The Good Earth

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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.
Family Theme Icon

Chinese society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as depicted in The Good Earth, revolves entirely around family structures, and so the course of the novel can be traced according to the development of Wang Lung’s family.

The book begins with Wang Lung becoming the head of his family—in some sense creating a family—by marrying O-lan, which enables him to have children and thus a line of descendants. Family line in this society depends on male children, as girls are either married off into other families or sold as slaves. Much of the rest of the novel, then, involves Wang Lung’s efforts to build and protect his family. Initially, Wang Lung’s life consists of working in the fields so that he can feed himself and his family and take care of his elderly father. He feels responsible for the well-being of those connected to him, and when times get bad, he even thinks of them as mouths to feed and bellies to fill. Wang Lung also sees his family as offering a kind of legacy, as providing a means of preserving his own accomplishments and values down through history.

Yet the novel also never shirks from showing just how much trouble a family – and the social expectations around family – can be. For example, Wang Lung’s uncle and his uncle’s wife and uncle’s son are lazy and often take advantage of Wang Lung for their own benefit. By the bonds of family, Wang Lung does owe them assistance in hard times, and he worries that others will think ill of him if he doesn’t give in to his uncle’s demands for food, money, and shelter, even when his own immediate family is struggling during the famine. Eventually, Wang Lung figures out a way to navigate the tricky obligations of family regarding his uncle. He gets the uncle’s family addicted to opium so that they become lethargic and stop causing him trouble as long as he supports their habit. This solution allows Wang Lung to maintain his honor, as he isn’t outwardly denying his family assistance, but he essentially decides to put the needs of his immediate family above those of his extended family.

But Wang Lung’s own family also thwarts his hopes and ambitions for both himself and his family legacy. Only his mentally disabled eldest daughter, the “poor fool,” who does nothing but sit in the sun and sometimes laugh, allows Wang Lung the power over her that he wishes he could have over his entire family, and thus he treasures her in a way he doesn’t his other children. His other children all have independent desires of their own. The novel ends as his sons, who have grown up wealthy and decadent, lie to Wang Lung as they promise never to sell the family land, and it is clear that Wang Lung’s sons will squander the family fortune just as the Hwang sons did when Wang Lung was young.

The irony of family in the novel, then, is that Wang Lung devotes himself to it almost entirely – seeing his own values and success as bound up in the success of his descendants – but even as he works for the benefit of those descendants, the individual members of his family destroy what he has built for them to satisfy their own independent desires. And because this same fate befell the House of Hwang, the novel makes clear that this is no aberration – that families rise and fall, and always will.

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Family Quotes in The Good Earth

Below you will find the important quotes in The Good Earth related to the theme of Family.
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 7 Quotes

The voice of his wife answered from the bed more feebly than he had ever heard her speak,

“It is over once more. It is only a slave this time—not worth mentioning.”

Wang Lung stood still. A sense of evil struck him. A girl! A girl was causing all this trouble in his uncle’s house. Now a girl had been born into his house as well.

Related Characters: O-lan (speaker), Wang Lung, The daughter / the eldest daughter (the poor fool), Wang Lung’s uncle
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

Wang Lung’s uncle comes to him to ask for money so that he can marry off his daughter, who’s been associating with men in a way that’s deemed inappropriate. Wang Lung doesn’t want to give him the money because he knows his uncle will waste it, but when he’s forced into it, he goes to fetch the money and finds that O-lan has just given birth.

The fact that the characters call girls “slaves” from the very moment of their births shows, perhaps more than anything else, the misogyny of this society. Even if they’re not literally sold into slavery, girls are destined to work their whole lives for their husbands. Furthermore, O-lan seems to despise herself for giving birth to a girl, and to despise the baby for being a girl. She hardly thinks Wang Lung even needs to know about the child. Her attitude shows that misogyny is so deep-seated in her culture that women often participate in their own oppression just as much as men oppress them.

Wang Lung, for his part, literally sees the girl as a sign of evil, though she’s only just been born and is hardly even aware of the world around her. This is quite a lot of baggage for a baby to carry from the moment of birth, simply because of her gender. Buck also fails to push back against this interpretation of the baby as a sign of evil, since the famine begins just after her birth, seeming to confirm Wang Lung’s prediction.

Chapter 24 Quotes

But [O-lan] rose at dawn and she did her work and Wang Lung saw her only as he saw the table or his chair or a tree in the court, never even so keenly as he might see one of the oxen drooping its head or a pig that would not eat.... And she said nothing but she worked at her cooking and at the washing at the pool even in the winter when the water was stiff with ice to be broken. But Wang Lung never thought to say,

“Well, and why do you not with the silver I have to spare, hire a servant or buy a slave?”

