Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Man’s Relationship to the Earth
The overarching theme of The Good Earth is the nourishing power of the land. Throughout the novel, a connection to the land is associated with moral piety, good sense, respect for nature, and a strong work ethic, while alienation from the land is associated with decadence and corruption. Buck’s novel situates this universal theme within the context of traditional Chinese culture. Wang Lung, a farmer, has an intimate relationship with the earth because he produces his harvest through his own labor. In contrast, the local Hwang family is estranged from the earth because their wealth and harvests are produced by hired labor. Buck suggests that Wang Lung’s reverence for nature is responsible for his inner goodness, as well as for his increasing material success, and that the decadent, wasteful ways of the wealthy are due to their estrangement from the land. Buck also suggests throughout the book that while human success is transitory, the earth endures forever. These ideas about the earth give the novel its title.
Wealth as a Destroyer of Traditional Values
The basic narrative form of The Good Earth has an upward trajectory: as Wang Lung’s fortunes rise, he becomes more decadent and more similar to the amoral Hwang family, whose fall parallels his own rise. It is the wealth of the Hwangs that enables them to loosen their ties to the land, hire laborers and spend their own days in idleness and leisure. In this climate, vice takes root and thrives, as the Old Master becomes obsessed with debauchery and the Old Mistress becomes addicted to opium. As Wang Lung becomes wealthier, he too is able to hire laborers, and he becomes obsessed with women such as Lotus. He begins to fund his uncle’s opium addiction, and at last he buys the house of the Hwangs and moves into it. As Wang Lung’s children grow older, it becomes clear that being raised in the lap of luxury has severely eroded their own sense of duty to their father, their respect for the land, and the religious observances on which Wang Lung and his father base their lives.
In this way, Wang Lung’s life story is a case study of how traditional values erode under the influence of wealth. But Buck does not attribute this erosion solely to the corrupting influence of wealth, or at least not solely to the individual experience of wealth. The new ideals of Wang Lung’s sons demonstrate the changing nature of Chinese culture. Buck suggests that the modernization of China, itself a function of wealth, creates cultural conflicts.
The Oppression of Women in Chinese Culture
Primarily through the character of O-lan, Buck explores the position of women in traditional Chinese culture, focusing on the hardships and limitations faced by women, from abuse in childhood to servitude in adulthood. Although she was a lifelong feminist, Buck takes a cool, neutral tone toward the oppression of women in China, choosing to focus on individual experience rather than to make large-scale political or social claims. She presents in an unbiased manner the practices of foot-binding, female infanticide, and selling daughters as slaves, constantly drawing attention to the circumstances that would impel a woman to commit such actions without ever endorsing the actions themselves. She also suggests that husbands who take concubines and work their wives like slaves are not necessarily cruel men, but people behaving as their society mandates. Her criticism is directed less toward particular acts committed by individual characters than toward the larger cultural values that produce and allow those acts to occur.
Buck’s feminism is implicit in her portrayal of O-lan. Through O-lan, Buck emphasizes the crucial economic contributions women make to their families. She also uses O-lan to suggest that, ironically, the more women are able to help, the less men place sexual and romantic value on them.
More main ideas from The Good Earth
Is Pearl Buck's novel linear or cyclical? Where are examples of both types of time? Consider, for example, the migration to and from the land, the birth and decay of families, the recurrence of famine, changes from generation to generation, etc. How are the human cycles in the novel thematically linked with natural cycles of seasons and harvests?
Consider the following conversation between Wang Lung and his eldest son:
"Well, and even great families are from the land and rooted in the land."
But the young man answered smartly,
"Yes, but they do not stay there. They branch forth and bear flowers and fruits."
Wang Lung would not have his son answering him too easily and quickly like this so he said,
"I have said what I have said. Have done with pouring out silver. And roots, if they are to bear fruits, must be kept well in the soil of the land." (310)
How do you see the differing views on the land between these characters playing out in the novel?
Compare and contrast the female characters of the novel: O-lan, Lotus, Cuckoo, Pear Blossom, the uncle's wife, the two son's wives. What parallels can be drawn between them? How do they contrast with one other? Does Pearl Buck individualize her female characters, or do they simply stand for abstractions like "hard-work," "motherhood," "beauty," "innocence," etc.?
What is the role of tradition in The Good Earth? Think of the way that Wang Lung relates to his father and uncle, about Wang Lung's hairstyle, about the constant return to the land. Is tradition challenged throughout the text? If so, by whom and in what instances?
How do you think that Pearl S. Buck's status as a foreigner affects/alters her novel? Does it discredit her work? Does it enhance her sensitivity? Think of other works written by "outsiders" to the culture they are writing about, for example Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha.
In the context of the novel, what is your interpretation of the following quote?
"When the rich are too rich there are ways, and when the poor are too poor there are ways." (118)
Keep in mind that this quote appears (slightly altered) on two occasions: once when Wang Lung is in the south, and once after Wang Lung's eldest son evicts the poor tenants out of the outer rooms of the House of Hwang.
What is the role of beauty in this novel? Is it feminine, natural, masculine, class-based? Compare several characters who are described as beautiful -- e.g. Pear Blossom, Lotus, Wang Lung's third son, Wang Lung's second daughter -- and compare the ways in which Buck describes their beauty.
Think of the topic of fate and destiny. There are various instances in the novel in which the gods are viewed as central to the fate of man. They are entrusted to care for the land and harvest. How is this belief challenged in the novel? How does Wang Lung's relationship to the gods change throughout the novel, and why does it change?
Perform a close analysis of the episodes with the pearls between O-lan and Wang Lung. What do you think these pearls symbolize for O-lan? How does Wang Lung understand O-lan's desire to keep them? Why does he take them away, and why does he feel regret for having done so after O-lan's death?
Explore Wang Lung's relationship with his sons. How well do they know one another? What main characteristic does each one of them exhibit? What is their tie to the land, if any? Also, how does their childhood and upbringing differ from that of Wang Lung and his father? How do differences of upbringing affect the sons' characters?
Think of the House of Hwang that is presented at the beginning of the novel. How is it described? What happens as the novel progresses? Why? Then think of Wang Lung's budding family? What parallels can you draw with the Hwang family? What differences, if any, exist between the House of Hwang and Wang Lung's family at the end of the novel?