This novel centers around the land more than anything, as indicated by the title. Wang Lung feels deeply connected to the earth, and it symbolizes life in all its forms as Wang Lung’s life literally depends on it. He builds his house out of earth, grows his food in it, and even eats the dirt itself when his family is starving. He feels that the earth is part of him and he a part of it, and when his family members die, he’s comforted by the fact that they can lie in the earth. Even when he’s at his most desperate, Wang Lung feels that he can go on as long as he knows he has his land waiting for him, a promise of better times to come.
Not only does Wang Lung depend on the land for food and income, but he also needs it for his own mental well-being. While he’s in the city to the south, he realizes he can’t be happy when he’s away from his land. Later, when he becomes too wrapped up in the luxuries and attendant problems that go along with wealth—such as falling in love with Lotus—only the land and his hard work there can heal him. The land acts as an antithesis, or an opposing force, to the detrimental effects of wealth. Only poorer people work on the land, and it’s seen as improper for Wang Lung’s family to do so once they’ve become wealthy. Thus, whenever Wang Lung returns to his fields and feels his old connection to them, he shows that he can never become so entirely decadent as the Old Lord. However, his sons’ decision to sell the land at the end of the book indicates that they are in danger of this degenerate life, since they never worked the land and felt its necessity to life.
The Land Quotes in The Good Earth
Moving together in a perfect rhythm, without a word, hour after hour, he fell into a union with her which took the pain from his labor. He had no articulate thought of anything; 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. The earth lay rich and dark, and fell apart lightly under the points of their hoes.... 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—speechless in their movement together.
Wang Lung sat smoking, thinking of the silver as it had lain upon the table. It had come out of the earth, this silver, out of his earth that he ploughed and turned and spent himself upon. He took his life from this earth; drop by drop by his sweat he wrung food from it and from the food, silver. Each time before this that he had taken the silver out to give to anyone, it had been like taking a piece of his life and giving it to someone carelessly. But now... he saw the silver transmuted into something worth even more than itself—clothes upon the body of his son. And this strange woman of his, who worked about, saying nothing, seeming to see nothing, she had first seen the child thus clothed!
There was more than enough [milk] for the child, greedy though he was, life enough for many children, and she let it flow out carelessly, conscious of her abundance. There was always more and more. Sometimes she lifted her breast and let it flow out upon the ground to save her clothing, and it sank into the earth and made a soft, dark, rich spot in the field. The child was fat and good-natured and ate of the inexhaustible life his mother gave him.
They cannot take the land from me. The labor of my body and the fruit of the fields I have put into that which cannot be taken away. If I had the silver, they would have taken it. If I had bought with the silver to store it, they would have taken it all. I have the land still, and it is mine.
“The dead man is yourselves,” proclaimed the young teacher, “and the murderous one who stabs you when you are dead and do not know it are the rich and the capitalists, who would stab you even after you are dead. You are poor and downtrodden and it is because the rich seize everything.”
...[Wang Lung] listened in interest to hear further what the rich men had to do with this thing, that heaven would not rain in its season. And at last... Wang Lung grew bold and asked,
“Sir, is there any way whereby the rich who oppress us can make it rain so that I can work on the land?”
But all this was not a sudden thing. All during the lifetime of the Old Lord and of his father the fall of this house has been coming. In the last generation the lords ceased to see the land and took the moneys the agents gave them and spent it carelessly as water. And in these generations the strength of the land has gone from them and bit by bit the land has begun to go also.
And Wang Lung... felt his mouth suddenly dry and parched and his voice came from him in a whisper,
“Silver, then! Silver and gold! Anything to the very price of my land!”
As he had been healed of his sickness of heart when he came from the southern city and comforted by the bitterness he had endured there, so now again Wang Lung was healed of his sickness of love by the good dark earth of his fields and he felt the moist soil on his feet and he smelled the earthy fragrance rising up out of the furrows he turned for the wheat.
...[H]e had been of half a mind to walk out on his land and feel the good earth under his feet and take off his shoes and stockings and feel it on his skin.
This he would have done but he was ashamed lest men see him, who was no longer held a farmer within the gates of the town, but a landowner and a rich man.
“Now, evil, idle sons—sell the land!” He choked and would have fallen, and they caught him and held him up, and he began to weep.... “It is the end of a family—when they begin to sell the land,” he said brokenly. “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—”
...And he stooped and took up a handful of the soil and he held it and he muttered,
“If you sell the land, it is the end.”
...And they soothed him and they said over and over, the elder son and the second son,
“Rest assured, our father, rest assured. The land is not to be sold.”
But over the old man’s head they looked at each other and smiled.