The Good Earth

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.
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No matter Wang Lung’s class status at any point, he’s always very conscious of acting in a way proper to his position so that others will respect him, either as a poor farmer or as a rich landowner with an extensive house.

When Wang Lung initially visits the House of Hwang to retrieve O-lan, he acts extremely deferentially towards the Old Mistress, making it clear that he presents no challenge to her supremacy. In contrast, when he becomes wealthy he later sits just where the Old Mistress sat and presides with great dignity over pairing off a slave and a poor farmer. He changes the way he acts to fit his change in social status.

Wang Lung also wants to ensure that his family members act in ways that will bring only honor to their name. He resents the way his uncle and his family act, because he believes it reflects badly upon Wang Lung himself. Wang Lung even tries to make his uncle rein in his daughter, because he thinks that she’s acting overly bold around men and will be labeled a whore.

Buck portrays many points of Chinese etiquette that American readers may find strange, but are integral to the characters’ way of interacting with the world around them. For example, when O-lan visits her old mistress to show off her first son, Wang Lung doesn’t go into the house with her, because the day is one on which women visit each other. Instead, he waits in the gateman’s house, where he sits in a certain chair accepted as a place of honor. Even as he follows these conventions, he also knows how to forgo politeness for conscious ends. When the gatekeeper’s wife gives him tea, he purposely doesn’t drink it in order to give the impression that he’s on his way up in the world, and the tea is no longer good enough for him. Wang Lung often manipulates social etiquette like this to send a certain message.

Sometimes, Wang Lung struggles to change his way of acting in accordance with his rising social position. When he begins going to Cuckoo’s tea room, for example, she scorns him because he doesn’t know the procedure for hiring a prostitute. To Cuckoo, this inexperience shows that Wang Lung is still an ignorant farmer despite his increase in wealth. Thus, in order to truly improve his social position, he must not only become wealthy, but also change his way of acting in order to live according to the same social conventions that other wealthy men follow.

Essentially, Wang Lung cares deeply about what other people think of him. He pursues wealth not only for his own comfort, but also because it makes people admire him, and he relishes the respect that they pay him as a result. And his experience shows that one’s social class depends not only on money, but also on behavior: wealth grants access to a social class, but the proper behavior grants acceptance within it.

Yet even as the novel portrays Wang Lung subscribing entirely to the established system of social respect in his society, it also depicts how some of those around him refuse to do the same. In fact, the political unrest that Wang Lung largely ignores is based on challenging the old order in China. The contrast between Wang Lung’s personal life and his goals of social advancement with the outside political environment of growing despair and rebellion accentuates the feeling that Wang Lung is a relic in a changing world, and highlights how social rules can both completely guide a life and, even at the same time, be entirely overthrown.

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Social Status Quotes in The Good Earth

Below you will find the important quotes in The Good Earth related to the theme of Social Status.
Chapter 1 Quotes

“Raise him,” said the old lady gravely to the gateman, “these obeisances are not necessary. Has he come for the woman?”

“Yes, Ancient One,” replied the gateman.

“Why does he not speak for himself?” asked the old lady.

“Because he is a fool, Ancient One,” said the gateman...

This roused Wang Lung and he looked with indignation at the gateman.

“I am only a coarse person, Great and Ancient Lady,” he said. “I do not know what words to use in such a presence.”

Related Characters: Wang Lung (speaker), The Old Mistress (speaker), The gateman (speaker), O-lan
Related Symbols: The House of Hwang
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

Wang Lung goes to the House of Hwang to fetch his new wife, O-lan, who works as a slave there. The gateman shows him into a great hall, where the Old Mistress is to present Wang Lung with O-lan, and Wang Lung falls onto his knees before her to show his respect.

