What is The Good Earth about?

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Here are some considerations in an approach to relating what The Good Earth is about:

  • After having read the novel, what themes and ideas resound in your mind?
  • What do reviews on this novel remark upon and praise?
  • What do critical essays have to say about the novel?

Here at Enotes there are several critical essays that you can read, and there are also a number of in-depth analyses that are also available [see the links below]. From the reading of these, you should notice a recurrence of salient points about the novel and, thus, be able to put together your explanation.

Another consideration is what the author, Pearl S. Buck, herself has written about her work,

"I can only write what I know, and I know nothing but China, having always lived there."

Indeed, Buck's work is a historical romance, set in the era in which the last emperor reigned with the sweeping social upheavals ahead presaged during the great famine. One reviewer writes,

...Pearl S. Buck traces the whole cycle of life: its terrors, its passions, its ambitions and rewards.

This statement is a great start for your explanation as it succinctly sums up the narrative. Through all the cycle of life, there is the outstanding endurance of the Chinese people, an endurance not without its weakness and its poignancy, but an endurance that always triumphs. Truly, it is evident how much Ms. Buck loved and admired these people with whom she spent her life. 

A focus upon the two main characters, Wang Lung and his long-suffering, but brave wife O-lan and how they develop is one approach to explaining the "whole cycle of life" that comprises the novel. Another approach involves explaining how The Good Earth is, in a sense, the dramatization of the tragedy that is life. For, O-lan serves Wang Lung both domestically and in the field, being a selfless and devoted wife. She is frugal and has much common sense, only wishing that her husband love her and allow her the two pearls she has kept for herself. But Wang Lung cruelly takes them from her and brings a concubine into her house. These actions break the heart of O-lan and, tragically, she dies in mid-life. Likewise, Wang Lung's struggles as a farmer and his good fortune when a man gives him jewels out of fear during a revolt bring him riches, but his two sons art intent upon disobeying his dying wish that they not sell the land.

And his two sons held him, one on either side,...And they soothed him and they said over and over..."Rest assured, our father, rest assured. The land is not to be sold." But over the old man's head they looked at each other and smiled.

Therefore, Wang Lung's life ends tragically, too.

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