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?
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