Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

The Good Earth is an epic depiction of agricultural life during the last half-century of the Manchu or Ch’ing dynasty (1644-1911) in China. The Chinese man of the soil is embodied in the character of Wang Lung. Wang Lung brings the slave O-lan to his earthen house where he cares for his aged father and from which he farms his land. After O-lan bears him two sons and a mentally retarded daughter, the region is devastated by drought and famine, and Wang Lung takes his father, children, and wife many miles south to a city, where they become street beggars while Wang Lung earns what he can as a rickshaw runner. O-lan will give birth later to a second girl and, after leaving the city, to twins, a boy and a girl.

In this first part of the novel, the customs of prerevolutionary China are detailed as part of the story. Filial respect, not only for the father but also for the father’s brothers, is absolute. Wang Lung must obey his father’s wishes, even though the old man is immobile and losing his memory and good sense. In addition, Wang Lung must take his shiftless uncle, along with the uncle’s wife and son, into his household as dependents. The uncle imposes upon his nephew’s charity with impunity: Wang Lung learns that his home is spared the ravages of bandit gangs only because his uncle is a member of a particularly vicious gang.

While there is something of merit in the tradition of filial piety, little can be found in favor of the concurrent status of women. In all but very wealthy families, “girl” is synonymous with “slave.” Girls and women are bought and sold as wives, concubines, and servants. A woman achieves status only by bearing one or more sons. Infant girls may be put to death for the sake of convenience. O-lan herself strangles at birth her second girl during the height of the famine when there is no possibility of adequate nursing or care. Another measure of status of women is the size of their feet. The feet of girls in wealthy or solvent families are bound from birth to maturity in order to create small, delicate feet. O-lan, a slave who is physically unattractive in other respects, becomes repulsive to Wang Lung at one point because of her large feet. He had not been bothered by their size during the famine and after the family returns to the land and makes a success of the farm. With the worst of these hardships behind them, however, Wang Lung sees things differently and purchases Lotus, a delicately featured concubine with tiny feet.

The acquisition of Lotus marks Wang Lung’s achievement of wealth and prestige. It is in this second part of the novel that Wang Lung’s sons begin to assert themselves as individuals and to part from the tradition of patriarchy that had been sacred to Wang Lung. Meanwhile, O-lan, having given her entire life to her husband and having been responsible in no small degree for his success, dies in the agony of cancer and without the love of her husband.

The conclusion of the novel passes stylistically from simple narrative to an approximation of biblical lyric, cadenced and polysyndetonic—for example, “Then Wang Lung was humbled and anxious and he was submissive and he was sorry and he said . . . ” The formalism of the language is in accord with Wang Lung’s function as a representative of prerevolutionary China. The world passes away from him as none of his sons commits himself to farming: His youngest son leaves to become a soldier, and his first and second sons are determined to sell his land.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Anhui. Large inland province in east central China divided by the great Yangzi (Yangtze) River. The far northern part of the province, in which the novel is set, is part of the broad northern China plain that is usually hot and dusty but subject to frequent flooding from the Yellow River.

Wang Lung’s farmhouse

Wang Lung’s farmhouse. Rural farmhouse that is the scene of most of the novel. The house is located in Wang village, described as composed of only a half dozen households, within an hour or so walk of an unnamed walled administrative town in the inland province of Anhui. The changes the farmhouse undergoes closely mirror the fortunes of Wang Lung and his family. Wang Lung toils daily in the fields and has a deep attachment to the land—the “good earth” of the title. In famine he lets the house go into disrepair and sells the household goods but will not sell his land. A multitude of trials face the family and threaten the farmhouse, but both survive. In prosperity, Wang Lung buys additional land and improves his house.

The house first appears as a run-down three-room, earthen-floored structure made of mud-and-straw bricks with a thatched roof in which Wang Lung and his widowed father live. When a wife, O-lan, joins the household, the interior of the house improves through her skill and hard work. Additions to the house come as the frugal and hard-working family members raise themselves up. These improvements include sheds for animals and a room in which laborers reside. Eventually a tile-roofed, brick-floored addition is built for Wang Lung’s secondary wife, Lotus. The house sits above the high-water marks of the frequent floods and so both the house and Wang Lung’s family survive flooding.

Hwang family mansion

Hwang family mansion (wang). Walled compound located in an unnamed walled administrative city in Anhui that has its own imposing gates. The unnamed city is probably Nansuzhou (now known as Suxian), in northern Anhui, where Buck lived from 1917 through 1919. Wang Lung’s wife, O-lan, comes to him from the Hwang mansion where she grew up as a harshly treated orphan kitchen servant. In the course of the novel, Hwang family members dissipate the family fortune and eventually sell land to Wang Lung. The Hwang mansion falls into ruins, leaving only a servant or two living in its collapsing courtyards. In his greatest period of prosperity, after O-lan’s death, Wang Lung purchases the property. Now a great extended Chinese family, the Wangs move into the refurbished mansion, where Wang Lung falls heir to some of the same excesses and faults of the Hwang family. He can never find peace in the mansion and prefers his modest farmhouse.