This is Wang Lung’s first of many visits to the House of Hwang, and this first visit leaves a great impression on him, effectively setting the standard against which he will measure all future visits as he rises in status and receives greater respect in the house. On this visit, even the gateman, a servant himself, feels that Wang Lung is so far beneath him that he can insult Wang Lung even in front of the Old Mistress. Wang Lung himself admits that he’s completely in awe of the great house and its mistress, and that his much lower social status means he doesn’t know how to act here. This scene makes it clear that social status doesn’t depend only on wealth, but also on one’s way of bearing oneself. Wang Lung is not insulted directly for his poverty, but instead for the social acts that mark him out as ignorant.

Much later, Wang Lung will buy the house and sit where the old lady sits, quite aware of the symbolism in the act that shows how his fortunes have risen.

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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 12 Quotes

...[O]nce when Wang Lung heard a young man... [say] that China must have a revolution and must rise against the hated foreigners, Wang Lung was alarmed and slunk away, feeling that he was the foreigner against whom the young man spoke with such passion. And when on another day he heard another young man speaking... and he said... that the people of China must unite and must educate themselves in these times, it did not occur to Wang Lung that anyone was speaking to him.

Related Characters: Wang Lung
Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:

When the family flees to the city to escape the famine, Wang Lung feels very different from the city people because he’s a country farmer and doesn’t know all the social rules of the city. He comes into contact with some of the political movements of the time, though he’s not educated or aware enough to understand them as such.

In this passage, Wang Lung encounters men speaking about one of the most important Chinese political debates of the nineteenth and early twentieth century: to what extent Europeans should be allowed influence in the country. However, his isolation in the countryside means that he doesn’t understand what the men are really talking about.

Wang Lung’s sense that he himself is a foreigner, rather than realizing the men are speaking against Europeans, gestures to a weakness within the Chinese nationalist political movement. How is China to unite as a culturally independent country against Western influence if rural peasants such as Wang Lung hardly even recognize themselves as Chinese? In other words, the cultural and economic divides within China work against the unification of its people against an outside threat.

Chapter 18 Quotes

...[N]ow, instead of [his money] passing from him like life blood draining from a wound, it lay in his girdle burning his fingers when he felt of it, and eager to be spent on this or that, and he began to be careless of it and to think what he could do to enjoy the days of his manhood.

Everything seemed not so good to him as it was before. The tea shop which he used to enter timidly, feeling himself but a common country fellow, now seemed dingy and mean to him.

Related Characters: Wang Lung
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

After many prosperous years, Wang Lung’s land floods and he finds himself with excess time on his hands. He becomes unhappy with O-lan and decides that he deserves to have a good time now that he’s made his fortune.

In this passage, the reader sees Wang Lung struggling with how to change his life to fit with his wealth. Until now, he’s always been constantly working to tend the land and make money. But now that he’s more or less achieved his goal, he feels lost. The idea of wealth is wonderful, but now that he has it he doesn’t know what to do with it.

Wang Lung’s sense of loss proves that wealth doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness. When he was poor, he was thrilled with simple pleasures like O-lan’s cakes or a set of new clothes. Now, he’s dissatisfied with everything around him, expecting greater things from his wealth, and his search for satisfaction will only lead him into decadence and familial discord.

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 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.

Now Wang Lung in the old days when the great family were there would have felt himself one of these common people and against the great and half hating, half fearful of them. But now that he had land and that he had silver and gold hidden safely away, he despised these people who swarmed everywhere, and he said to himself that they were filthy and he picked his way among them with his nose up and breathing lightly because of the stink they made. And he despised them and was against them as though he himself belonged to the great house.

Related Characters: Wang Lung
Related Symbols: The House of Hwang
Page Number: 291-92
Explanation and Analysis:

Wang Lung’s eldest son wants his father to rent the House of Hwang so the family can move there. Wang Lung goes to inspect the house and has to walk through the commoners living in the outer courts to reach the inner courts, where he could live.

