Introduction to The Good Earth
The Good Earth was written by Pearl S. Buck, with the setting of the early 20th century in China. It also has two more volumes as the sequel to the rural Chinese story. The first book was published in 1931 under the title of The Good Earth. The series also won the Pulitzer as well as Noble Prize, for the author in quick succession. The novel proved a huge success after it was transformed into various movies and plays. The story revolves around a family facing hardships and the transformation of the rural setting.
Summary of The Good Earth
The story is about a young man, Wang Lung, in rural China who preparing to find a bride. His father advises him to visit the local Hwang family mansion to ask for a slave girl. After having some money and spending it lavishly on his maintenance and food, he visits the Hwangs and asks them for a slave girl. They propose that he take O-lan. Eventually, he marries her and takes her home after both agree to marry despite a slight disability in O-lan’s feet.
Both husband and wife start their agricultural work on their land. They also have a son, giving them happiness and resolution to work harder. On the other side, the Hwang family faces difficult times due to their patriarch being a womanizer and the matriarch being an addict. Soon Wang Lung is able to purchase some of the Hwang fields and enjoys farming with considerable income. Although they have another son, Wang Lung’s relatives start borrowing money from him and he is forced to lend. Meanwhile, he continues exploiting the Hwang, purchasing more of their fertile land. When their daughter is born, Wang Lung also faces acute drought, leading to a severe famine that causes severe disruption in the family.
During the famine, O-lan kills the second girl, still, food is hard to come by and the family continues facing hardships and is unable to feed the children. When winter becomes too unbearable, he migrates to a southern city where they become beggars. Wang Lung rents a rickshaw to earn his living. They get enough to eat, but they hardly make both ends meet. When Wang Lung has some money, he tells his family and plans to return to their estate.
Later, they try to sell their daughter when riots erupt in the city and they also join the other people and plunder the wealth of a rich man. Wang Lung lays his hands upon the gold coins while his wife plunders jewels after which all of them return to their estate. Soon they purchase all the fields from the Hwang family after which they start to settle down, having two more children. Now as a landlord, Wang Lung has laborers to work on his fields with a good harvest every year and more money in his reserves. Sadly there’s a flood, which disrupts his income, making him feel the dreariness of life, but routine again settles on him.
He is fed up with O-lan and starts finding fault in her after seeing a local prostitute, Lotus, a beautiful woman. He uses his money to purchase her. He regrets spending the money when O-lan falls sick. Wang finds his uncle and aunt in his house after which he moves to another house, leaving the big Hwang house for his relatives. During this time, his wife dies after which his sons decide not to farm their lands. After O-lan’s death, Wang’s father dies as well. He entrusts the land to his second son as the quarrel also deepens enmity among the brothers and soon causes a rift wider enough for them to sell the family land and divide the money.
Major Themes in The Good Earth
- Man and Earth: The Good Earth shows man’s natural relationship with the earth and farming. Not only man is dependent on the earth in terms of food and security but also he is linked with the earth in his social relations, morality, and status in the area. At first, Wang Lung is loyal to his father and has good relationships, he depends on the land for the livelihood that he earns during the harvesting season. The Hwang family, having large tracts of land, is stable because of having more land in the area than any other person. In contrast to them, others have fewer lands or none that force them to work in their fields, making them have less contact with the earth. This leads to moral as well as social decadence. Finally, their removal from the social fabric while having more land raises Wang to have a good status after he replaces the Hwang family by purchasing their lands.
- Wealth and Values: The Good Earth presents the story of a traditional Chinese rural setting in which the increase of wealth is shown as causing the elimination of traditional values. Wang Lung is courteous, humble, and down-to-earth sincere before he becomes a rich man, replacing the Hwang family. However, when he becomes a rich man, he wins Lotus, the local prostitute, and becomes arrogant ignoring his wife as well as children. Soon he becomes aware that as his children have grown up in luxury, have become lazy and disobedient. He also sees his status slipping from his hands before his eyes because his children have left their traditions and values of hard work after gaining wealth.
- Gender Oppression: Gender oppression is seen through the character of O-lan and Lotus. Although it is not clear about the condition of the Hwang family in terms of gender discrimination and oppression, beyond that mansion everything is against femininity. Wang Lung marries O-lan only because she is a slave and has bound feet. However, when he has achieved the status of the Hwang family, he is attracted to Lotus, a local prostitute. This leads to the disintegration of the family, and his relations with Lotus also deteriorate. It shows that female characters are at the receiving end.
