Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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.
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.
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.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Buck draws parallels between the natural cycle of growth, death, and regeneration and the rise and fall of human fortune and human life. When O-lan gives birth to her first two sons, for instance, she immediately returns to tending the fields, which connects the creation of human life to the bounty of the earth. Similarly, the droughts, floods, and famines that ruin the earth’s harvest are metaphorically linked to death and downfall.
Wang Lung’s religious observance serves as a measuring stick of his mindset. When Wang Lung feels a strong connection to the earth and when his fortunes are good, he is extremely pious and frequently shows signs of faith in the earth god (as when, for instance, he burns incense to celebrate his marriage to O-lan). When his connection to the earth is weak and when his fortunes decline, he often reacts with bitterness toward the gods and does not outwardly worship them (as when he refuses to acknowledge their statues when he moves his family south during the famine). When Wang is in a period of transition, as when his fortunes are changing, he is often anxious about the gods and prays frequently to them to preserve his good luck.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
In traditional Chinese culture, small feet were considered an attractive female trait. The custom of binding young girls’ feet to ensure that their feet would remain small was practiced for almost a thousand years, from the tenth century to the Communist takeover of mainland China in 1949. Foot-binding was usually begun when a girl was between the ages of five and seven. Her mother would fold all her toes except her big toe beneath her foot, then tightly wrap a thick bandage at least several feet in length around the foot, so tightly that it actually prevented the bones from growing and eventually caused the foot to fold in half. The ideal product of foot-binding was known as a lotus foot, a foot that, on a grown woman, was not more than three inches long.
Foot-binding was extremely painful, and the pain lasted throughout a woman’s life—though the pain lessened as she grew older because her foot was essentially dead. Today, the process would be considered nothing short of torture: apart from the crushing pain of retarded bone growth, the process caused the nails of the four folded toes to grow into the soles of the feet. It also caused an extremely bad odor as various parts of the foot died. Foot-binding made it nearly impossible for a woman to walk for any substantial length, and even a short walk was excruciatingly painful.
Despite the brutality of this practice, it was widespread throughout China, and by 1900 only the poorest and most wretched girls did not have their feet bound. Bound feet were considered so much more attractive than unbound feet that, without bound feet, it was very difficult for a girl to find a husband. Throughout The Good Earth, Buck uses foot-binding as a symbol for the moral depravity of wealth, which would subject young girls to torture simply to make them more attractive to men. Attraction to foot-binding also serves as a symbol of Wang Lung’s longing for wealth and status. He is initially disappointed to discover that O-lan’s feet are not bound, even though her unbound feet enable her to work in the fields with him, which dramatically increases his family’s fortune. Nevertheless, though she was an outspoken advocate against the practice, Buck takes a very objective, neutral tone toward foot-binding in The Good Earth, drawing attention to the cultural tendencies that might make a woman choose to do such a thing to her daughter. When O-lan binds her own daughter’s feet, for instance, she is motivated by Wang Lung’s rejection of her, by his criticism of her “large” unbound feet, and by her desire for her daughter to have a happy marriage with a husband who loves her.
The House of Hwang is a symbol of wealth, extravagance, decadence, and downfall throughout the novel, a constant reminder of wealth’s corrosive effect on morality and long-term success. As the site of the Old Mistress’s opium addiction, the Old Master’s whoring, and the young lords’ abuse of slaves, the house is a palpable sign of disconnection from the land and of narcissistic self-absorption. When Wang Lung buys the House of Hwang after O-lan’s death, the transaction is a grim symbol of his own family’s fall from grace, represented by his children’s decision to sell his land and live in splendor in the Hwangs’ house.
The pearls, which O-lan steals in the revolt in Chapter 14 and which Wang Lung allows O-lan to keep, are an important symbol of the love and respect Wang Lung affords his wife. Though O-lan does not say so, it is clear that she treasures the pearls as proof of her husband’s regard for her. When Wang Lung takes the pearls away from her and gives them to the prostitute Lotus, it is as though he is taking away his love and respect. O-lan is inwardly devastated, and the incident symbolizes the extent to which wealth and idleness have corrupted the once admirable Wang Lung.