Study Guide

The Good Earth Quotes

By Pearl S. Buck

  • The Natural World

    "She is with child already." […] The old man blinked for a moment and then comprehended, and cackled with laughter. "Heh-heh-heh—" he called out to his daughter-in-law as she came, "so the harvest is in sight!" (2.28-31) 

    They're farmers, so you have to excuse the nature jokes. Just like you harvest corn or wheat, the metaphor is that you can harvest people, too. It's another way the book reminds us that we're all made of earth and live in constant interaction with the earth.

    It had come out of the earth, this silver, out of his earth that he ploughed and turned and spent himself upon. He took his life from this earth; drop by drop by his sweat he wrung food from it and from the food, silver. (3.19)

    The earth is Wang Lung's livelihood, and money is just the physical form of the blood sweat and tears that he has poured into his farm. Is it good for him to think of the work he has done in terms of an abstraction like money? Does this abstraction come between him and the earth?

    The woman and the child were as brown as the soil and they sat there like figures made of earth. There was the dust of the fields upon the woman's hair and upon the child's soft black head. (4.8)

    Holy metaphors and similes, Batman! O-lan and her son are literally made of earth, that's how important the land is to their lives.

    "They cannot take the land from me. The labor of my body and the fruit of the fields I have put into that which cannot be taken away. If I had the silver, they would have taken it. If I had bought with the silver to store it, they would have taken it all. I have the land still, and it is mine." (8.49)

    You can trust the earth: it's not going anywhere, and no one can take it from you. But manmade things like silver can always be stolen, even from the toughest vaults.

    "I was sold," she answered very slowly. "I was sold to a great house so that my parents could return to their home. “And would you sell the child, therefore?" "If it were only I, she would be killed before she was sold... the slave of slaves was I! But a dead girl brings nothing. I would sell this girl for you—to take you back to the land." (13.21)

    Which is more important: human life, or the land? O-lan obviously decides that the land is more important than the happiness of one little girl. Her thinking is that by selling the girl, only one person suffers, whereas if the land is lost, many people will suffer. What do you think of this kind of reason?

    Now that he was poor Wang Lung knew full well but he had heretofore blamed it on a heaven that would not rain in its season, or having rained, would continue to rain as though rain were an evil habit. When there was rain and sun in proportion so that the seed would sprout in the land and the stalk bear grain, he did not consider himself poor. Therefore he listened in interest to hear further what the rich men had to do with this thing, that heaven would not rain in its season. (14.30)

    Wang Lung's life is so controlled by the seasons and the weather that he can't even begin to understand what rich people have to do with him being poor. He's only poor because it's a famine this year. What's money got to do with being poor?

    He remembered also the idle young lords of the fallen great house as he worked on the land he had bought from the House of Hwang, and he bade his two sons sharply each morning to come into the fields with him and he set them at what labor their small hands could do, guiding the ox and the ass, and making them, if they could accomplish no great labor, at least to know the heat of the sun on their bodies and the weariness of walking back and forth along the furrows. (17.4)

    Wang Lung remembers that the House of Hwang fell because it lost its connection to the land. He sees what's up, and he's determined (for now at least) to make sure he doesn't repeat their mistakes.

    Then the good land did again its healing work and the sun shone on him and healed him and the warm winds of summer wrapped him about with peace. And as if to cure him of the root of his ceaseless thought of his own troubles, there came out of the South one day a small slight cloud. […] The men of the village watched it and talked of it and fear hung over them, for what they feared was this, that locusts had come out of the South to devour what was planted in the fields. […] Then Wang Lung forgot everything that troubled him. (23.111)

    So this is a strange kind of medicine, but whatever it works. Think about it as forced meditation. We also see one big theme in the novel at work here: idleness, whether it comes from being away from the land or from being too rich to bother with the land, gets Wang Lung into trouble. Normally, locusts wouldn't be a great thing, but here, they at least get Wang Lung to stop being all emo about his problems and take some action.

    At last one day when she said this he could not bear it and he burst forth, “This I cannot bear! I would sell all my land if it could heal you. “She smiled at this and said in gasps, whispering, “No, and I would not—let you. For I must die—sometime anyway. But the land is there after me." (26.10)

    Come on, Wang Lung should have known that this would be O-lan's answer. She's told us that life is less important than land before, but now we know why. The land is always there, but people are constantly being born and dying. If you sell your daughter, you can always get another one. Your wife is going to die sometime, anyway. But the land? It's not going anywhere.

