Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Birth, Death, and the Cycle of Nature

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.