The Good Earth

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Connection to the Earth Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Rich vs. Poor Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
The Oppression of Women Theme Icon
Connection to the Earth Theme Icon
Social Status Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Good Earth, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Connection to the Earth Theme Icon

The novel’s title – The Good Earth – makes reference to its portrayal of the importance of the land. Wang Lung starts out as a simple farmer, entirely dependent on the land, and he makes his fortune mostly by means of the land, first by farming it and eventually by renting it to others. The land acts as a life-giving force, seen most literally when in the famine, Wang Lung and his family resort to eating the dirt itself. For a long time, even his house is made out of earth. Without the earth, Wang Lung has nothing. The gods to whom Wang Lung pays the most respect are associated with the earth, showing that he essentially worships the land. This makes sense, since his survival depends on its fertility, and the land and the weather determine his fortunes.

When Wang Lung has to leave his land and go to the city, he constantly misses it and sees his return to it as a return to happiness and prosperity. Even when he’s living in a shack made out of mats, it comforts him to know that he owns land and will someday go back to it. He feels a deep connection to his land, as it represents all he has in the world. Everything he does, he connects in some way to the earth.

Although political events go on around him and cause upheaval in the greater nation of China, Wang Lung remains uninterested in their progress and more or less unaware of being part of a greater country. For him, the idea of “the land” suggests not a vast country, but only his own plot of earth, and his own plot of earth is all that matters. To Wang Lung, his land represents a form of wealth that no one can take from him. This perspective might help explain his disinterest in the political unrest of the poor people in the city, since no matter how destitute he becomes, he still knows that he has his land, and so he never feels the complete desperation that leads the people to revolt against the wealthy.

At certain points of the novel, however, Wang Lung strays from his devotion to the land. Most significantly, when he begins to prosper, he no longer has to spend so much time working in the fields himself, which gives him the freedom to spend time at the tea house and fall in love with the prostitute Lotus. Finally, when Lotus lashes out against Wang Lung’s eldest daughter, Wang Lung’s love for Lotus wanes and he becomes more himself again, and less under her influence. His return to a more fundamental form of himself is marked by his return to the land as he joyously goes out to plant seed. The land acts as a moral remedy against the kind of decadence that destroys the Hwang family and threatens to destroy Wang Lung’s family, too. When Wang Lung falls into this self-indulgence with Lotus, the land helps cure him of it. Furthermore, he blames his eldest son’s moodiness and lustfulness on the fact that he hasn’t worked on the land and gained the discipline and dedication it requires.

When Wang Lung becomes even wealthier, he moves to the city, away from his land, which seems almost like a betrayal of the very entity that gave him his wealth. However, he maintains his devotion to the land: he still goes out to the land every spring, connecting him to the cycles of the seasons and of fertility. He takes comfort in the fact that he will be buried in the ground on his land, thus becoming even more entirely a part of it.

The final image of the book is of Wang Lung holding a handful of earth as his sons lie to him, saying they’ll never sell the land. This ending implies that the younger generation, having grown up in greater prosperity, doesn’t feel the same connection to the earth that Wang Lung does. The novel provides a sense of a changing world, in which revolution pits poor against rich and people seek wealth from sources other than the earth. Wang Lung’s devotion to his land seems to belong to a bygone, less modern, era.

The sons’ decision to sell the land also acts ironically as a marker of Wang Lung’s success—he has followed closely in the footsteps of the Old Lord of the House of Hwang, whose own sons’ failings originally allowed Wang Lung to acquire much of his land. But against this backdrop, the earth is ages old and will endure beyond the lives of the characters. No matter what mistakes humans make, Wang Lung takes comfort in the fact that the land will always exist and always provide goodness.

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Connection to the Earth Quotes in The Good Earth

Below you will find the important quotes in The Good Earth related to the theme of Connection to the Earth.
Chapter 2 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Wang Lung, O-lan
Related Symbols: The Land
Page Number: 29-30
Explanation and Analysis:

After Wang Lung and O-lan have been married for a few months, O-lan runs out of tasks to do in the house and comes to help Wang Lung in the fields. Though marriage in this culture is a distinctly unequal institution, in that men have almost complete power over their wives, this scene is one of equal partnership. Wang Lung and O-lan rarely talk to each other, and they don’t talk in this scene, either, but their work shows a unity of mind and purpose that results from a natural affinity for each other rather than from long discussion and forced intimacy.

