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.
Connection to the Earth ThemeTracker
Connection to the Earth 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.
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].
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.