    Now Wang Lung had chosen a good place in his fields under a date tree upon a hill to set the graves, and Ching had the graves dug and ready and a wall of earth made about the graves, and there was space within the walls for the body of Wang Lung and for each of his sons and their wives, and there was space for sons' sons, also. This land Wang Lung did not begrudge, even though it was high land and good for wheat, because it was a sign of the establishment of his family upon their own land. Dead and alive they would rest upon their own land. (26.82)

    As the song goes, "To everything […] / There is a season […] / […] A time to be born, a time to die." The novel begins with a birth being compared to a harvest. Now it's the season for O-lan and Ching to die, but we don't know what kinds of births will follow these deaths. The novel reminds us that time can be cyclical, and that our lives have seasons, just as nature does. It's another way in which we're connected with nature on a deep level.

  • Women and Femininity

    Now father and son could rest. There was a woman coming to the house. Never again would Wang Lung have to rise summer and winter at dawn to light the fire. He could lie in his bed and wait, and he also would have a bowl of water brought to him, and if the earth were fruitful there would be tea leaves in the water. (1.8)

    Did you know that the Chinese character for peace or tranquility (安) is a woman in a house? Women were in charge of creating a peaceful, efficient, and comfortable home for their families. In The Good Earth, the house certainly is certainly peaceful and tranquil for Wang Lung and his dad. Is it peaceful and tranquil for O-lan?

    It would have been beneath him to notice her. Instead he feigned great interest in the clouds and he cried, “That cloud which hangs upon the left horn of the new moon speaks of rain. It will come not later than tomorrow night." (1.152)

    This scene shows us the social hierarchy in the house. First there is Grandpa, second there is Wang Lung, and at the bottom there is O-lan. The gap between Grandpa and O-lan is so large that he has to pretend she doesn't even exist.

    "The person in my house has told me," he said, "of your interest in my worthless oldest slave creature […] She should be married. She is fifteen years old and for these three or four years could have given birth. I am terrified constantly lest she conceive by some wild dog and bring shame to me and to our name." (7.15)

    Whoa, we learn a ton about women's position in society from this quote. Just to be clear, Wang Lung's uncle is talking about his oldest daughter. He uses the words "worthless oldest slave creature," meaning that—you guessed it—women are worthless slaves. Then he says that she probably should have been married at age 11, which would imply that girls were considered women at that age. Last he worries about her virginity, which seems to mean that is the only thing making her kind of worthwhile. It will certainly fetch her a much higher price on the marriage market.

    And then he thought of that new mouth come that day into his house and it struck him, with heaviness, that the birth of daughters had begun for him, daughters who do not belong to their parents, but are born and reared for other families. (7.48)

    In traditional Chinese culture, boys remained at home with their families even after marriage, whereas girls went to live with their husbands' families. Sometimes, they were almost as good as dead to their own families after marriage. Raising a girl was difficult and stressful, because her parents also had to come up with a good dowry for her. Without a good dowry, she wouldn't be able to make a good match. In some ways, it's no wonder that parents preferred boys.

    "Well, but I cannot speak with a woman," objected Wang Lung mildly. He could make nothing of the situation in which he found himself, and he was still staring about him. “Well, and why not?" retorted the woman with anger. (16.54)

    Yes! We are not big fans of Cuckoo, but she's the only woman who really stands up for herself against Wang Lung in this novel. Do other women have different, less direct ways of standing up for themselves, or of influencing men? Which method do you think is most effective?

    "Now what, woman? Cannot I say comb out your horse's tail of hair without this trouble over it? “But she answered nothing except to say over and over, moaning, “I have borne you sons—I have borne you sons—" […] It was true that before the law he had no complaint against his wife, for she had borne him three good sons and they were alive, and there was no excuse for him except his desire. (20.54)

    If O-lan had not given birth to sons, Wang Lung would be legally able to divorce her. He could also divorce her if he thought she was too jealous of Lotus, if she had a disease, or if she gossiped too much. O-lan, on the other hand, would have no legal recourse if she wanted to divorce Wang Lung: that wasn't permitted. What does this legal code tell us about the status of women in this society?

    "Where is his market?" asked Wang Lung, although idly, because it was woman's talk and likely to come to nothing. (23.14)

    It's funny that Wang Lung thinks this, because all the big things in the novel happen due to the influence women. How does Wang Lung get rich, for example? Oh, yeah: it's O-lan who makes it possible.

    All through the long months of winter she lay dying and upon her bed, and for the first time Wang Lung and his children knew what she had been in the house, and how she made comfort for them all and they had not known it. (26.1)

    Hey, look: we found the e-card O-lan got for Mother's Day. In this novel, moms are unappreciated, women are unappreciated, and oh man, O-lan is unappreciated x10.