Significantly, this almost spiritual union between husband and wife comes from their work on the land. O-lan is really the only character who values the land as deeply as Wang Lung does, and in this scene they are joined by their care for the earth that gives them life. Buck emphasizes the cycle of life and death, writing of the generations of farmers that have come before this one, all of them dependent on the earth for life and eventually returning to it in death. Wang Lung and O-lan are part of this cycle, and they, too, will die one day; but their labor is given an elegant significance by the fact that they’re part of this traditional partnership with the earth. Furthermore, the earth deserves respect because of its constancy—no matter how the human world has changed or will change around it, the land remains more or less as it is, providing life for those who tend to it.

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Chapter 3 Quotes

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!

Related Characters: Wang Lung, O-lan, The Old Mistress
Related Symbols: The Land
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

Before O-lan gives birth to her first child, she tells Wang Lung that she plans to take the child (whom she assumes will be a son) to the House of Hwang to show him to the Old Mistress. She wants to clothe him well and present him triumphantly as a sign of her social ascendancy, as she used to be a slave in the house. Wang Lung thinks this is a wonderful idea, and he gives her the money for the clothes.

This passage essentially acts as Wang Lung’s meditation upon the land, money, family, and social status. He recognizes the life-giving quality of the earth, but he also sees how the earth produces money, and money produces objects that can both take care of his family and increase his importance in the eyes of others. Now that he has a family of his own, he feels that his work produces rewards that it never did before because he can see his family prosper directly because of his work. However, the fact that this passage comes directly after O-lan’s plan to impress the Old Mistress implies that Wang Lung also sees his son’s clothes as a mark of his status, which increases along with his wealth. He, too, was humiliated in front of the Old Mistress (though certainly to a lesser degree), and he would like to see his money go to salve that humiliation.

Finally, Wang Lung expresses amazement at O-lan’s inner life. O-lan is consistently a more complicated character than Wang Lung understands. It seems that because she’s a nearly silent woman, he thinks there’s nothing more to her than what he sees. However, he here realizes that she has dreams just like he does, even if she doesn’t always tell him about them.

Chapter 4 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: O-lan, The eldest son (Nung En)
Related Symbols: The Land
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

Not long after O-lan gives birth, she begins to work in the fields with Wang Lung again, now with their son lying on the ground nearby. She stops periodically to nurse him.

This passage connects O-lan’s fertility to that of the earth. At this point, Wang Lung’s crops are producing large harvests, and O-lan is filled with a similar overabundance of life. As she lets her milk flow into the ground, it’s as though she offers back to the earth the life that the family has received from it. Her milk nourishes the land, which will in turn continue to nourish the family. The passage offers images of a sweet prosperity, simpler than Wang Lung’s later financial prosperity. Their current prosperity is based on hard work, love, and vitality, and carries with it none of the bitter complications that financial prosperity does. The family’s life is simple, pure, and happy.

Chapter 8 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Wang Lung (speaker), Wang Lung’s uncle
Related Symbols: The Land
Page Number: 75
Explanation and Analysis:

During the famine, the villagers believe, at the uncle’s urging, that Wang Lung has excess food that he’s storing for his family. They come and ransack his house to find it, but in fact there’s very little food. They leave Wang Lung feeling terribly distressed at the possibility of his family’s starvation, but he takes comfort in the fact that no one can steal his land.

This passage explains one of the reasons that Wang Lung always feels so intimately connected to his land: it’s more fully his than anything else, because he owns the land without question and it’s seemingly impossible for anyone to force it out of his possession. Thus, the land will always be there for him and will always provide the possibility of food and money.

After his last harvest, Wang Lung bought more land from the House of Hwang, which seemed potentially foolish since food was already scarce. However, he now feels confident that he made the right decision, even though his family is starving. The villagers could have stolen his money or food, but the land endures as his no matter what humans do. This lesson also shows why land is so important to wealth, and why the Hwangs begin to decline in earnest once they begin getting rid of their land.

Chapter 14 Quotes

“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?”

Related Characters: Wang Lung (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Land
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:

In the city, men on the streets sometimes give Wang Lung pamphlets and speak to crowds about various issues. One day, a man gives him a paper with a picture of a fat man stabbing a poor man. The speaker seems to be a Marxist, as he’s essentially discussing the oppression of the poor by the rich. Calling the rich “capitalists” also indicates that he’s suggesting an alternative to capitalism, which Marxism does.

