Part I Desperation Breeds Hope: Pages 1–104
"Nothing could stop the mass of hungry men and women and they fought like beasts until all were fed. Wang Lung caught in their midst could do nothing but cling to his father and his two sons and when he was swept to the great caldron he held out his bowl and when it was filled threw down his pence, and it was all he could do not to stand sturdily and not be swept on before the thing was done." — from The Good Earth
The Good Earth is a story of the cycle of success and failure in a family that seems, like Wang Lung in the above quote, to be swirling in the great caldron of fate. No sooner have the main characters Wang Lung and O-lan married, started their family and secured a modest plot of land for themselves—all of the harbingers of a successful and stable existence—before the tumult of the world unseats the young family and casts them adrift. "The children's bellies were swollen out with empty wind, and one never saw in these days a child playing upon the village street. At most the two boys in Wang Lung's house crept to the door and sat in the sun, the cruel sun that never ceased its endless shining. Their once rounded bodies were angular and bony now, sharp small bones like the bones of birds, except for their ponderous bellies." (p. 77). A life that once seemed to hold so much promise for Wang Lung comes to feel empty and wayward—as near as he can tell, through no fault of his own. Across his province, everyone is starving. "Now the grandsons were coming, grandsons upon grandsons! They would have to put beds along the walls and in the middle room. The house would be full of beds." (p. 3)
Yet not everyone makes the same choices in the face of starvation as Wang Lung. Across the countryside there is looting and immorality. Faced with it in his own village, Wang Lung thinks of the future and has hope. "We must go lest we forget our nature and eat each other as wild dogs do…And then it seemed to him suddenly that what he said was very right…There was cheer in his voice such as none had heard in many moons, and the children looked up and the old man hobbled out from his room and O-lan rose feebly from her bed and came to the door of their room and clinging to the door frame she said, 'It is a good thing to do. One can at least die walking.'" (p. 79-80) Though he knows nothing of the wider world—not even whether the poverty that has struck him where he lives will follow him down the road—he and his wife hold the same belief: That getting up and moving on is better than laying still and dying, and that the strength in their young, exuberant family is more than can be measured. Wang Lung and O-lan are presented as a united front. Whatever else we may learn of them, we know their core beliefs are something powerful each brings to their union.
To some degree, the hope he has for the future is bred into Wang Lung, and results from the fact that his family is the most important product of his life. Says the old man on the verge of starvation, "When he saw his hands were empty he said merely, 'I have ploughed and I have sown seed and I have reaped harvest and thus have I filled my rice bowl. And I have beyond this begotten a son and son's sons.' And with this he trusted like a child that now he would be fed, seeing that he had a son and grandsons." (p. 104) In this way, it seems clear. Life in Wang Lung's China is about hard work and providence. The strongest providence, the one that trumps all others, is the one begotten from the bonds of family life. Even in the face of the worst tragedy, family—by its very nature—will provide. Part II Gods Over Land: Pages 105–219
"Looking at the blue heaven above him and the white clouds driving across it, feeling upon his ploughed fields as upon his own flesh the sun and rain in proportion, Wang Lung muttered unwillingly, 'I must stick a little incense before those two in the small temple. After all, they have power over earth.'" — from The Good Earth
At several points throughout The Good Earth, Wang Lung's land is won and lost, both literally and figuratively. Not only does the family physically lose their land at the time of famine, but Wang Lung also loses track of his commitment to the earth—and its source of renewal—almost as regularly as a pendulum swings from one side to the other. His fields are flooded. His land dries to a hard lump of earth. In similar fashion, Wang Lung's ability to appreciate his fortunes, and to give thanks for them to the Gods, goes through many shifts and changes.
This relationship, between the temple to the earth, the earth itself, and the way both are perceived by Wang Lung, is one of the most complex and rich of the entire novel. In the beginning, the main character and his new wife complete their true union in the temple to the earth. "Together this man and this woman stood before the gods of their fields. The woman watched the ends of the incense redden and turn grey. When the ash grew heavy she leaned over and with her forefinger she pushed the head of ash away. Then, as though fearful for what she had done, she looked quickly at Wang Lung, her eyes dumb. But there was something he liked in her movement. It was as though she felt that the incense belonged to them both; it was a moment of marriage. They stood there in complete silence, side by side, while the incense smothered into ashes; and then because the sun was sinking, Wang Lung shouldered the box and they went home." (p. 21) The temple, which is one of the few clear instances of religion in the book, holds unique sway over not only Wang Lung and O-lan, but also the ties that bind them together. At the many points where Wang Lung is reminded of his commitment to the bonds of matrimony, he is also reminded of what he owes to the land and to the Gods. In this way, Wang Lung's commitments to the world—his debt to society, to his family and to himself—are all wrapped up together in a somewhat tidy package reflected in the temple to the earth.