    "Well, and you are a foolish child to be forever thinking of this. You have grown fond and too fond of your wife and it is not seemly, for a man ought not to care for his wife that his parents gave him above all else in the world. It is not meet for a man to love his wife with a foolish and overweening love, as though she were a harlot." (28.31)

    Everyone knows that wives are there for doing all the housework, right? If you want to love someone, go find a prostitute like everyone else. Er. Um. Wait a minute. What's the definition of love here, again? Maybe the idea is that marriage is hard work and shouldn't be based on puppy love, which pretty much gets in the way of all work. Then again, maybe the idea is that marriage is pretty much a business transaction. What do you think? What is marriage all about in this novel? What about love?

    "I desire a maid from a village, of good landed family and without poor relatives, and one who will bring a good dowry with her, neither plain nor fair to look upon, and a good cook, so that even though there are servants in the kitchen she may watch them. And she must be such a one that if she buys rice it will be enough and not a handful over and if she buys cloth the garment will be well cut so that the scraps of cloth left over should lie in the palm of her hand. Such an one I want." (28.61)

    So. Big brother wants a hot babe. Younger brother wants... well, younger brother wants someone who will cook, clean, and not spend too much money. What do you think: is one of these better than the other?

  • Mortality

    "Come, woman, we will go South!" […] "It is a good thing to do. One can at least die walking." (9.21)

    Wang Lung and O-lan are starving during the first famine in the novel. This isn't exactly the conversation we're expecting, but it makes sense. These two are suffering so much that they'd rather just walk, because at least they can die faster that way. Alternatively, could this also mean that it's better to die while at least doing something, rather than just waiting around to die?

    "It would be merciful if there were no breath," he muttered, and then he heard the feeble cry—how feeble a cry!—hang for an instant upon the stillness. "But there is no mercy of any kind in these days," he finished bitterly, and he sat listening. There was no second cry, and over the house the stillness became impenetrable. (9.33)

    Normally, we would think of a baby's birth as good and a baby's death as bad, but Wang Lung complicates the picture by suggesting that it all depends on context. Is it good for a baby to be born during a famine, or it is a misfortune? If it's a misfortune, then for whom? For the baby? For the baby's parents? What's merciful about a baby's death? These are tough questions, and Buck doesn't give any answers.

    "Sit here and drink the wine and eat the rice of your marriage, for I would see it all and this will be your bed of marriage since I am soon to be finished with it and carried away." (26.61)

    O-lan says this to her first son and his wife on their wedding day. It's a little creepy to us for a married couple to sleep on their dead mom's bed, but let's think about it in a different way. It's the bed she slept on throughout her life, and it's the bed where she gave birth to three sons. It's a cool image of the way the cycle of life goes on and on.

    Then Wang Lung was scrupulous to do all that should be done for the one dead, so he caused mourning to be made for himself and for his children, and their shoes were made of coarse white cloth, which is the color of mourning, and about their ankles they bound bands of white cloth, and the women in the house bound their hair with white cord. (26.73)

    White is the color of mourning in traditional Chinese culture. It's also the color of purity and enlightenment. What do you think this says about death in traditional Chinese culture?

    After this Wang Lung could not bear to sleep in the room where O-lan had died and he took his possessions and moved altogether into the inner court where Lotus lived and he said to his eldest son, “Go with your wife into that room where your mother lived and died, who conceived and bore you, and beget there your own sons." (26.74)

    Wang Lung seems to be the only person freaked out by death. What's up with that? Is he freaked out because it's O-lan specifically who has died? Has she made him view death differently? Or is it his guilt that is bothering him?

    "Now that the joy and sorrow are over, I have that to tell you about the land." (27.2)

    Back to nature again, folks: in this book, everything is about the land. Here, Ching is talking to Wang Lung after O-lan dies and his son gets married. It's just a reminder that death, like everything else, is unimportant in comparison to the land. Death is just part of the cycle of life.

    "Now that there are the three generations in this house, we should have the tablets of ancestors that great families have, and we should set the tablets up to be worshipped at the feast days for we are an established family now.” This pleased Wang Lung greatly, and so he ordered it and so it was carried out, and there in the great hall the row of tablets was set up, his grandfather's name on one and then his father's, and the spaces left empty for Wang Lung's name and his son's when they should die. And Wang Lung's son bought an incense urn and set it before the tablets. (29.57)

    Death is not the end of a person's life in Chinese traditional culture. Just as Wang Lung had to respect his father during his life, now that he can afford ancestral tablets, he has to worship his father in death, too. Grandpa is still part of the family, and he still needs to eat and drink (symbolically); he's just a little different now.

