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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Good Earth!