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.