    And then, on his way back, as if the gods cannot bear to give freely and not hide sting somewhere in the gift one came running from the harvest fields to tell him that Ching lay dying suddenly and had asked if Wang Lung would come to see him die. (29.60)

    Almost every time there's a birth in this novel, it's followed by a death. It's like they come in pairs. It's another way in which Buck emphasis the cycle of life.

    Then Wang Lung moved his uncle's wife into the town where she would not be alone, and he gave her a room at the end of a far court for her own, and he told Cuckoo to supervise a slave in the care of her, and the old woman sucked her opium pipe and lay on her bed in great content, sleeping day after day, and her coffin was beside her where she could see it for her comfort. (30.185)

    Why do you think that it's comforting for Wang Lung's aunt to see her coffin in her room every day? Does it remind her that she'll be okay and taken care of after death? That she won't be putting her family out too much when she dies, since the preparations have already been made? Would this kind of thing be scary in most Western cultures?

    "There is none other but you to whom I can leave this poor fool of mine when I am gone, and she will live on and on after me, seeing that her mind has no troubles of its own, and she has nothing to kill her and no trouble to worry her. And well I know that no one will trouble when I am gone to feed her or to bring her out of the rain and the cold of winter or to set her in the summer sun, and she will be sent out to wander on the street, perhaps—this poor thing who has had care all her life from her mother and from me. Now here is a gate of safety for her in this packet, and when I die, after I am dead, you are to mix it in her rice and let her eat it, that she may follow me where I am. And so shall I be at ease." (34.3)

    It's clear that Wang Lung cares a lot about his daughter, but this is a passage that makes us pause and think. Wang Lung calls killing his first daughter her "gate of safety." Safety from what? What kind of a decision is Wang Lung making? Does he have the right to make this decision for his daughter? Why will no one else take care of her?

  • Change

    "There is that about you which makes me think of one of the lords in the great house.” Wang Lung laughed loudly then and he said, “And am I always to look like a hind when we have enough and to spare?” But in his heart he was greatly pleased and for that day he was more kindly with her than he had been for many days. (19.56)

    Sometimes, it's hard not to think that Wang Lung is just being monumentally stupid. Far be it from us to judge, but this old broad died penniless and alone, right? We're not sure that that seems like a great role model, but hey, Wang Lung can do what he wants, we guess.

    But there were some who would not sell their land, and when they had nothing wherewith to buy seed and plow and oxen, they sold their daughters, and there were those who came to Wang Lung to sell, because it was known he was rich and powerful and a man of good heart. (28.16)

    Hmm, where have we seen this before? That's right: when Wang Lung and his family had to go to the South during the first famine. So not much has changed, except Wang Lung is the big shot now. Do you think he's aware of the cycle of fortune and misfortune he's a part of? Does he learn from the past?

    And when it was done and the wedding day set, he rested and sat in the sun and slept even as his father had done before him. (29.17)

    They always say that you turn into your parents when you get older. We just didn't think they meant exactly like them. Anyway, how similar are Wang Lung and his father in the end? Is Wang Lung as an old man similar to his father as an old man? How is he different, if at all?

    "Well, and it is like the old days when I was in these courts, only this body of mine is withered and dried now and not fit even for an old lord.” Saying this, she glanced slyly at Wang Lung and laughed again, and he pretended not to hear her lewdness, but he was pleased, nevertheless, that she had compared him to the Old Lord. (29.33)

    So Cuckoo is comparing Wang Lung to the Old Lord, and Wang Lung is totally into it. Hey, let's remember something else about The Old Lord: he died while he was getting it on with Cuckoo. No thanks.

    And he remembered as one remembers a dream long past how O-lan rested from her work a little while and fed the child richly and the white rich milk ran out of her breast and spilled upon the ground. And this seemed too long past ever to have been. Then his son came in smiling and important and he said loudly, “The man child is born, my father, and now we must find a woman to nurse him with her breasts, for I will not have my wife's beauty spoiled with the nursing and her strength sapped with it. None of the women of position in the town do so." And Wang Lung said sadly, although why he was sad he did not know, “Well, and if it must be so, let it be so, if she cannot nurse her own child." (29.50)

    We've seen this scene before, but now it has gone horrible wrong. Most of the time, it's only bad things that get repeated in the novel; here, we see a good thing repeated, but everything has changed for the worse. Why do you think bad things repeat themselves? Do people make bad things happen? Or do they just notice bad things more, because, well, bad things are just more noticeable?

