The Good Earth

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The Oppression of Women 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.
The Oppression of Women Theme Icon

In The Good Earth, Buck portrays an extremely patriarchal society in which men hold almost complete power over women. The male characters see women within a dichotomy, meaning that there are only two options for their perception of women—as silent, obedient, honorable women, or as “whores” —and very little wiggle room exists between these roles. In either case, men consider women to essentially be their slaves, either as their unfailingly willing helpers or as providers of sexual satisfaction.

This society’s oppression of women is most obviously evident in the fact that it refers to newborn babies as “men” or “slaves” rather than “boys” or “girls.” These names aren’t just names, either. Families strongly value male children over female children. And when daughters are born, families often see them as burdens and sometimes kill them or sell them as slaves when they need money in hard times, just as Wang Lung himself considers selling his eldest daughter, the “poor fool,” as a slave when his family is living in the city.

Through the character of O-lan, the novel shows how even when women perfectly play the role of silent, obedient wife it still does them little good. O-lan acts as a savior to Wang Lung multiple times, such as when she convinces a group of starving men not to steal their furniture and when she obtains the jewels that provide the foundation for Wang Lung’s agricultural expansion. Yet he rarely recognizes her role in his survival and rise to prominence. The implication is that, because O-lan must be obedient to Wang Lung as a wife, any help she provides is something she already owes to him, something he deserves and essentially accomplished himself.

Furthermore, as often happens in patriarchal societies, O-lan’s appearance counts for far more with Wang Lung than her intelligence or abilities do. Ultimately, as Wang Lung becomes wealthier he grows discontented with O-lan’s plain appearance and large feet (small feet, often made so by breaking and binding them, are considered beautiful), and he turns to other women for sexual satisfaction, eventually taking on Lotus as a concubine. Not until O-lan is dying does Wang Lung come to recognize some of what she has done for him.

Furthermore, because the female characters have always lived in a society that devalues them, they entirely subscribe to its rules for them, a state of mind called “internalized misogyny.” As much as O-lan has been hurt by society’s treatment of women, she herself doesn’t hesitate to practice the same injuries upon her daughters. In fact, she is the first to suggest that Wang Lung sell their daughter, even though she herself was sold in a similar situation, when her parents badly needed money, and she admits that as a slave, she was beaten every day with a leather harness. She shows such complete dedication to her husband’s welfare and such contempt for her own life and that of her daughter that she’s willing to sell her into assured misery. To O-lan, this is simply how women’s lives go, and she doesn’t even seem to consider seeking an alternative.

Lotus is certainly a less selfless character than O-lan, as in her greed she constantly manipulates Wang Lung into buying her new luxuries. Yet her greed and manipulation still exist entirely within the larger patriarchal structure in which her beauty and sexual availability makes her valuable to Wang Lung. She never even considers – seems incapable even of imagining – any other way of life.

Buck was a supporter of women’s rights, and The Good Earth took an important step simply by portraying the oppression of women in Chinese society. However, telling the story from a man’s point of view prevents the novel from offering any glimpses into how the female characters might have far richer lives than Wang Lung perceives, or from suggesting ways in which women might take power over their own lives. Even so, Buck does demonstrate that Chinese women are valuable members of society, and Buck’s beliefs are evident in Wang Lung’s occasional and brief recognitions of this value, as when he realizes some of what O-lan has done for him as she is near death, and when he can’t bear to sell the “poor fool” and his fortunes shift for the better before he can change his mind.

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The Oppression of Women Quotes in The Good Earth

Below you will find the important quotes in The Good Earth related to the theme of The Oppression of Women.
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 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 16 Quotes

“If I could have two,” she went on humbly, “only two small ones—two small white pearls even...”

“Pearls!” he repeated, agape... Then Wang Lung... looked for an instant into the heart of this dull and faithful creature, who had labored all her life at some task at which she won no reward and who in the great house had seen others wearing jewels which she never even felt in her hand once.

Related Characters: Wang Lung (speaker), O-lan (speaker)
Related Symbols: The House of Hwang, The Pearls
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

Once the family returns to their land, Wang Lung discovers that O-lan has been hiding a packet of jewels that she stole from the great house in the city when the mob broke in. Wang Lung insists they must sell the jewels, but O-lan asks if she might keep two pearls.

This passage shows how rarely Wang Lung truly sees O-lan as a person, simply because she’s a woman, and a silent, uncomplaining one at that. O-lan has had very little happiness in her life, having been sold as a slave at an early age, treated badly in the House of Hwang, and then living as Wang Lung’s servant as much as his wife. However, this doesn’t mean that she doesn’t appreciate beauty just as much as anyone else, or have her own inner mysteries and desires. This moment makes Wang Lung see that O-lan is more complicated than he thought, and when he allows her to keep the pearls (that really belong to her anyway, since she obtained them) it bonds them together in their quest for a better life.

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 34 Quotes

Every man I hate except you—I have hated every man, even my father who sold me. I have heard only evil of them and I hate them all.... I am filled with loathing and I hate them all. I hate all young men.

Related Characters: Pear Blossom (speaker), Wang Lung
Page Number: 350
Explanation and Analysis:

Pear Blossom becomes Wang Lung’s concubine and then more of a simple companion. One day he asks her why she’s so afraid of men, and she answers that she hates them all. She gives no particular reason for her hatred, but all of the misogyny portrayed throughout the story provides a pretty good idea of why a woman would hate men.

Ironically, Pear Blossom says that she hates “even [her] father who sold [her],” as though this hatred seems particularly odd. However, it makes perfect sense that she would hate a father who showed that he loved her so little that he could say goodbye to her forever and leave her in slavery. In fact, this early experience provides a concrete reason for her hatred of men, as it probably showed her how little they value and respect women.

But Pear Blossom’s attitude is almost more powerful in its vagueness. As she doesn’t point to any particular explanation for her hatred, it allows her emotion to apply to all of the men in the book and all of their awful acts against women, even the ones for which she wasn’t present. In a book whose female characters generally accept and perpetuate their own oppression, Pear Blossom stands out as a woman who recognizes, on some level, that she deserves better from men.