ill with intestinal problems. She could only lie upon her bed and call out for food and tea. Wang Lung felt guilty, as he had bought another woman and overlooked his wife who bore him children. As her last request before she died, her eldest son, who was now 17, was to be wed. Wang Lung invited everyone and the bride was chosen from a family of good fortune and wealth. The eldest son was married and O-lan died the same night, with Wang Lung beside her. This was the saddest part in the book. O-lan’s true character was only revealed before she died and I became interested to finally see what kind of person she was.
Wang Lung aged many years as his sons all wed and his daughter was given away. His land was rented out and the money never stopped flowing into his house. Wang Lung finally found peace and sat in the sun, careless, as his father did many years before. In the final scene, Wang Lung is talking to his two older sons, who are in there late 20’s now. He tells his sons that “if you sell the land, it is the end.” Wang Lung’s tired eyes closed did not see the greedy smiles his sons gave each other. This scene left me with the idea that his sons might sell the land, which would go against their father’s wishes. But the author ties the story off with this scene very well.
I believe the major theme of the book is man’s survival and triumph over the land and nature. Wang Lung experiences floods and droughts but still manages to overcome these obstacles to become wealthy and lead a prosperous life. This book was an interesting story that opened my eyes to the culture of the Chinese. I enjoyed the way the story ended and would not change it. I enjoy reading books because they let your mind take control, but I always don’t have the time to read. I would recommend this classic to anyone who is interested I the Chinese culture or wants to read a book that is just simply well written.
Filed Under: Literature
The emphasis in the first twelve chapters of The Good Earth is on the earth itself and on Wang Lung’s identification of himself with it. The next twelve chapters focus on Wang Lung’s three sons and their disaffections with one another and with their father, whose attachment to the land they do not share. The last ten chapters include the deaths of O-lan; Wang Lung’s father; his true friend, Ching, who had given from his own meager store a lifesaving handful of beans to Wang Lung during the famine; and Wang Lung’s uncle. These chapters elaborate on the corruption of character wrought by luxury and on the consequent divisions in the house of Wang. These themes correspond to the books of the Wang family trilogy that Pearl S. Buck fashioned, consisting of The Good Earth, Sons (1932), and A House Divided (1935), published together in 1935 as The House of Earth. The sequels continue the narrative of Wang Lung’s three sons and concentrate on the militaristic brigandage of the youngest, who comes to be known as Wang the Tiger.
The emphases of both The Good Earth and the completed trilogy constitute a view of the cycles of life, both terrestrial (fertility, fruition, and decay) and human (struggle, achievement, and decline). In its mythic quality, The Good Earth is richer than its sequels, which have more to do with enterprise and brigandage. Land in The Good Earth is, while not explicitly identified as female, the maternal sustenance of Wang Lung, who may be viewed as umbilically dependent on the earth. This relationship is reflected in the four women who nurture Wang Lung and satisfy his needs: O-lan, fully attuned to the earth and the mainstay of her husband, whose acquisition and retention of abundant land is made possible by her surrendering to him a horde of jewels of which she comes into fortuitous possession; Lotus, the concubine, who satisfies his lechery as he becomes wealthy from his land holdings; his “poor fool,” the daughter who makes it possible for him to experience human love; and Pear Blossom, the very young slave and his second concubine, who eases his passage from active life into senescence. When Wang Lung leaves his palatial house and returns by preference to the earthen house where he began, thereby completing his life cycle, his only companions are Pear Blossom and the “poor fool,” themselves analogous to the fruitfulness and barrenness of the good earth.
O-lan, the “poor fool,” and Pear Blossom are consonant with the true earth in both its positive and its negative phases. Lotus is identifiable with the sickness induced by luxury and by exploitation of the earth. Wang Lung’s sensual obsession with Lotus makes him selfish and inconsiderate. His mental cruelty to O-lan during this period parallels his loss of immediate contact with the land. The cure for his sexual lust is the earth: “and when he was weary he lay down upon his land and he slept and the health of the earth spread into his flesh and he was healed of his sickness.”
Paradoxically, his love of the land precludes his full love of any human, whatever the measure of his devotion to father, wife, children, or his friend Ching. Only with his “poor fool,” whom he had held and comforted during the famine as starvation brought her close to death, does he experience the selfless love that is the very nature of O-lan. It is this paradox that contributes to the novel a greatness not often found in best-sellers.