    When the child was a month old Wang Lung's son, its father, gave the birth feasts, and to it he invited guests from the town and his wife's father and mother, and all the great of the town. And he had dyed scarlet many hundreds of hens' eggs, and these he gave to every guest and to any who sent guests, and there was feasting and joy through the house, for the child was a goodly fat boy and he had passed his tenth day and lived and this was a fear gone, and they all rejoiced. (29.55)

    This scene where Wang Lung's first grandchild is born is almost identical to the one where his first son was born. The only difference is that instead of a few eggs, there are hundreds... and the party is a lot bigger and swankier. Hey, at least it didn't turn into an episode of My Super Sweet 16, right?

    The common people had to move, then, and they moved complaining and cursing because a rich man could do as he would and they packed their tattered possessions and went away swelling with anger and muttering that one day they would come back even as the poor do come back when the rich are too rich. (30.101)

    The last time we heard this phrase from the crowd, it was right before they broke down the gates and stole everything inside the great house. Since this quote happens after Wang Lung's first son kicks the commoners out from the outer courts, we get the sense that there may be trouble brewing soon for this family. How often do people in this novel learn from history, or from their own experiences?

    And Wang Lung marvelled to think that once he had feared her [Wang Lung's aunt] for a great fat blowsy country woman, idle and loud, she who lay there now shriveled and yellow and silent, and as shriveled and yellow as the Old Mistress had been in the fallen House of Hwang. (30.186)

    For once, Wang Lung associates the House of Hwang with the vices that caused their fall. Why has it taken him so long to come to these conclusions? Has he deliberately made himself blind to what's going on? Perhaps because he kind of knows that something is up, and things are as good as they seem for him?

    Then he [Wang Lung's cousin] looked at Lotus attentively and he said, "Well, and Old Mistress indeed, and if I did not know my cousin Wang Lung were rich I should know by looking at you, such a mountain of flesh you have become, and well you have eaten and how richly! It is only rich men's wives who can look like you!” Now Lotus was mightily pleased that he called her Old Mistress, because it is a title that only the ladies of great families may have […] (31.47)

    Even though many things repeat in this novel, this isn't one of them. The Old Mistress was skinny and addicted to opium. Lotus is fat and, well, not addicted to opium. The only similarity here is that they are both rich. Oh, wait, there's another similarity: they're pretty good at wrecking other people's lives.

    "But the eldest son wearies of his wife's complaints of this and that—too proper a woman for a man, she is, and always talking of what they did in the house of her father, and she wearies a man. There is talk of his taking another. He goes often to the tea shops." (34.49)

    This marks the beginning of the third generation of Wang Lung's family imitating the second generation. Wang Lung turned into his dad, and his son is turning into him. Soon enough, Wang Lung's grandchildren will probably start turning into their parents. Where does it end? What are the differences? How do things change?

  • Religion

    Within the temple snugly under the roof sat two small, solemn figures, earthen, for they were formed from the earth of the fields about the temple. These were the god himself and his lady. (1.148)

    This god is probably Tudi Gong—literally, the earth god. It was—and in some places still is—very common to worship Tu Di Gong and pray to him for anything regarding the earth. Since this book is called The Good Earth, it's almost inevitable that he would show up. What does it mean for there to be an earth god? Does it mean that the earth itself is somehow sacred? Or does it mean that a god is really controlling everything on the earth?

    He thought of this at first with joy and then with a pang of fear. It did not do in this life to be too fortunate. The air and the earth were filled with malignant spirits who could not endure the happiness of mortals, especially of such as are poor […] He watched the four sticks well lit and then went homeward, comforted. These two small, protective figures, sitting staidly under their small roof—what a power they had! (4.6)

    Why does Wang Lung think that the spirits hate poor people especially? Why is too much fortune a bad thing? Does too much good fortune inevitably bring on bad—you know, to sort of even things out?

    He took what was thrust at him, then, and when he had courage to look at it after the foreigner had passed on, he saw on the paper a picture of a man, white-skinned, who hung upon a crosspiece of wood. The man was without clothes except for a bit about his loins, and to all appearances he was dead, since his head drooped upon his shoulder and his eyes were close above his bearded lips. (14.18)

    This is Wang Lung's first exposure to Christianity. The picture of the crucifixion scares him and the rest of his family. Why do you think they have this reaction? How is Christianity different from the religion that they practice?

