What impressions does Buck create for you of the lives of women at the time when the novel was set?
For the most part, the lives of the women in The Good Earth are far from "good." Buck constructs a vision where the woman of the context really struggles. The critical element to women's lives in the novel is one of struggle, perseverance, and survival. It becomes clear that being a man in the Chinese setting is one with far more options than being a woman.
The impressions one immediately derives from the characterizations of women in The Good Earth reflects the life of hardship that women had to face. Look no further than O-lan. She is the committed wife in Wang's life. She was forced to live a life as a slave before marriage, in which she lives another life of forced servitude. She cooks, tends to "wifely" duties and responsibilities, while never really voicing any real discontent about anything. She is the wife who supports her husband and does so with a humility that is almost socially mandated. She lives in silence, something confirmed by her own husband's taking advantage of her and disrespecting both her as a person and her role of wife. Wang sees his wife as “a dull and common creature, who plodded in silence without thought of how she appeared to others.” O-lan represents the traditional path that many women in the cultural context were forced to take, indicating that one path the lives of women took were not very "good."
Another avenue is the path that Lotus takes. Lotus uses her sexuality as a means of survival. Whereas O-lan dutifully works for the needs of her husband, Lotus uses her wares to entertain men. Lotus represents the other aspect of the paradigm that women were forced to fit into within the novel's cultural context. O-lan lacked the sensuality and sexual drive to use in trying to carve out some semblance of an identity. Lotus uses hers as a way to ensnare men. It works with Wang, as he realizes in her that “there was nothing so wonderful for beauty in the world as her pointed little feet and her curling helpless hands.” Lotus must use her sexuality as part of her means of survival, again reflecting a reality of little choice. She might gain power, but it is only a small pittance of what men give her in return for the sexuality she must give to them.
In both cases, the impressions that one has of the lives of women at the time are not very good. Women must either capitulate to full domesticity or embrace a sexualized reality in order to survive. The social construction of women at the time consist of the sinner and the saint, detached Madonna or sensual whore. In either context, one receives the distinct impression that the lives women were forced to lead lacked voice, authenticity, and agency. Women like Lotus and O-lan lacked autonomy in defining who they are and who they wished to be. Rather, they were forced to act out parts that social configuration, mostly run by men, dictated for them.
Women like Pear Blossom fit the same mold. Rescued from slavery by Wang, she is forced to become his mistress when he wishes. The "poor little fool" that is Wang's first daughter is condemned to suffer an unspeakable fate because of being mentally challenged, while Wang's second daughter must be sent away because of the coveting eyes of her father's uncle. In these situations, the impressions one has of the lives of women further substantiate the idea that there is a striking lack of opportunity in what it means to be a woman.