Wang Lung has rarely thought of the rich as his enemy, instead living in awe of them and desiring to be more like them. Furthermore, he can’t understand the man’s speech the way the city laborers around him can, because he sees land as the way to acquire money. Marxism focuses on the proletariat, meaning people who work for a wage, rather than on farmers, whose prosperity depends greatly on the whims of nature. Buck thus seems to criticize Marxism here for ignoring a large portion of the population, or for rejecting those with the more “wholesome” lifestyle of depending on nature.

When the people finally do rise against the rich, they are probably inspired in part by men such as this one, who help root the idea in their minds. Wang Lung, however, can’t relate to the way he describes the world, so he’ll only get dragged along in the revolt rather than fully participating in it.

Chapter 16 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Cuckoo (speaker), Wang Lung, The Old Lord
Related Symbols: The House of Hwang, The Land
Page Number: 151-52
Explanation and Analysis:

When Wang Lung brings the jewels to the House of Hwang to buy land, he finds that only the Old Lord and the servant Cuckoo remain. The Old Mistress is dead, the house is falling to pieces, and the rest of the family has scattered. Cuckoo explains that mismanagement of the family’s wealth allowed this ultimate destruction.

Cuckoo’s interpretation of the family’s loss of wealth both supports Wang Lung’s ideas about the land and acts as a warning to Wang Lung as his family grows in prosperity and begins to follow in the footsteps of the Hwang family. Cuckoo points out that as the Hwangs lost their connection with the land and let other people manage it for them, they lost all appreciation for the value of money and the work that it took to earn it.

Furthermore, Cuckoo seems to associate their distance from the land with a weakening of body and character. If the land—and working on it—gives life, then ignoring the land makes life drain from the family. Finally, the Hwangs began to sell their land, meaning they got rid of the very source of their wealth. This is the fate that the end of the book will imply for Wang Lung’s own family.

Chapter 19 Quotes

His good brown body that he washed but rarely, deeming the clean sweat of his labor washing enough for ordinary times, his body he now began to examine as if it were another man’s, and he washed himself every day...

He bought sweet-smelling soap in the shop, a piece of red scented stuff from foreign parts, and he rubbed it on his flesh, and not for any price would he have eaten a stalk of garlic, although it was a thing he had loved before, lest he stink before [Lotus].

Related Characters: Wang Lung, Lotus
Page Number: 183
Explanation and Analysis:

As Wang Lung labors under his great passion for Lotus, he becomes a changed man, to the point that his family doesn’t understand what’s happened to him. The actions detailed in this passage indicate that Wang Lung is trying to become someone different than who he has been, someone who he thinks will satisfy Lotus, and in the process he must deny the person he has been his entire life.

In washing every day, Wang Lung seems to be trying to wash away his former self. His farming life, as represented by his sweat, is no longer satisfactory to him, because he doesn’t think it’s satisfactory to Lotus. Similarly, though he’s hardly even acknowledged the existence of the world outside of where he himself lives, he suddenly buys soap from somewhere far away, which seems like a symbolic severing of his formerly deep-rooted connection with his home. Finally, he stops eating garlic. Garlic is a traditional food of the farming class, so in denying himself garlic, he attempts to act as someone of higher social status, rather than as who he really is.

Wang Lung makes all of these changes to himself in an attempt to seem more refined and act in a way that he thinks denotes a superior social standing, hoping to impress Lotus and make her desire him. In fact, this essentially marks the beginning of his dissatisfaction with the simple fact of his wealth, and his enduring need to act in a way fitting to someone wealthy. However, denying his roots only ever causes problems for Wang Lung, and the wealthy don’t necessarily act in beneficial ways.

Chapter 20 Quotes

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!”

Related Characters: Wang Lung (speaker), Wang Lung’s uncle, Lotus, Cuckoo
Related Symbols: The Land
Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:

When his uncle forces his family on Wang Lung, he overhears his uncle’s wife telling O-lan that Wang Lung is going to buy another woman. Wang Lung hadn’t actually thought of this before, but now he’s set on buying Lotus. The uncle’s wife says that Cuckoo will certainly sell Lotus if he offers enough money.