    Time after time men fled from the land and came back to it, but Wang Lung set himself now to build his fortunes so securely that through the bad years to come he need never leave his land again but live on the fruits of the good years, and so subsist until another year came forth. He set himself and the gods helped him and for seven years there were harvests, and every year Wang Lung and his men threshed far more than could be eaten. (17.18)

    "He set himself and the gods helped him." That's interesting, isn't it? Wang Lung's fortune is not based just on his hard work, or just on the will of the gods, but on both of these things put together.

    And men sighed and said "So Heaven wills," but Wang Lung was furious and he beat the locusts and trampled on them and his men flailed them with flails and the locusts fell into the fires that were kindled and they floated dead upon the waters of the moats that were dug. And many millions of them died, but to those that were left it was nothing. (23.120)

    Based on this, do you think it makes sense to fight the will of the gods? What would that accomplish? Do the gods partly symbolize things humans have no control over? Is it better to try to work with the gods rather than against them, given that the gods are pretty much always going to win if you try to fight them? How is this like fighting with or trying to conquer nature itself?

    Facing him were the small gods and on the surface of his mind he noted how they stared at him and how of old he had been afraid of them, but now he was careless, having become prosperous and in no need of gods, so that he scarcely saw them. (24.58)

    It's interesting that Wang Lung doesn't care about the gods now that he's rich. Did he forget that the gods helped him get rich in the first place? It sort of seems as if having a lot of money makes people both ungrateful and forgetful of those who helped them get where they are.

    "I have never had any good from that old man in heaven, yet. Incense or no incense, he is the same in evil. Let us go and see the land." (27.6)

    You know, Wang Lung is kind of right. The earth god's wife, Tu Di Po, prevents the god from giving out too many blessings. People like Wang Lung might see that as evil. Then again, what would happen if blessing were given all the time? Wouldn't the earth run out of resources? There isn't a limitless supply.

    "Now that old man in heaven will enjoy himself, for he will look down and see people drowned and starving and that is what the accursed one likes." (27.10)

    Why does Wang Lung think that God wants people to die? Does this remind us of Tu Di Po, who prevents the earth god from giving out too many blessings? Maybe death is necessary in order for everyone to get the resources they need in life? What would happen if no one ever died?

    "You are under a good heaven. There are men less rich than you who hang from the burnt rafters of their houses." (27.29)

    Wang Lung's uncle says this to him and he reveals that he is part of a gang of robbers. It's funny that he says Wang Lung "is under a good heaven," because heaven's got nothing to do with it—unless what he means is that Wang Lung is lucky to have an uncle who has kept him and his belonging safe. But Wang Lung ends up treating his uncle just like a god, giving him food and money in exchange for protection.

    So Wang Lung went back to his own court and he sat down and listened to the cries, and for the first time in many years he was frightened and felt the need of some spirit's aid. (29.36)

    Fancy seeing Wang Lung at the temple. Long time no see. Why is that Wang Lung only feels the need of the spirit's aid when he's in trouble? Does he get this aid? When does he, and when doesn't he? Is it always possible to tell, either way? Maybe good fortune looks, at first, like bad fortune, and vice-versa?

  • Wealth

    There was never anything hanging from the rafters in his uncle's crumbling old house. But in his own there was even a leg of pork which he had bought from his neighbor Ching when he killed his pig that looked as though it were sickening for a disease […] In the midst of all this plenty they sat in the house, therefore, when the winds of winter came out of the desert to the northeast of them, winds bitter and biting. (4.12)

    Wealth doesn't have to mean money. It could mean something as simple as not suffering. How does this kind of wealth differ from monetary wealth? Is it more stable? More fulfilling?

    He would pull up the stones later and he would put his own name there—not yet, for he was not ready for people to know that he was rich enough to buy land from the great house, but later, when he was more rich, so that it did not matter what he did. And looking at that long square of land he thought to himself, “To those at the great house it means nothing, this handful of earth, but to me it means how much!" (6.6)

    Even Wang Lung knows that wealth means something different to poor people from what it means to rich people. For him, gaining just one plot of the House of Hwang's land makes him feel like a millionaire.

    It was this word "money" which suddenly brought to Wang Lung's mind a piercing clarity. Money! Aye, and he needed that! And again it came to him clearly, as a voice speaking, "Money—the child saved—the land!" (14.103)

    We are not sure how many other people would be so practical thinking about what they would do with lots of money. We're guessing there would be a lot more BMWs and mansions on that list if you went around polling people on the street. Does Wang Lung keep up this kind of thinking once he actually gets money, or does his thinking change?

    Then she went into the town one day with Wang Lung and together they bought beds and a table and six benches and a great iron cauldron and then they bought for pleasure a red clay teapot with a black flower marked on it in ink and six bowls to match. (15.30)

    Ah, "for pleasure." This is the first time in the novel that anyone thinks of buying something "for pleasure" instead of out of plain necessity. Is this an innocent pleasure, or is it the beginning of the end for Wang Lung and his family?

