Plot Points in The Good Earth
"Thus spring wore on again and again and vaguely and more vaguely as these years passed he felt it coming. But still one thing remained to him and it was his love for the land. He had gone away from it and he had set up his house in a town and he was rich. But his roots were in his land." — from The Good Earth
One of the most critical markers in Pearl Buck's The Good Earth—beyond silver coins and statues for worship, even in many cases beyond human relationships—are the seasons. We're constantly returning to spring, returning to fall. The seasons represent the cycle of life on the land, the crops that need planting at the first blush of spring and the fields that need reaping as fall descends in all its bluster. Wang Lung, who is more tied to the land than any character, with the possible exception of Ching, feels these subtle cycles in his very bones. "When spring came each year he must go out on to the land; and now although he could no longer hold a plow or do anything but see another drive the plow through the earth, still he must needs go and he went." (p. 353) When the author writes that Wang Lung's "roots were in his land," she is referring to a powerful, symbiotic balance in Wang Lung's world that only exists because he is tied to more than his family, more than his own soul. He is tied to the earth, and the earth makes him whole in a way he could not otherwise be.
This is the simple message of a novel whose very title explains so much. Whereas Wang Lung may not always be a good man, because he is always tied to the good earth he has an advantage and a purpose. Though the fortunes of his family have rose and fallen nearly as many times as the waters have flooded the plains, his ultimate reverence for the land has attached him to more than the changing winds of fate. We are left with the feeling that even if he no longer owned the land, his possession of it would still be powerful. "Then he went into the enclosure and he looked carefully and he saw the place where he would lie below his father and his uncle and above Ching and not far from O-lan. And he stared at the bit of earth where he was to lie and he saw himself in it and back in his own land forever." (p. 354) At the time of his death, Wang Lung doesn't turn to the Gods. He doesn't turn to his sons—who he has spent much time cultivating and caring for. He doesn't turn to his wealth, or the village that he has in many ways sustained. He turns to his mud hut. He takes comfort in the end because he knows where his final resting place will be, and that brings him great pleasure and great peace. In the final moments of our modern lives, most us will be complete strangers to our final resting places. Wang Lung's enduring relationship with the land is something few of us today can claim to have experienced.
In many ways, this message is powerful today because it is the anthem of a simpler time, a simpler place, a simpler people and a simpler life. Pearl Buck seemed to understand that this way of life and men like Wang Lung were quietly phasing out of existence. In some respects, we can read her novel and its finale as a wise, rallying cry. In the voice of Wang Lung, we hear the truth about where our priorities should be. In others, it is simply a tale about where we have come from, and where progress has taken us. Either way, the quiet flow of this novel's rhythms—its exaltations for the hearty earth of its birth and sustenance—can be good nourishment as we struggle to find the thing that will give our lives the same purpose that the soil gave Wang Lung's.