- Migration and Prosperity: The Good Earth also shows the theme of prosperity associated with migration and vice versa. When Wang Lung does not see any future in his own land due to drought, he migrates to a southern city. Although whatever he gets in terms of wealth, is plundered. Yet he becomes rich enough to return as a wealthy person after the riots in the south. Migration and reverse migration, thus, show prosperity associated with it.
- Progress: The progress is seen through Wang Lung as he wants to prosper and works very hard to purchase a piece of land. His family grows and he faces an uncertain future in the wake of a drought. He goes for green pastures to the southern town, begs, works very hard, and finally falls upon the plundering mansion to collect gold coins while his wife gathers all the jewels. When this progress is achieved, they return home and live a comfortable life for a while. However, he finds himself in love with a prostitute, Lotus, a sign of newly acquired wealth while his children go astray as they grow older. The newly won prosperity soon takes its toll on the entire family until it is too late for Wang to turn back.
- Significance of Simple Living: The novel presents the theme of simple living as pious and morally good. When Wang Lung is a poor young man, he had to struggle hard to earn his bread, he is sincere, patient, and hard-working. Even when he marries, he stays loyal to his wife, O-lan, who also stays loyal to him. However, as soon as they get wealth from the southern town and purchase the Hwang family mansion, they start a lavish lifestyle as well as inhabit to the point that Wang Lung keeps a prostitute, Lotus, while his sons marry and start living recklessly. The second son tries to fulfill his father’s dream. This shows the value of simplicity in rural China.
- Decadence of Aristocracy: The novel shows the theme of the decadence of aristocracy through extravagant life. Although the Hwang is a traditional family and has been almost ruling the farming community, when Wang Lung becomes rich, he also turns to the same extravagant habits and starts destroying the wealth he has earned with hard work as well as savings that took from the plunder in the southern town. It shows that he is on the same path as the rural aristocracy.
- Family Life: The theme of family life is seen at first through Wang Lung’s plan to marry after his father’s insistence. The reason is that his father has married to have a family and knows that if his son does not marry, he will not see his grandchildren, and the traditional family life will come to an end. That is why Wang Lung goes to the Hwang family mansion to get a slave girl to have a family life. The family stays together through thick and thin, but by the end, the unearned wealth plays havoc with the family life and disintegrates it. Wang Lung brings Lotus, while his sons split apart to have their own families.
- Social Position: The theme of social position is through Wang Lung who is poor and has no money to get a good girl at the start. That is why he stays contented on his feet-bound wife, O-lan. However, as soon as his social status rises with his hard work and d plundered wealth from the southern town, he starts showing his true colors.
Major Characters of The Good Earth
- Wang Lung: The protagonist, Wang Lung is not a traditional hero in the classical sense but a common rural farmer in China whose main ambition is to do what his father demanded. He agrees to marry a slave girl his father tells him. With his economic and social standing in the village, he marries O-lan, a slave girl from the Hwang family, who is the only aristocratic family in the village. He has children and is hard-working with good stamina. Soon he becomes prosperous enough to bear some months of drought. During the severe famine, he migrates to the southern town where he works as a rickshaw driver and beggar until he gets gold and jewelry from the plunder. Then returns to their land as a rich man. When he takes over the Hwang family mansion, he wins Lotus, the village concubine, and loses his control over his sons who have separate families. Soon he learns that it is the land that keeps the family united which he has built with much effort. Now that they have stopped tilling the land, the family is witnessing disintegration.
- O-lan: Wang Lung’s wife, O-lan contributes significantly to his wealth in terms of hard work and children. She stays with him through thick and thin when he is poor and yet has to tolerate his brief period of infidelity when he contacts Lotus. Despite having no beauty and having bound feet, she fulfills her duty as a mother and wife in every way. She also takes care of his mansion, his land, and his family. Also, as opposed to the wayward behavior of Wang Lung on some occasions, she remains pragmatic. For example, when the occasion demands, she does not hesitate from sacrificing her own child for the greater good of the family.
- Wang Lung’s Father: A relic of the past and glory of the rural setting’s simplicity, Wang Lung’s father is very old and is treated as a burden on him. Despite his fragility and constant cough, he values the presence of a woman and married life in the rural setup. That is why he constantly pushes his son to have a family. He scolds at his disappointment when his son has an affair with Lotus, the local concubine, and dies shortly after O-lan’s death.
