Themes

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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.”

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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 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...

(The entire section contains 1224 words.)

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