With its epic qualities, Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth traces the struggles, the passions, the desires, and rewards of Wang-Lung and his family during the Ch'ing Dynasty and after the Revolution of 1911 when the Chinese Republic was first established with Sun Yat-sen as its new president.
Throughout the entire narrative, important themes prevail.
- The land and its value
As its title indicates, the novel expands upon the value that land possesses. For the peasant farmer Wang Lung the earth is, indeed, good and is the source of nourishment for his soul as well as his and his family's bodies. The cycles of the earth parallel those of human life; there is a spiritual and moral connection to the land for Wang Lung. When he forgets the importance of the land, he loses his existential meaning and becomes dissatisfied and spiritually corrupt.
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 . . . 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.....Each had his turn at this earth. They worked on, moving together—together—producing the fruit of this earth.
The earth is the one, true invariable in Wang Lung's life, the source of all goodness. As he dies, he tries to impress upon his sons the essential meaning of the land, and how it provides the lifeblood of his family's existence.
- The Corruption of Wealth and Leisure
When Wang Lung attains wealth, he becomes somewhat snobbish and begins to frequent tea houses as he loses his connection to the land. At one tea house, he is mesmerized by Lotus. So taken by her seductiveness is he that Wang Lung spends most of his time with her, buying her expensive gifts. When his uncle tells his wife that Wang Lung has been frequenting the tea house and consorting with Lotus, Wang Lung arrogantly brings her into his home and has rooms built for Lotus, an action that deeply hurts his loyal and hard working wife, O-lan.
Having living comfortably for most of their lives, the sons of Wang Lung, too, do not hold worthy values, such as the importance of the land. Instead, they desire more material possessions. In Chapter 28, the eldest son, whose cousin desires his wife, tells his father,
"...there is the old great house of the Hwangs....the inner courts are locked and silent and we could rent them and live there peacefully and you and my youngest brother could come to and fro to the land and I would not be angered by this dog, my cousin."
The thought that he now can live where he once came as a poor peasant entices Wang-Lung. Now, he feels himself above the poor and even despises them as though "he himself belonged to the great house."
- The status of women
In her narrative, Buck exposes the custom of binding the feet of women, the selling of daughters as slaves, and the exploitation of women as wives and concubines.
When O'lan gives birth to a daughter, acting on her cultural teachings of the devaluation of females, she tells her husband, “It is only a slave this time—not worth mentioning,”; further, during the famine, she smothers the baby girl because there is not enough milk in her and food for the others.
When Wang Lung takes from O-lan the pearls that he has allowed her to keep from those she stole in the city, she says nothing about his disrespect, crying great tears silently.