    Nevertheless, when the house was itself again, and the pewter candlesticks gleaming and the candles burning in them shining red, and the teapot and the bowls upon the table and the beds in their places with a little bedding once more, and fresh paper pasted over the hole in the room where he slept and a new door hung upon its wooden hinges, Wang Lung was afraid of his happiness. (15.33)

    Why do you think Wang Lung is afraid of his happiness? Does he think it must inevitably end? Does this remind you of the time when Wang Lung said he was afraid of too much good fortune? Do you think he gets too much good fortune?

    But all this might have been nothing if Wang Lung were still a poor man or if the water was not spread over his fields. But he had money […] So that now, instead of it passing from him like life blood draining from a wound, it lay in his girdle burning his fingers when he felt of it, and eager to be spent on this or that, and he began to be careless of it and to think what he could do to enjoy the days of his manhood. (18.23)

    Why does Wang Lung's money burn his fingers? Why does he want to get rid of it so much? How does the simple fact that he has money change Wang Lung's personality and outlook on life?

    And she said, "It is useless for you to beat the lad as you do. 1 have seen this thing come upon the young lords in the courts of the great house, and it came on them melancholy, and when it came the Old Lord found slaves for them if they had not found any for themselves and the thing passed easily." (22.42)

    When you're poor, you're too busy and tired to become melancholic. It's kind of like how you can never find anything good on TV when you have 5000 channels, but the three channels you had as a kid were the most awesome in the world.

    "Now that old man in heaven will enjoy himself, for he will look down and see people drowned and starving and that is what the accursed one likes.” This he said loudly and angrily so that Ching shivered and said, “Even so, he is greater than anyone of us and do not talk so, my master.” But since he was rich Wang Lung was careless, and he was as angry as he liked and he muttered as he walked homeward to think of the water swelling up over his land and over his good crops. (27.10)

    As we mentioned in our discussion of the "Religion" theme, rich people don't need the gods' help, but the poor do. Well, at least that's what the rich people think. Does their neglect of the gods contribute to their unhappiness? If the gods are a metaphor for the earth and for the cycle of life, does this mean that rich people's neglect of the earth contributes to their ultimate misfortune?

    And he, thinking constantly of the child to come and of others to come from his sons when they were all wed, bought five slaves, two about twelve years of age with big feet and strong bodies, and two younger to wait upon them all and fetch and carry, and one to wait on the person of Lotus, for Cuckoo grew old and since the second girl was gone there had been none other to work in the house. And the five he bought in one day, for he was a man rich enough to do quickly what he decided upon. (28.17)

    When he was poor, Wang Lung took a long time to decide anything. If he made a mistake, it could cost him everything, so he had to be careful. Now that he's rich, Wang Lung can make decisions quickly, because even if he makes a mistake, he'll still have money left over. Does this make him less responsible? Less conscientious? What are the broader consequences of these decisions?

    And Wang Lung took it into his heart to eat dainty foods, and he himself, who once had been well satisfied with good wheaten bread wrapped about a stick of garlic, now that he slept late in the day and did not work with his own hands on the land, now he was not easily pleased with this dish and that, and he tasted winter bamboo and shrimps' roe and Southern fish and shellfish from the northern seas and pigeons' eggs and all those things which rich men use to force their lagging appetites. (29.31)

    Why do you think rich men have "lagging appetites?" Is it because they never work up enough of a sweat to get hungry? Because they already have so much to eat that they're always stuffed, anyway? Because they're cut off from real life to such an extent that normal body processes start to shut down?

  • Town vs. Country

    "Then I will clean one ear and one nostril," rejoined the barber promptly. "On which side of the face do you wish it done?" He grimaced at the next barber as he spoke and the other burst into a guffaw. Wang Lung perceived that he had fallen into the hands of a joker, and feeling inferior in some unaccountable way, as he always did, to these town dwellers, even though they were only barbers and the lowest of persons, he said quickly, “As you will—as you will—" (1.55)

    From the very first chapter, we learn that Wang Lung has an inferiority complex that will last throughout the whole novel. How would things be different in Wang Lung didn't have such a chip on his shoulder? Why is it there to begin with?

    Here were these men from the town, having eaten and drunk, standing beside him whose children were starving and eating the very earth of the fields; here they were, come to squeeze his land from him in his extremity. (9.55)

    Even though Wang Lung experiences exploitation at the hands of rich city folk, he doesn't understand later when men in the South say that rich people are stabbing him in the back. Are the men in the South correct? Is Wang Lung capable of understanding them without an education?