Wang Lung’s response to the commoners shows that he has to some extent forgotten his roots and become just as proud and arrogant as the Old Mistress and the gateman were on his first visit to the House of Hwang. The passage suggests that there’s no fundamental difference between Wang Lung and the commoners whom he disdains. In fact, they’re just the same, since he used to be one of them. Only his money makes him think that he’s better than they are.

Wang Lung’s whole life story serves to show that the rich aren’t divinely chosen; the rich are normal people who in some cases are particularly hard workers, but in general just get lucky.

There before him was the great carven dais where the old lady had sat, her fragile, tended body wrapped in silvery satin.

And moved by some strange impulse he went forward and he sat down where she had sat and he put his hand on the table and from the eminence it gave him he looked down on the bleary face of the old hag who blinked at him... Then some satisfaction he had longed for all his days without knowing it swelled up in his heart and he smote the table with his hand and he said suddenly,

“This house I will have!”

Related Characters: Wang Lung (speaker), The Old Mistress, The gateman’s wife
Related Symbols: The House of Hwang
Page Number: 293
Explanation and Analysis:

Wang Lung has been considering renting the House of Hwang, and he comes upon the gateman’s wife, who shows him into the inner courts and the great hall where Wang Lung met the Old Mistress the first time he came to the house. On Wang Lung’s first visit here, he was humiliated by his poverty and his ignorance of how to act around such social superiors. Even the gateman, a servant himself, acted as though he were far better than Wang Lung.

This experience has stuck with Wang Lung his entire life, and now he’s finally able to retrospectively take control of the situation. As he sits in the Old Mistress’s chair, he symbolically becomes the social equal to the Old Mistress. Furthermore, he’s clearly a social superior to the gateman’s wife. Though this may seem like a very small triumph, the fact that the gateman so humiliated Wang Lung on his first visit gives it significance as well.

Although Wang Lung hasn’t quite realized it, it seems that he’s been working his entire life towards this moment, towards being able to take this seat that he’s always thought of as the ultimate place of power. As it represents the pinnacle of his achievement and occurs before his family begins to more earnestly follow the Hwangs’ path to self-destruction, this moment can be seen as the climax of the novel. However, in the fact that Wang Lung symbolically becomes the Old Mistress just before her family’s decline, this passage also marks the moment that his family slips into her family’s dangerously luxurious shoes.

Chapter 30 Quotes

...[T]hese common people found that the rent for the rooms and the courts where they lived had been greatly raised... and they had to move away. Then they knew it was Wang Lung’s eldest son who had done this...

The common people had to move, then, and they moved complaining and cursing because a rich man could do as he would and they... went away swelling with anger and muttering that one day they would come back even as the poor do come back when the rich are too rich.

Related Characters: Wang Lung, The eldest son (Nung En)
Related Symbols: The House of Hwang
Page Number: 308
Explanation and Analysis:

Wang Lung’s eldest son wants the family to take over the outer courts of the house, rather than staying confined to the inner courts. He thinks it isn’t socially respectable for them to be living in such close quarters with commoners. Thus he offers a higher rent to the Hwangs so that they’ll evict the commoners. Wang Lung doesn’t explicitly play a role in this event, but he lets his son do as he wants and never protests.

The eldest son’s actions are despicable in any circumstances, but particularly in light of the fact that his own family—and he himself—used to be in the position of the commoners. In the city, Wang Lung’s family lived in poverty up against the wall of a wealthy house, just as these commoners do. But neither Wang Lung nor his son pays any heed to this past of theirs, preferring to dwell on their current prosperity instead.

Furthermore, Wang Lung doesn’t seem to have learned anything from his experience as a commoner. In the city, the people struggling around him used the very same phrase that’s used in this passage, “when the rich are too rich,” to justify their revolt against the wealthy and their ransacking of the great house. This book works in cycles, and this phrase represents the cycle of poverty and revolt against it. And with the Marxist ideas that Wang Lung heard in the city floating around, revolt against his own family might come sooner rather than later.

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.