It is in this metaphor for the broader significance of Wang Lung's life that we come to understand, at least to some degree, the part religion plays in Chinese culture. Rather than being filled with iconography, tithing or text, as is Western religion, Wang Lung's form of worship is a very personal one that has been passed down through "the rain of generations…until now there was only a faint feathery shadow." (p. 21). In many litany-like passages, Wang Lung bows down to the land that makes his life worth something. "Wang Lung thought of his land and pondered this way and that, with the sickened heart of deferred hope, how he could get back to it. He belonged, not to this scum which clung to the walls of the rich man's house; nor did he belong to the rich man's house. He belonged to the land and he could not live with any fullness until he felt the land under his feet and followed a plow in the springtime, and bore a scythe in his hand at harvest. He listened, therefore, apart from the others because hidden in his heart was the knowledge of possession of his land, the good wheat land of his fathers, and the strip of rich land which had bought him from the great house." (p. 121-122) And in this worship, we see clearly what is meaningful to Wang Lung—both his commitment to the Gods that fuel the land and to the land itself.
What makes The Good Earth so special and so unique is the book's ability to tell its reader about China through hundreds of subtle cues about the way the characters live their lives. Wang Lung's relationship to religion and the land is just one of the many instances of the ability Pearl Buck has to bring this understanding to delicate and powerful fruition. Part III O-lan's Pearls of Wisdom: Pages 220 to The End
"For the first time in his years with her Wang Lung began to think about O-lan. Even in the days of her new-coming he had not thought of her for herself and not further than because she was a woman and the first he had known…now it seemed to him that he had time to think of what he would and he thought of O-lan." — from The Good Earth
When we think of a traditional woman who has given herself over in complete subservience to her marriage, Wang Lung's wife O-lan certainly fits the bill. From the moment she enters into her union with Wang Lung, she accepts her role as assistant, nurse, housemaid, field hand and mother. Through Wang Lung's thoughts we are told time and again that O-lan is not delicate, she's not physically attractive and she has no wealth to offer Wang Lung. Wang Lung treats her accordingly. He takes for granted all of her hard work and persistence—never rewarding her for birthing three healthy sons, which are a prized commodity—and turns to a concubine to replace her in bed when she becomes ravaged by age and hard work.
Yet, O-lan clearly falls out as the wealthiest character in the book. Like Wang Lung, her attachment to the land yields her a sense of place. Despite her humble nature, many good things come to O-lan. She is an expert forager during times of famine. She comes away with a wad of jewels from the rich man's house and buys her legacy in the family a hundredfold. She has a good moral compass, and makes choices that are sometimes difficult, but most always right. Despite the fact that she's had to endure Lotus and Cuckoo for many years, she is ultimately above them in China's social hierarchy as a wife who has bourn sons. O-lan looks out for the best interests of her children. She dies with the admiration of her husband and children, along with the reassurance of future generations begotten by the marriage of her son to a woman she approves of.
In addition to the fact that she lives her life as a resourceful, purposeful wife and mother, O-lan is continually redeemed by her generosity of spirit. She is the only character in the novel that could be deemed selfless. O-lan understands that because she comes from nothing, nothing belongs to her. Even the precious pearls that come to the family through her ingenuity do not ultimately belong to her. She is not a fine woman, and she accepts this. When Wang Lung demands the pearls should be worn by "fair" women, "slowly she thrust her wet wrinkled hand into her bosom and she drew forth the small package and she gave it to him and watched as he unwrapped it; and the pearls lay in his hand and they caught softly and fully the light of the sun" (p. 186). Though it causes her pain to give them up, O-lan does not struggle against her place and her purpose. Knowing her as we do, we may even assume O-lan considers herself to be lucky to have had possession of the pearls for as long as she did.
Through all of this, it seems clear that O-lan's life does hold many lessons. Her handling of the pearl's themselves, as with so many other moments throughout the novel, begets her ultimate wisdom. O-lan is a woman who does not apologize for who she is, but instead makes the most of her circumstances. When she marries a man who loves the land, she too loves the land. When she is expected to work hard and place the needs of her family above all else, she does this stoically and gracefully. When she withers with cancer, she soldiers on until she's finally given permission to die peacefully. In the end, she shows that she has shared Wang Lung's dream all along. When Wang Lung claims he would sell all of his land to bring her back to health, she says, "No, and I would not—let you. For I must die—sometime anyway. But the land is there after me." (p. 256)
It seems, in the eyes of the author, that O-lan represents the best China has to offer—a society in which some members truly shine in the role they were born to play. O-lan's resilience—even in the face of every oppression—is inspiring. It is also a reminder of the hard-won promise of a purposeful life well lived. Part III continues... The Good in the Earth: Pages 220 to The End
"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.