City in Jiangsu (Kiangsu) province

City in Jiangsu (Kiangsu) province. Unnamed city to which Wang Lung and his young family flee by train during a famine in Anhui. There they live in a “little village of sheds clinging to the wall.” Country folk who are never comfortable with city life, they eke out a living through Wang Lung’s work as a rickshaw puller. O-lan and the children beg on the streets. After Wang Lung comes into some money by chance, the family immediately return to their farmhouse and land. Although never named, this city is clearly modeled on Nanjing (Nanking).

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Biblical in the simplicity of its language and cadence, The Good Earth traces the life of Chinese peasant Wang Lung from his youthful marriage to his death in his seventies. Living in Anwhei Province hundreds of kilometers west of Shanghai, Soochow, Nanking, and other cities of eastern China between the Hwang Ho (Yellow River) to the north and the Yangtze River to the south, Wang Lung must pin his survival upon the yields of his land. Above all else, the land preoccupies and absorbs him, as it did most of China’s traditional, prerevolutionary peasantry.

Believing that the fate of his land compelled it, Wang Lung subordinated everything to the soil: family, friends, his beasts, and every ounce of his strength. To hold the land, he battled drought, devastating floods, plagues of locusts, bandits, the desires of his three sons, and jealous neighbors until midlife. Only on his deathbed was it clear that the land to which he had sacrificed so much—and which even as he was dying he sought to pass to his sons—would in fact be divided and sold by sons who had little affection for him.

Throughout the book’s thirty-four chapters, Wang Lung is depicted as a changing, three-dimensional figure. Poor, unlettered, shy, traditionally dutiful, honest, thrifty, and indefatigable in his labors as a young man, his eventual attainment of riches provides ambit for his desires and moments of reflection. Self-absorbed and insensitive toward O-lan, his wife, and certain that his sons must unquestionably mold their lives to care for the land, he slowly perceives the depths of his wife’s devotion and must grudgingly yield to his sons’ contrary strengths while suffering their weaknesses.

Similarly, when wealth is gained Wang Lung becomes a caricature of his earlier self. Shyness gives way to airs and pomposity. Self-restraint is transmuted into desire and licentious folly. Once openly generous or at the least dutiful toward others, he hoards his wealth and appears shrewd, calculating, and greedy. He thinks of himself as powerful. Meanwhile, his vulnerabilities and weaknesses are transparent to everyone around him. His sons argue or whine their way out of serving the land as Wang Lung wished them to do. Eldest son takes schooling and becomes a fat, lazy, and duplicitous scholar. Second son becomes a merchant, eventually managing his father’s money. Youngest son, fierce of temper, storms from the household to become a soldier.

After Wang Lung reaches midlife as a wealthy man, a landlord who lives off rents and interest, he purchases the house and lands of the decadent Hwang family and with his friend Ching as overseer hires labor to work his fields. Divorced from the soil, he indulges his follies, expanding his household to include his concubine (or second wife), Lotus, and her slave, Cuckoo, along with his uncle’s family. None of these arrangements brings him the peace that he expected: Cuckoo mocks him; Lotus tires of him; O-lan dies; and the members of his uncle’s family, on the strength of traditional duties, remain importunate. When the uncle reveals himself as the leader of local bandits, Wang Lung realizes that he has been immunized from their depredations.

His peace of mind has been destroyed by the demands of his household; by his sons’ discontents, jealousies, and lack of affection; and by his own isolation—except for the love of his “fool” (a retarded daughter) and his last passion, the young slave Pear Blossom. Wang Lung grows more reflective about himself as he prepares for death. Old and alone, remorseful over the loss of his direct union with the soil, he seeks to ensure that his family retain his lands. Yet, even as his sons hoodwink him with promises of a grand funeral, they conspire to dispose of the earth that had been the focus of his life.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Pearl Buck was a widely read and influential author. Previously unknown and lacking money or influential friends, she gained instant fame and international recognition because of The Good Earth. Published to rave reviews, The Good Earth became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and in 1932 won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1935, it was awarded the William Dean Howells Medal for distinguished American fiction. The following year, Buck was also elected to the National Academy of Arts and Letters. These honors culminated in the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, for a corpus of work which also included two masterful biographies, The Exile (1936) and The Fighting Angel: Portrait of a Soul (1936), portraits of her parents, Caroline and Absalom Sydenstricker, respectively.