- Wang Lung’s Uncle: A very greedy and ethically disobedient person, Wang Lung’s father’s brother. He sees the extended family’s fall and rise, and comes to him to borrow money, believing it his familial right. His careless attitude could be seen in his clothes as described and when it becomes too awkward for him to carry on with the invading drought, he shifts to Wang Lung’s house, showing his presence in the house as a security against the robbers. Soon Wang Lung seeing his addiction tries to get rid of him.
- Nang En: Nang En is the eldest son of Wang Lung, he is the favorite of his parents who want him to be a scholar to assist them in future contracts about their produces from the fields. However, he soon turns to reckless life after finding himself in the Hwang mansion and rich quite early than expected and easily loses control of his temper. His obsession to look more prominent in the family costs Wang Lung good fortune.
- Nung Wen: Nung Wen is Wang Lung’s second son with ambitions of becoming a successful merchant. He is the only son who wants a good and hard-working wife. Finally, Wang Lung puts him in charge of the land to keep him busy and help him achieve his dream.
- Youngest Son: Like his elder brother, he is also arrogant and lazy. He, later, announces to join the armed forces, leaving his lascivious brothers behind to enjoy life.
- Eldest Daughter: The loving one but unaware of her circumstances, she faces tragic situations without knowing due to her mental health condition. Wang Lung desires to be with her to see her happy and safe.
- Second Daughter: The second daughter is very beautiful and wise as she realizes the reason for her mother’s illness. She understands that her father is not paying attention to her mother because of her bound feet.
- Cuckoo: She’s another slave in the Hwang house, living as a concubine, and is disrespectful and haughty. She uses her feminine charm to attract men.
Writing Style of The Good Earth
Like her other novels about foreign lands, this book is also very simple in language as well as style. Pearl S. Buck has used short, crispy, and concise sentences with occasional use of repetitions and ellipses. The diction, too, is very simple, sometimes formal and sometimes informal, yet appropriate and direct. For literary devices, the author turns metaphors and similes, making the book a simple read.
Analysis of the Literary Devices in The Good Earth
- Action: The main action of the novel comprises the life of Wang Lung and his family until he takes over the Hwang mansion and becomes the rich man of the village. The rising action occurs when Wang Lung returns to his village as a rich man, while the falling action occurs when he hands over the full house to his uncle.
- Anaphora: The following sentences show the use of anaphora,
i. At night he knew the soft firmness of her body. But in the day her clothes, her plain blue cotton coat and trousers, covered all that he knew, and she was like a faithful, speechless serving maid, who is only a serving maid and nothing more. (Chapter -2)
ii. Out of this body of his, out of his own loins, life! (Chapter -2)
iii. For my father it is not fitting to enter your room–for myself, I have never even seen a cow give birth. (Chapter -3)
These examples show the repetitious use of “serving maid”, “out of this body” and “for my.”
- Allusion: The use of allusions is given in the below examples,
i. Yesterday he had said to his father that if this brazen, glittering sunshine continued, the wheat could not fill in the ear. Now it was as if Heaven had chosen this day to wish him well. (Chapter -1)
ii. But what sort of schools these were he had no way of knowing, beyond the fact that they were called such names as “The Great School of Western Learning” or as “The Great School of China,” for he never went beyond the gates, and if he had gone in well he knew someone would have come to ask him what he did out of his place. (Chapter -12)
The mention of Heaven, China, and Western learning in the above examples are some notable allusions.
- Conflict: The novel shows both external and internal conflicts. The external conflict is going on between the circumstances and Wang Lung, while the internal conflict is going on in his mind about his situation and the situation of his relatives when they come to borrow money from him.
- Characters: The novel, The Good Earth, shows both static as well as dynamic characters. The young man, Wang Lung, is a dynamic character as he shows a considerable transformation in his behavior and conduct by the end of the novel. However, all other characters are static as they do not show or witness any transformation such as O-lan, his father, the Poor Fool, and his uncle.
- Climax: The climax in the novel occurs when Wang Lung comes back to his village having a lot of wealth.
- Imagery: The use of imagery is given in the following sentences,
i. The children’s bellies were swollen out with empty wind, and one never saw in these days a child playing upon the village street. At most the two boys in Wang Lung’s house crept to the door and sat in the sun, the cruel sun that never ceased its endless shining. Their once rounded bodies were angular and bony now, sharp small bones like the bones of birds, except for their ponderous bellies. The girl child never even sat alone, although the time was past for this, but lay uncomplaining hour after hour wrapped in an old quilt. (Chapter -9)
ii. Beneath their feet the mud was thick and speared through with needles of ice and the little boys could make no headway and O-lan was laden with the girl and desperate under the weight of her own body. Wang Lung staggered through with
the old man and set him down and then went back and lifted each child and carried him through, and then when it was over at last his sweat poured out of him like rain, spending all his strength with it, so that he had to lean for a long time against the damp wall, his eyes shut and his breath coming and going quickly, and his family stood shivering and waiting about him. (Chapter -10)
iii. Running about the streets every day and all day long, he learned to know the city after a fashion, and he saw this and that of its secret parts. He learned that in the morning the people he drew in his vehicle if they were women, went to the market, and if they were men, they went to the schools and to the houses of business. (Chapter -12)
These examples show images of movement, color, feelings, and sights.