Related Characters: Wang Lung, O-lan
Page Number: 239
Explanation and Analysis:

Wang Lung deals with problems within his family and in his fields, and through it all O-lan remains constant, performing the work that Wang Lung expects of her. However, she’s also become ill without Wang Lung realizing it. In fact, this passage shows that Wang Lung hardly notices her at all.

Wang Lung’s society expects women to perform their duties quietly and without complaint, and it also expects wives to do whatever is needed to keep their household running smoothly. Yet O-lan receives no praise or reward when she conforms to these expectations as perfectly as she does. Instead, her silence makes her fade into the background. Of course, this is mostly Wang Lung’s fault, as he’s abandoned her for Lotus and dismissed her value entirely when he began to see her as ugly. He fails to appreciate her and won’t realize how essential her work is until she grows ill in earnest and can no longer do it.

Furthermore, this passage demonstrates that the practice of calling all girls “slaves” from the moment of birth is really an accurate custom. Even though O-lan is no longer technically a slave, she still must work as though she is, receiving no compensation or even appreciation. Wang Lung never thinks to use his wealth to ease her burden because he essentially thinks of her as a slave, part of the landscape that he doesn’t need to think about rather than as a member of his family. Essentially, this passage is emblematic of the broader treatment of women throughout the book.

Chapter 25 Quotes

...[M]y mother said I was not to weep aloud because you are too kind and weak for pain and you might say to leave me as I am, and then my husband would not love me even as you do not love her.

Related Characters: The second daughter (speaker), Wang Lung, O-lan
Page Number: 249
Explanation and Analysis:

Wang Lung visits Liu and engages his second daughter to Liu’s son. When he returns home, he notices that his daughter has been crying, and she tells him that it’s because her bound feet hurt.

Foot binding was practiced in parts of China for centuries. Because small, dainty feet were considered beautiful, girls’ feet would be broken and bound tightly with cloth so that they could never grow large. O-lan’s feet were not bound, and when Wang Lung grows wealthy and thus picky, he criticizes her feet in particular. O-lan then binds her daughter’s feet in hopes that her daughter’s husband will love her more than she thinks Wang Lung loves her.

In this scene, his daughter’s uncomprehending honesty makes Wang Lung finally begin to realize the betrayal that he has practiced on O-lan. He has rejected her for her appearance rather than valuing her for her wisdom and faithfulness, and she’s so obedient that she doesn’t even try to make him see his wrongdoing. Instead, she puts her daughter through physical pain in the hopes that she can avoid the emotional pain that O-lan herself experiences.

Even as O-lan acts in reaction to Wang Lung’s cruelty, she still sees him as “kind and weak,” expecting him to stop the foot binding if he realizes how painful it is. Thus, she seems to blame herself for her ugliness, rather than blaming Wang Lung for his superficial judgment of her. O-lan experiences her society’s misogyny in all the worst ways, and yet she never seems to fight the wrongs done to her.

Chapter 28 Quotes

Then Wang Lung’s uncle took it greedily, for it was sweet to smell and a thing that only rich men used, and he took it and bought a pipe and he smoked the opium, lying all day upon his bed to do it. Then Wang Lung saw to it that there were pipes bought and left here and there... and the silver for this Wang Lung did not begrudge because it bought him peace.

Related Characters: Wang Lung, Wang Lung’s uncle
Related Symbols: Opium
Page Number: 281-82
Explanation and Analysis:

Wang Lung’s uncle’s family becomes so troublesome, with the uncle threatening to set his robber band on the house and the uncle’s son molesting Wang Lung’s daughter, that Wang Lung decides his only choice is to get the uncle’s family addicted to opium. Opium acts as a narcotic, subduing the user’s energy and causing strange dreams.

However, opium is also regarded as a luxury. The uncle is eager to accept the opium partly for this reason, since he sees it as a toy of the wealthy and he wants to live in the comfort of the wealthy. Though it’s very expensive, Wang Lung would rather spend the money on keeping his uncle’s family quiet than spend it on giving them everything they ask for.

Additionally, opium is associated with the House of Hwang, as the Old Mistress smoked copious amounts of it. In fact, her constant desire for opium contributed to the family’s loss of their fortune. Thus, Wang Lung should perhaps be more cautious about bringing opium into his household, since it adds to the ways in which his family imitates the Hwangs, who ended in ruin.

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.