The emphasis in the first twelve chapters of The Good Earth is on the earth itself and on Wang Lung’s identification of himself with it. The next twelve chapters focus on Wang Lung’s three sons and their disaffections with one another and with their father, whose attachment to the land they do not share. The last ten chapters include the deaths of O-lan; Wang Lung’s father; his true friend, Ching, who had given from his own meager store a lifesaving handful of beans to Wang Lung during the famine; and Wang Lung’s uncle. These chapters elaborate on the corruption of character wrought by luxury and on the consequent divisions in the house of Wang. These themes correspond to the books of the Wang family trilogy that Pearl S. Buck fashioned, consisting of The Good Earth, Sons (1932), and A House Divided (1935), published together in 1935 as The House of Earth. The sequels continue the narrative of Wang Lung’s three sons and concentrate on the militaristic brigandage of the youngest, who comes to be known as Wang the Tiger.
The emphases of both The Good Earth and the completed trilogy constitute a view of the cycles of life, both terrestrial (fertility, fruition, and decay) and human (struggle, achievement, and decline). In its mythic quality, The Good Earth is richer than its sequels, which have more to do with enterprise and brigandage. Land in The Good Earth is, while not explicitly identified as female, the maternal sustenance of Wang Lung, who may be viewed as umbilically dependent on the earth. This relationship is reflected in the four women who nurture Wang Lung and satisfy his needs: O-lan, fully attuned to the earth and the mainstay of her husband, whose acquisition and retention of abundant land is made possible by her surrendering to him a horde of jewels of which she comes into fortuitous possession; Lotus, the concubine, who satisfies his lechery as he becomes wealthy from his land holdings; his “poor fool,” the daughter who makes it possible for him to experience human love; and Pear Blossom, the very young slave and his second concubine, who eases his passage from active life into senescence. When Wang Lung leaves his palatial house and returns by preference to the earthen house where he began, thereby completing his life cycle, his only companions are Pear Blossom and the “poor fool,” themselves analogous to the fruitfulness and barrenness of the good earth.
O-lan, the “poor fool,” and Pear Blossom are consonant with the true earth in both its positive and its negative phases. Lotus is identifiable with the sickness induced by luxury and by exploitation of the earth. Wang Lung’s sensual obsession with Lotus makes him selfish and inconsiderate. His mental cruelty to O-lan during this period parallels his loss of immediate contact with the land. The cure for his sexual lust is the earth: “and when he was weary he lay down upon his land and he slept and the health of the earth spread into his flesh and he was healed of his sickness.”
Paradoxically, his love of the land precludes his full love of any human, whatever the measure of his devotion to father, wife, children, or his friend Ching. Only with his “poor fool,” whom he had held and comforted during the famine as starvation brought her close to death, does he experience the selfless love that is the very nature of O-lan. It is this paradox that contributes to the novel a greatness not often found in best-sellers.