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1. THE EARTH
The main theme of The Good Earth is announced in its title: it is the good earth itself. The story follows Wang Lung's climb from poverty to riches, from toiling peasant to wealthy landowner. But all along the way-like signposts on a road-you may read messages pointing to the deeper meaning of the story, the life-sustaining bond of human beings with the land. Wang always returns to this.
Wang receives his livelihood and spiritual rejuvenation from the land. He experiences harmony with O-lan working beside him. His sole source of stability is in the land, and this is why he always transforms any material gain into land. You see the decline of the House of Hwang as it becomes separated from the land, and the same seems to hold for Wang when he is apart from his land.
What do you make of the turn in the story by which Wang Lung's fortunes rise-not from the fruit of the earth but from the money and jewels he and O-lan have stolen? Is it possible that the author means that labor and the good earth are not enough? That the poor farmer couldn't survive without a stroke of good fortune or the opportunity to take something from the rich? Or, perhaps this money is the evil seed of the Wang family's eventual disintegration. Frequently in the book, silver and land are presented as opposing values, as when O-lan takes silver for the furniture but won't sell the land before leaving for the south.
2. THE STATUS OF WOMEN
Pearl Buck uses the inferior status of women in traditional China with great emotional impact. The casual way in which a fellow refugee talks of strangling a girl child at birth or selling her as a slave is in itself a shock. Wang Lung and O-lan deal with both these alternatives. A crucial event in their marital relationship occurs when O-lan, submitting as she must to her husband's authority, hands over her two small pearls. Although women's roles varied, all were subservient. As a peasant wife a woman worked both in the house and in the fields. She could be a household slave, like Cuckoo. She could be a prostitute serving any man's pleasure in a tea house, like Lotus Flower, or a concubine serving only her master's pleasure, again like Lotus when she assumes this role in Wang's house. Finally, she could be an upper-class wife like the eldest son's wife in the Great House, with servants to wait on her and do the housework. Rich or poor, if she is a wife, her principal function is to bear sons.
Another aspect of Chinese life that seemed designed to make women suffer was the practice of altering the feet of girls so they could barely walk. The Chinese custom of foot-binding was meant to please men esthetically and to enhance a man's status by showing he was wealthy enough for his wife or concubine not to work. You might compare bound feet with the "wasp" waists that were fashionable for Western women in the nineteenth century. Those waists, which a man could encircle with his two hands, were achieved only by tight corseting that forced the internal organs out of place and often caused injury. Tight corseting was not as crippling as foot-binding but it had the same purpose-to please men.
3. THE FAMILY
The family is historically the central unit of Chinese society. In The Good Earth it is also the center of Wang Lung's world, second only to his attachment to the land. Precise rules govern all relationships in the Chinese family. A member's position in the family determines his behavior and even his name. You see this in the novel, in which Wang Lung's sons are spoken of as Eldest Son or Second Son, and the uncle's family are not aunt or cousin but the uncle's wife and the uncle's son. The rules are binding: a wife is obedient to her husband and children to their father, and everyone-husbands, wives, children-must respect the elderly.
The dominance of males runs through these rules as well. A wife who has borne sons, like O-lan, is entitled to more respect and consideration from her husband than if she has borne only daughters. Wang Lung is obliged to yield to the demands of his uncle and the uncle's family because they are related to him on his father's side.
You may find this particular obligation unfair, imposing a heavy burden on Wang Lung, especially considering the character of the uncle and his family. Wang frees himself from their demands only by supplying his uncle and aunt with opium, an addictive and debilitating drug.
On the other hand, Wang's father is so sure that his son and grandsons will look after him that he endures the hardships of the famine with smiling good humor. His trust is well founded. Wang Lung gives him the first share of whatever food there is, even if he must deprive his own children. Some nomadic societies leave the old people who cannot keep up with the migration to starve and die. Can you make a case for either of these two customs? Are both too extreme?
Wang Lung gives his old father not only respect and obedience but also loving care. From his own sons Wang receives only a show of respect. As you read, consider why Wang Lung fails so completely to understand his sons. Is this simply a case of the generation gap? You may want to remember that Wang grew up as the hard-working son of a poor farmer, while they grew up as sons of a prosperous landowner.
4. RELIGION AND GOOD FORTUNE
Wang Lung's religious beliefs are a mixture of different traditions. Primarily, since he is a farmer, he worships (burns incense) before two small earth gods in the field to bring good fortune to himself and his family. But he also appeals to the goddess of mercy to give his daughter-in-law a boy child in return for a new robe. He buys a paper god of wealth when his fortunes are on the rise and scolds the gods when misfortune occurs. He is superstitious and believes in omens. He tries to fool the evil spirits, as when he hides his own baby boy under his robe and proclaims out loud that it is only a worthless girl child.
Wang Lung also respects the more sophisticated Confucian principles of family deference and is pleased when his son erects an ancestral shrine in the house. As a matter of convention he gives donations to both the Buddhist and Taoist temples on the birth of his first son. This mixture of deference to the ancient philosophies and to the spirit world was typical of everyday Chinese religious practice. However, the more established religious institutions seem more the preserve of the educated. For a simple farmer like Wang, even when he becomes rich, the little earthen idols-gods of the renewal of life-are supremely powerful. Although he treats them badly and blames them for misfortune, he is afraid to reject them totally, and he ultimately returns to them since they have "power over earth."
Wang's personal conversations with his gods may seem a bit disrespectful to you. But if you believed, as Wang did, that these gods had purposely created your good fortune or your bad times, you might respond in the same way. How does your religious heritage teach you to deal with adversity?
5. MORALITY AND NECESSITY
You may agree that on the whole Wang Lung is a good man. O-lan, too, strikes most readers as a genuinely good woman. But there are certainly grounds to argue the contrary, at least on some issues. Infanticide, pillaging, slavery, drug selling, and other less severe actions raise questions about what codes of morality do exist in the novel. Western readers have to keep in mind differences between their culture and that of Wang Lung, where custom allows some unfamiliar behavior. You might ask, however, whether custom and morality, a sense of right and wrong, are the same thing. Or is there a morality so basic to human beings that local customs, though widely accepted, are actually violations of that morality?
In a world as harsh as Wang Lung's, morality may not always be so clear. As Wang and the other Chinese struggle to survive, what role does necessity play? Is there a justification for stealing? For infanticide? Under what circumstances?
6. WANG LUNG'S SEARCH FOR PEACE
As he prospers and his life becomes complicated with family relationships, Wang Lung increasingly longs for peace in his household but never finds it. O-lan does not create the trouble he expected over Lotus Flower, but she makes difficulties with Lotus' servant Cuckoo. Wang fails entirely to understand his sons. All three of them disappoint him by rejecting the land. For a time Wang finds peace in watching his grandchildren at play, but when they are of school age they giggle at his old-fashioned ideas and he stops visiting them. Only the land has given him the peace he seeks, and so in old age he moves from the mansion in the town back to the old farmhouse, where he can spend his last years in peace, close to his fields.
This lack of domestic tranquility is reflected in the wars and civil strife that surround the personal story of Wang Lung. The turmoil of a society in transition from an imperial autocracy to a modern republic intrudes periodically in the form of soldiers, looters, rioters, and bandits. The uncle's family-with a bandit father and a dissolute soldier son-is another example of the uprooted, warlike events that disturb the peace of Wang and his family.