Before her death, Buck published forty novels, along with a score of nonfiction works, fourteen books for children, and several translations of Chinese works. Her novels in particular were themselves swiftly translated into more than fifty major languages and many others, testifying to the universal humanity of her works. This influence was of immense importance to the women of the world.

As a strong woman (although one often in conflict with herself), Buck created or portrayed memorable women throughout her life, starting with O-lan and Caroline. Such characters were embodiments of her own vocal rebellion against the situation that women, particularly creative ones, confronted in male-dominated cultures. She publicly exhorted women, in the tradition of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott, to rail against the abuses, carelessness, and indifference with which they were so commonly treated by men in most societies. She was no less contemptuous of the “selfish, ignorant, self-indulgent American woman of wealth and privilege” and those who preferred life in “a mental vacuum.” Rather than helping their sisters struggle against injustice, these women, Buck argued, pulled everyone down. Because of her sensitive strengths, Buck reached women as have few other authors. She understood their plights, but she also exhorted them to see themselves as the hope of civilization, as people capable of shaping the future of their countries and of the world.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Revolutionary Change in China
During the period covered by the novel, China went through dramatic political change....

(The entire section is 1130 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Imagery and Symbolism
The novel is a realistic one but also on occasions employs imagery and symbolism. The...

(The entire section is 363 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • 1930s: In the Chinese city of Nanking, invading Japanese troops kill an estimated 369,366 Chinese civilians and...

(The entire section is 290 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Closely examine the brief incident described in chapter 14, in which Wang Lung encounters a Christian missionary. What image does it present...

(The entire section is 235 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

The Good Earth was filmed by Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1937, directed by Sidney Rainer. As of 2006, the film was available on video...

(The entire section is 49 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Buck’s novel Sons (1932) is the second volume in the trilogy that begins with The Good Earth. Beginning where the previous...

(The entire section is 293 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Buck, Pearl, The Good Earth, John Day, 1965.

Conn, Peter, Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural...

(The entire section is 294 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Buck, Pearl S. The Good Earth. New York: Washington Square Press, 1994. Provides a lengthy introduction about Pearl Buck and The Good Earth by Peter Conn. Also includes commentary from the time of the novel’s publication and sources for further research.

Buck, Pearl S. House of Earth: “The Good Earth,” “Sons,” “A House Divided.” New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1935. A trilogy that begins with The Good Earth and thereafter unfolds the fate of Wang Lung’s family after his death. Although critics thought less of the latter two novels, they nevertheless offer a wonderful portrait of the dissolution of traditional China. Contains a brief essay on the origins of The Good Earth.

Buck, Pearl S. The Mother. New York: John Day, 1934. A novel based on a woman named Mrs. Lu whom Buck had known in China. The central figure is a failed mother and unfulfilled peasant woman who Buck hoped would be seen as reflective of such women’s lives everywhere. Biographers have perceived this character as a mirror of Buck’s own emotions, many associated with the need for men and her lifelong care and love for a retarded daughter. Important for understanding Buck’s appeal among a whole generation of women.

Cowley, Malcolm. “Wang Lung’s Children.” The New Republic 99, no. 1275 (May 10, 1939): 24-25. Contains information about the style of The Good Earth as well as the other two novels in the trilogy: Sons (1932) and A House Divided (1935). Includes a short explanation for Buck’s unfavorable reputation in some literary circles.

Doyle, Paul A. Pearl S. Buck. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Interesting for its excellent critical comments on the literary origins of Buck’s novels and on the character and quality of her prose. A good survey of major points of Buck’s life, but not intended as a profound assessment of a remarkable personage. Includes a chronology, notes, bibliography, and an index.

Harris, Theodore F. Pearl S. Buck: A Biography. 2 vols. New York: John Day, 1969-1971. Because of its importance, The Good Earth is discussed at various points in both volumes. Indicates the effect of the Wang Lung and O-lan characters on Buck’s formulation of The Good Earth.

Spencer, Cornelia. The Exile’s Daughter: A Biography of Pearl S. Buck. New York: Coward-McCann, 1944. Cornelia Spencer is the pseudonym for Grace Sydenstricker Yaukey, Pearl Buck’s sister. Includes an interesting passage on why Buck’s publishers accepted The Good Earth for publication.

Stirling, Nora. Pearl Buck: A Woman in Conflict. Piscataway, N.J.: New Century, 1983. The ablest, most insightful, and most rounded biography of Buck. Reveals many details of her personal and emotional life. Deals with Buck’s feminist convictions and the way in which they grew out of her own struggles and disappointments in a man’s world. Contains a brief bibliography and a superb index.