There was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods . . . Some time, in some age, bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses had stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth. So would also their house, some time, return into the earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth. They worked on, moving together—together—producing the fruit of this earth.
This quotation from Chapter 2 describes Wang Lung’s and O-lan’s connection to the land. Buck emphasizes the cyclical nature of the earth. The repeated motions of “turning this earth of theirs over and over” parallels the image of people, homes, and fortunes rising up and falling back into the earth over and over again. This quotation is important as an early explanation of Wang Lung’s ethical and spiritual connection to the land, and also as an emphasis on the recurring motif of the earth’s permanence compared to the fleeting lives and fortunes of human beings.
But Wang Lung thought of his land and pondered this way and that, with the sickened heart of deferred hope, how he could get back to it. He belonged, not to this scum which clung to the walls of a rich man’s house; nor did he belong to the rich man’s house. He belonged to the land and he could not live with any fullness until he felt the land under his feet and followed a plow in the springtime and bore a scythe in his hand at harvest.
This quotation from Chapter 14 depicts when Wang Lung, now in the city, looks back on his land with longing. His connection to the simple life of the earth has been affirmed by his time in the poverty-stricken urban chaos of the city. This quotation is important because it shows Wang Lung thinking in terms of economic comparisons. He has always had a tendency to think of money, but this tendency has been strengthened by his experience of acute poverty in the city. His longing for the tangible connection to his land provided by the plow and scythe—the symbols of planting and harvest, and of effort and reward—also indicates the acute loneliness he feels.
This quotation from Chapter 15 is spoken by one of the villagers who knows of the looting of Wang Lung’s house. It comes as Wang Lung is fresh from his participation in the looting of the rich man’s house in Chapter 14. Eventually, he forgives Ching for his part in looting Wang Lung’s house during the famine. Wang Lung has learned from his own experience that the desperate conditions of poverty and starvation can force even the most upright individual to compromise his moral belief in the interest of sheer survival, and as a result he no longer holds a grudge against Ching. Instead, he chooses to remember Ching’s kindness to Wang Lung’s family. It is here that the enduring friendship between Wang and Ching begins.
The forgiving sentiment of the quotation, which shows a willingness to think of morality in relative terms, characterizes Buck’s attitude toward her characters throughout the book. When Wang understands the conditions that led to Ching’s behavior, he is able to understand and empathize with Ching. This attempt to understand is the same attitude Buck takes toward such practices as slavery, infanticide, and foot-binding, and it is the approach that The Good Earth asks its readers to take as well.
Then slowly she thrust her wet wrinkled hand into her bosom and she drew forth the small package and she gave it to him and watched him as he unwrapped it; and the pearls lay in his hand and they caught softly and fully the light of the sun, and he laughed. But O-lan returned to the beating of his clothes and when tears dropped slowly and heavily from her eyes she did not put up her hand to wipe them away; only she beat the more steadily with her wooden stick upon the clothes spread over the stone.
This heartrending passage from Chapter 19 comes as Wang Lung demands that O-lan give him the pearls that she had stolen from the rich man’s house, which he allowed her to save. The pearls were an important symbol of Wang Lung’s respect and consideration for his wife; now, however, he is in love with the young prostitute Lotus, and he wants to give the pearls to her as a gift. Completely disregarding O-lan’s feelings, Wang is oblivious to the agony he causes her with this demand. Wang laughs at the beauty of the pearls while the reticent O-lan, too conscientious to complain about this bad treatment, weeps softly to herself. That O-lan continues to do her domestic chores as she weeps emphasizes the unending work she does without complaint, only to be repaid with Wang Lung’s indifference and condescension.
Now, evil, idle sons—sell the land! . . . It is the end of a family—when they begin to sell the land . . . Out of the land we came and into it we must go—and if you will hold your land you can live—no one can rob you of land. . . . If you sell the land, it is the end.
Wang Lung makes this speech in Chapter 34, at the end of the novel. He pleads with his sons not to sell his land, and although they assure him they will not, they smile over his head, silently amused at their own deception. Wang Lung’s speech is a final plea to honor man’s relationship with the land. He attempts with one last speech to make up for the damage his wealth and decadence have done to his sons’ perception of the earth’s importance. Wang emphasizes again the earth’s permanence and its place of central importance in human affairs, but by this point the reader knows his sons will never listen, so that Wang’s final words, “If you sell the land, it is the end,” grimly and clearly predict the impending downfall of the family Wang’s hard work and piety has made rich.