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Love of the Land
Throughout the novel, the land is the “good earth”; it nourishes Wang Lung, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. When he toils in the fields, he is happy; as a farmer, he knows his true place to be on the land, as it has been for many generations of his family before him. When he is forced by famine to go south to the city, he is out of his element, cut off from what sustains his life, and this contrast between country and city occurs repeatedly throughout the novel. When Wang Lung hears that the young lords of the House of Hwang no longer have any direct contact with the land, he immediately decides that he will start his two young sons working in the fields, “where they would early take into their bones and their blood the feel of the soil under their feet, and the feel of the hoe hard in their hands.” Working on the land restores Wang Lung’s spirits at crucial moments in his life. Whenever he is troubled, physical labor on the land restores him. It liberates him from his unhealthy infatuation with Lotus and has the same effect after the plague of locusts has gone: “For seven days he thought of nothing but his land, and he was healed of his troubles and his fears.” While all else in life may fluctuate, the land alone remains. Even when Wang Lung is old and rich and living in a town house, his link with the land cannot be broken—“his roots were in the land”—and every spring he feels the call to return to it, even though he no longer has the strength to hold a plow. To lose connection to the land is to lose connection to life. This is why he says to his sons, when he hears that they are planning to sell the land, “If you sell the land, it is the end.”

The Corrupting Influence of Wealth
The theme that wealth corrupts occurs repeatedly and is connected to the theme of losing connection to the land. At the beginning of the novel, the House of Hwang is a symbol of great wealth and luxury. When Wang Lung arrives with the meat he has bought for the wedding feast that night, the gateman tells him that in this house, they feed such meat to the dogs. Arriving in the main hall, Wang Lung is so overawed by its size and splendor that he almost falls over. The wealth of the House of Hwang has been built up over the generations simply because of their ownership of land. But over time, they have forgotten the source of their wealth. The young lords of the House go abroad and spend money wastefully; they never go to the land and see it for themselves. Instead, they rely on agents to handle affairs for them, and they simply collect the money. Eventually, the House of Hwang falls. As Cuckoo tells Wang Lung, “And in these generations the strength of the land has gone from them and bit by bit the land has begun to go also.”

Although Wang Lung takes this observation to heart, he also goes through a phase in which wealth makes him forget the principles of thrift and hard work on which his life is based. He also forgets his origins and becomes quite a snob. The old tea shop he has frequented for years is no longer good enough for him, and neither is his wife, or so he decides. When he meets Lotus, she makes him ashamed of...

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smelling like a country fellow, and he starts to have his clothes specially made in a fashionable cut by a tailor in town. He also wears velvet shoes such as those worn by the Old Master Hwang. In a telling moment, O-lan says that he reminds her of the young lords in the House of Hwang. Wang Lung mistakenly takes this as a compliment. It appears that he is in danger of going down the same path trodden by the young lords. Even after he recovers from his infatuation with Lotus, he still thinks of himself as a cut above the common man. When he goes into one of the poorer areas of town and sees the common people, he despises them as “filthy” and walks past them “with his nose up and breathing lightly because of the stink they made.” He forgets that not too long ago he was a common man himself and rarely washed until he met Lotus, thinking “the clean sweat of his labor washing enough for ordinary times.”

The third example of the corruption of wealth is Wang Lung’s eldest son. He has never lived as close to the land as his father and has been raised in a wealthy house. He is contemptuous of the common people, and they laugh at him for his snobbish attitude, saying that he has forgotten the smell of manure on his father’s farm. He is always spending money lavishly and does not seem aware that all the wealth comes from the land. O-lan remarks, just as she had done to Wang Lung, that the behavior of her eldest son reminds her of the young lords in the House of Hwang. The desire of both the eldest and the second son to sell the land after Wang Lung’s death suggests that they may indeed be following in the path of those who so catastrophically mismanaged the House of Hwang.

Inferior Status of Women
In the society depicted in the novel, women occupy an inferior position. O-lan is a slave before she marries and is accustomed to working from dawn until midnight. As a wife to Wang Lung, she becomes almost a domestic slave. She is expected to do all the cooking and housekeeping and to work alongside her husband in the fields as well. She knows her place and accepts the conditions of her life without complaint, even though Wang Lung has little respect for her. Once, early in the marriage, Wang Lung finds himself wondering about her former life as a slave. But then he is ashamed of his own curiosity; “She was, after all, only a woman.”

A revealing moment comes when O-lan gives birth to her first daughter. It is a disappointment to both her and her husband. “It is only a slave this time—not worth mentioning,” she says, and Wang Lung, preoccupied with dealing with his uncle, does not even look at the newborn. He thinks of the birth almost as a curse (“the birth of daughters had begun for him”). A female child is not even considered part of the family into which she is born, for as soon as she is of child-bearing age she will marry and become part of another family.

The undervaluing of women can also be seen in the fact that during harsh times, the daughters of the poor are often sold into slavery, so that the other members of the family can survive. When O-lan smothers her second daughter, who is born during the famine, she is merely acting on a culture-wide devaluation of female life. It is more than unlikely that her actions would have been the same had the child been a boy.