- Metaphor: The following sentences are good examples of metaphors,
i. A small soft wind blew gently from the east, a wind mild and murmurous and full of rain. (Chapter -1)
ii. But between all these thoughts which were in his mind every day there ran weaving and interweaving the new thought of what his life now was, and it occurred to him, suddenly, thinking of the night, to wonder if she liked him. (Chapter -2)
iii. All else at that New Year sank into insignificance beside this visit. (Chapter -5)
iv. And as family after family finished its store in the small village and spent its last coin in the scanty markets of the town, and the winds of winter came down from the desert, cold as a knife of steel and dry and barren, the hearts of the
villagers grew distraught with their own hunger. (Chapter -8)
v. At times it seized him like a frenzy so that he rushed out upon his barren threshing floor and shook his arms at the foolish sky that shone above him, eternally blue and clear and cold and cloudless. (Chapter -9)
These examples show that several things have been compared directly in the novel such as the first shows wind compared with something soft, the second shows thought as a wave, the third shows a year with something trivial, the fourth shows winds as a knife, and the fifth shows the sky as something cold and clear.
- Mood: The Good Earth shows a very pleasant mood in the beginning but turns out tragic, sorrowful as well as ironic, and didactic or moralizing in some places.
- Motif: Most important motifs of The Good Earth, are birth, religion, death, and life.
- Narrator: The novel is narrated in the third-person point of view, who is the author, Pearl S. Buck.
- Paradox: The following sentences are good examples of paradoxes,
i. When the rich are too rich there are ways, and when the poor are too poor there are ways. (Chapter -14)
ii. But men must work on, and Wang Lung worked as he had before, although the lengthening warm days and the sunshine and sudden rains filled everyone with longings and discontents. (Chapter -15)
Both of these examples show paradoxical ideas expressed within the same sentence.
- Parallelism: The use of parallelism is given in the following sentences,
i. And then he lay in his bed warm and satisfied while in the kitchen the
woman fed the fire and boiled the water. (Chapter -1)
ii. Wang Lung saw that she was afraid of him and he was pleased and he
answered before she finished, “I like it–I like it,” and he drew his tea into his
mouth with loud sups of pleasure. (Chapter -2)
iii. He put his hoe upon his shoulder and he walked to his plots of land and he cultivated the rows of grain, and he yoked the ox to the plow and he ploughed the western field for garlic and onions. (Chapter -2)
iv. He thought of this at first with joy and then with a pang of fear. (Chapter -4)
v. And what he did for the farm implements, his wife, O-lan, did for the house
implements. (Chapter -5)
These examples show the parallel structure of the sentences, having phrases and clauses of equal length.
- Personification: The following examples of personifications are given below,
i. A small soft wind blew gently from the east, a wind mild and murmurous and full of rain. (Chapter -1)
ii. There were already other huts clinging to the wall behind them, but what was inside the wall none knew and there was no way of knowing. (Chapter -11)
These examples show that the wind and wall, have life and emotions of their own.
- Protagonist: Wang Lung is the protagonist of the novel. The novel starts with his entry into the story from the very first chapter and ends with him.
- Setting: The setting of the novel, The Good Earth, is someplace in rural China.
- Simile: The following sentences are good examples of similes,
i. But out of the woman’s great brown breast the milk gushed forth for the child, milk as white as snow, and when the child suckled at one breast it flowed like a fountain from the other, and she let it flow. (Chapter -4)
ii. And as family after family finished its store in the small village and spent its last coin in the scanty markets of the town, and the winds of winter came down from the desert, cold as a knife of steel and dry and barren, the hearts of the villagers grew distraught with their own hunger. (Chapter -8)
iii. But nothing could stop the mass of hungry men and women and they foughtlike beasts until all were fed. (Chapter -11)
These are similes as the use of the words “like” and “as” show the comparison between terraced walls with a broad setup and the gleaming water with lamps.