Introduction to The Good Earth
Written in the Chinese background of the early 20th century, Pearl S. Buck’s novel, The Good Earth, has two more volumes to back up the sequel of the rural Chinese story. The first book appeared in 1931 under the title of The Good Earth. Two more books followed in the trilogy, though, the first book proved a foundation stone in that it has set the stage for the coming books, winning both, 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 Chinese family facing hardships and the transformation of the rural culture.
Summary of The Good Earth
The story of the novel presents a young man of rural China, Wang Lung, who becomes an adult to marry. 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 upkeep and food, he visits the Hwangs and asks them for a slave girl. They propose him to have O-lan. Ultimately, 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 set upon their agricultural work on their land. They have had a son, giving them happiness and resolution to work hard, while 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 doing farming with considerable income. Although they have another son, Wang Lung soon faces his relatives borrowing money from him that he is forced to lend. Meanwhile, he continues exploiting the Hwang, purchasing more of their arable land. When he has had a daughter, he also faces acute drought and resultant famine that takes its toll on the family. Although O-lan kills the second girl, still food is hard to come by and the family has had a hard time feeding the children. When winter becomes too unbearable, he migrates to a southern city where they become beggars, while Wang Lung rents a rickshaw to earn his living. Although they have had enough to eat, still they hardly make both ends meet. When Wang Lung has some money, he makes his family agree to his advice of returning to their estate.
Meanwhile, they try to sell their daughter when riots erupt in the city in which 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 of the Hwang family after which they 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 coffers. Soon a flood disrupts his income, making him feel the tedium of life, but routine again settles on him. Meanwhile, fed up with O-lan, he starts finding fault in her after having seen a local prostitute, Lotus, a beautiful woman. He uses his money to purchase her, causing O-lan to become sick but he soon regrets his decision. Meanwhile, he 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. The squabble among the boys creates bad blood 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 novel, 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. Although Wang Lung is loyal to his father and has good relationships, he depends on the land for his livelihood that he earns in the harvesting season. The Hwang family, having large tracts of land, is well off only 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 having less contact with the earth. This leads to moral as well as social decadence and finally their elimination from the social fabric while having more land lead 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 arrival of wealth has been showing as causing the elimination of the traditional values. Wang Lung is a courteous, humble, and down to earth sincere fellow 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 too arrogant for his wife as well as children. Also, soon he becomes aware that as his children have grown up in luxury, they, too, have become slack after which he loses influence on them. He also sees his status slipping from his hands before his eyes. The reason is that they have left their traditions and values of hard work after the arrival of wealth.
- Gender Oppression: The novel shows the theme of gender oppression through the character of O-lan and Lotus. Although it is not clear about the working 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 immediately looks toward Lotus, a local prostitute. This leads to the disintegration of the family, though, his relations with Lotus also deteriorate. It shows that female characters are at the receiving end in the novel.
- Migration and Prosperity: The novel, 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, it is plunder, yet he becomes rich enough to return as a wealthy person. Migration and reverse migration, therefore, show prosperity associated with it.
- Progress: The novel shows the theme of progress through the character of Wang Lung in that he wants to prosper and works very hard to purchase a piece of land. However, soon with more mouths to feed, he faces an uncertain future in the wake of a drought. Therefore, 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 comes, they return home but he finds himself in love with a prostitute, Lotus, a sign of newly acquired wealth while his children go astray after their marriages. 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, although he has 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 become luxurious in living as well as inhabits to the point that Wang Lung keeps a prostitute, Lotus, while his sons marry and start living an extravagant life. 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 plunder of the mansion from the southern town. It shows that he is on the same path as the effete rural aristocracy.
- Family Life: The novel shows the theme of family life through the desire of Wang Lung 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 gets Lotus, while his sons split apart having their own families.
- Social Position: The novel shows the theme of social position through the character of Wang Lung who is poor and has no money to get a good girl. 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 as well as the central character, Wang Lung is not a traditional hero in the classical sense but a common rural farmer in China whose main ambition as per his father’s demand is to marry a slave girl. His father thinks that due to his economic and social standing in the village. When he marries O-lan after asking her hand from the Hwang family, the only aristocratic family in the village, he has children and a hard-working wife as well as good stamina. Soon he becomes prosperous enough to bear some months of drought and migrates to the southern town where he lays his hands upon the plunder going on after his brief stint in begging and returns 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 for which he has done his utmost efforts. Now that they have stopped tilling the land, the family is witnessing disintegration.
- O-lan: She is the second significant character on whom Wang Lung trusts after himself and who 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 bound feet, she stays loyal to him and assists him when he comes back. 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 stays brutally pragmatic. For example, when the occasion demands, she does not hesitate from sacrificing her own sibling for the greater good of the family.
- Wang Lung’s Father: A relic of the past and glory of the rural setting’s simplicity, the father is very old when the story starts and has proven a burden on Wang Lung. However, 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 harps on the same string of marriage to his son. He even goes far in scolding his son when he buys Lotus, the local concubine, and dies shortly after O-lan’s death.
- Wang Lung’s Uncle: A very greedy and ethically wayward person, he is the brother of the father of Wang Lung and sees his rise as the rise of the entire extended family. That is the reason that he comes to him to borrow money, considering it his familial right. His careless attitude could be seen from his clothes as described and when it becomes too cumbersome for him to carry on with the invading drought, he shifts to Wang Lung’s house, showing him his presence in the house as a security against the brigands. Soon Wang Lung has to make him an addict to get rid of him.
- Nang En: The eldest son of Wang Lung, he is the cynosure of the eyes of his parents who wants him to be a scholar to assist them in the future contracts about their produce from the fields. However, he soon turns to lusciousness after finding himself in the Hwang mansion and rich quite early than expected and comes down to show occasional fits. His obsession to look more prominent in the family costs Wang Lung good fortune.
- Nung Wen: He is the second son of Wang Lung about whom he has ambitions of making him a successful merchant but the son only wants a good and hard-working wife. Finally, Wang Lung puts him incharge of the land to keep him preoccupied.
- Youngest Son: Like his elder brothers, the third brother is also work shirker and lazy. He, later, announces to join the armed forces that he did, 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 retardation. Wang Lung, too, desires to be with her to see her happy.
- Second Daughter: The significance of the second daughter of Wang Lung lies in that she is very beautiful and wise as she realizes the reason for her mother’s illness. She sees that her father is not paying attention to her mother on account of her bound feet.
- Cuckoo: A slave in the Hwang house, she has lived her life as a concubine and has become very insolent and haughty due to having feminine ability 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.
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 Good Earth shows the use of anaphora such as,
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 novel shows the use of allusions such as,
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 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 Good Earth shows the use of imagery such as,
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 Good Earth shows various metaphors such as,
i. A small soft wind blew gently from the east, a wind mild and murmurous and full of rain. (Chapter-I)
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 novel, The Good Earth, shows a very pleasant mood in the beginning but turns out tragic, sorrowful as well as ironic, and didactic at some places.
- Motif: Most important motifs of the novel, The Good Earth, are birth, religion, death, and life.
- Narrator: The novel, The Good Earth, has been narrated by the third person narrator, who happens to be Pearl S. Buck herself.
- Paradox: The novel shows the use of paradoxes such as;
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 novel shows the use of parallelism such as,
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
These examples show the parallel structure of the sentences, having phrases and clauses of equal length.
- Personification: The novel shows examples of personifications such as;
i. A small soft wind blew gently from the east, a wind mild and murmurous and full of rain. (Chapter-I)
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 as if the wind and wall, having 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 China.
- Simile: The novel shows various similes such as,
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.