This passage shows how desperate Wang Lung’s lust for Lotus has made him, and how different he’s become from the man he was before he fell in love. He used to be somewhat thrifty with his money, since he worked so hard to earn it, and he certainly never considered letting his land go. Even when his family was on the brink of death from starvation, Wang Lung refused to sell his land to buy them food.

Now, Wang Lung seems earnestly ready to sell his land in order to buy Lotus. This change signifies a greater change that wealth brings upon him—a surrender to his desire for luxury and satisfaction in all aspects of life, and a drawing away from the land that he used to treasure above all else. This moment is only one extreme of a broader severing of his ties to the land as he becomes wealthy enough to hire others to work it for him.

Chapter 22 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Wang Lung, Lotus
Related Symbols: The Land
Page Number: 212
Explanation and Analysis:

After Wang Lung sees Lotus lash out at his children, his passion for her finally cools. When the floods recede from his land, goes out to the fields and begins to work as he hasn’t in a long time.

As always, the land heals Wang Lung of whatever trouble he’s having. In this case, his corrupting love for Lotus has gotten in the way of his loyalty to the land and caused him to stray from the principles that he was raised with as a farmer, instead leading him into the unhealthy excesses of the wealthy.

The land acts as an antidote to the sins that money invites, as it’s a life-giving force that continues to exist no matter what, for all people. Thus, it’s always there for Wang Lung to return to once he comes to his senses, and now he returns to it with his whole body, seeing its color, feeling it on his bare feet, and smelling its healthy scent. As he helps the earth create life in his crops, the earth gives him life in turn.

Chapter 33 Quotes

...[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.

Related Characters: Wang Lung
Related Symbols: The Land
Page Number: 339
Explanation and Analysis:

When Wang Lung is lusting after Pear Blossom, he becomes restless with desire and considers going out to his land from his house in the town. However, he now feels that his social status doesn’t accommodate visits to his land; the land is for the poor farmers and laborers, and people might lose their respect for him if they saw him going into the territory of these lower-class people.

Wang Lung’s hesitancy to go to his land indicates perhaps the most dangerous stage of his symbolic replacement of the Hwang family. Throughout the book, the land has acted as a healing force and as the source of wealth and life. Characters have repeatedly warned that when a family grows disconnected from their land, their fortunes fall rapidly. This is exactly what happened to the Hwangs, as Wang Lung well knows, considering that he benefited from their sale of their land.

Essentially, Wang Lung’s concern for social propriety is taking precedence over his connection to his beloved land. If he doesn’t go out to the land, it can’t heal him of his attachment to the vices of wealth as it has in the past.

Chapter 34 Quotes

“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.

Related Characters: Wang Lung (speaker), The eldest son (Nung En), The second son (Nung Wen)
Related Symbols: The Land
Page Number: 357
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage occurs at the very end of the book, when Wang Lung follows his sons out onto the land and overhears them discussing how best to sell the land and divide the money.

All of Wang Lung’s life experience has taught him that land is the most important possession. The land is to be worshiped and loved, and in return it will take care of a family. The land gives life and heals, and when a family turns away from it, as the Hwangs did, the family won’t last long. Furthermore, Wang Lung knows that the land in itself is immovable wealth, and it also produces wealth—including all of the wealth that Wang Lung has acquired, and that now puts his sons in the position of considering selling the land.

Furthermore, Wang Lung now finds his sons, his own flesh and blood, betraying his sincerest wish. He’s struggled with his family plenty in the past, and even experienced his uncle’s family’s extreme betrayals of him, but he’s always had control of the land, his most important possession. Now, with death approaching, he knows that he will soon be powerless to prevent his sons from making what he sees as the worst possible mistake.

On a more symbolic level, the very title of the book is The Good Earth, gesturing to the land. Thus, if the land is sold, the family is stripped of its story and becomes immediately nonexistent, no longer connected to the one constant element of the world—the earth.

However, another possible interpretation of this ending exists. Wang Lung has always ignored the goings-on of the world around him, preferring to remain as unmoved as the land itself. As a result, he’s very traditional in a rapidly changing world. His sons, on the other hand, are more attuned to progress and political events. The world does change, and it’s possible that the sons know that the economy is changing, too, and farming may no longer be the most practical way to make money. In this interpretation, Wang Lung clings foolishly to the past as he goes to his grave and the world sweeps on without him.