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.
The Oppression of Women ThemeTracker
The Oppression of Women 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!
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.
“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.
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?”
...[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.
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.