    When he returned to the spot where he had left the others, they stood there waiting, although when he came the boys cried out at him in relief, and he saw that they had been filled with terror in this strange place. Only the old man watched everything with pleasure and astonishment and he murmured at Wang Lung, “You see how fat they all are, these Southerners, and how pale and oily are their skins. They eat pork every day, doubtless." (11.14)

    The South is both scary and astonishing; it also seems strangely unnatural. Wang Lung's father is intrigued by how fat the Southerners are, how they have such pale and oily skin. He seems to envious—do you think he's right to be? This seems to be how people look who are cut off from the land. Is that something to aim for, or something to avoid?

    It was the especial pleasure of each driver, seeing how strange Wang Lung and his family were, to crack his whip just as he passed them, and the sharp explosive cut of the air made them leap up, and seeing them leap the drivers guffawed, and Wang Lung was angry when this happened two and three times and he turned away to see where he could put his hut. (11.16)

    How do you think all the drivers know that Wang Lung is just a country bumpkin? How do you think these city folk would fare on Wang Lung's farm?

    Here with the coming and going of well-fed people upon the streets, with meat and vegetables in the markets, with fish swimming in the tubs in the fish market, surely it was not possible for a man and his children to starve. It was not as it was in their own land, where even silver could not buy food because there was none. (11.38)

    Wang Lung thinks it must be impossible to starve in the city, but we're not so sure. There’s a lot of wealth, but it's only for a few people. That, Shmoopers, is called economic inequality, and Wang Lung's about to see what that's all about firsthand. (Why, though, is this inequality so much worse in the city?)

    So it was that […] Wang Lung and his wife and children were like foreigners in this Southern city. It is true that the people who went about the streets had black hair and eyes as Wang Lung and all his family had, and as all did in the country where Wang Lung was born, and it is true that if one listened to the language of these Southerners it could be understood, if with difficulty. (12.3)

    Wang Lung's life back on the farm is so different from his life in the South that he might as well be in a different country, with people speaking a different language. Are the differences at least partly the result of the fact that Wang Lung and the city people have different relationships with the earth itself?

    But Anhwei is not Kiangsu. In Anhwei, where Wang Lung was born, the language is slow and deep and it wells from the throat. But in the Kiangsu city where they now lived the people spoke in syllables which splintered from their lips and from the ends of their tongues. And where Wang Lung's fields spread out in slow and leisurely harvest twice a year of wheat and rice and a bit of corn and beans and garlic, here in the farms about the city men urged their land with perpetual stinking fertilizing of human wastes to force the land to a hurried bearing of this vegetable and that besides their rice. (12.4)

    It seems to Wang Lung that the difference between the Northerners and the Southerners is in the different ways they relate to the land. The Southerners "force the land," so their language is "splintered," and they end up using "stinking fertilizing of human waste" to make crops grow more quickly than the land would otherwise allow. Everything seems to be in confusion in the South, and this confusion seems to result from a deeper problem: a lack of understanding about their own land.

    Then Wang Lung knew that this was indeed a foreigner and more foreign yet than he in this city, and that after all people of black hair and black eyes are one sort and people of light hair and light eyes of another sort, and he was no longer after that wholly foreign in the city. (12.13)

    The only thing that makes Wang Lung feel less like a foreigner in the South is the sight of a white woman. This is interesting in many ways, one of which is that it points to the presence of missionaries (like Buck's father) in China. The culture these missionaries bring is even more foreign than Wang Lung's Northern culture. How does it contribute to the kind of change happening in China at the time?

    Now there was in the town a great tea shop but newly opened and by a man from the South, who understood such business, and Wang Lung had before this passed the place by, filled with horror at the thought of how money was spent there in gambling and in play and in evil women. (18.29)

    Even though the South and the North seemed totally separate earlier in the novel, little bits of the South like this tea shop have begun to seep into Wang Lung's hometown. That tea shop, by the way, also brings with it gambling and prostitution. Hmm. What does this tell us about the South?

    And as these days went past to the night, the girl Lotus did what she would with him. When she laughed at the braid of his hair, although part of every day he spent in braiding and in brushing it, and said, "Now the men of the South do not have these monkey tails!" he went without a word and had it cut off, although neither by laughter or scorn had anyone been able to persuade him to it before […] When O-lan saw what he had done she burst out in terror, “You have cut off your life!” But he shouted at her, “And shall I look an old-fashioned fool forever? All the young men of the city have their hair cut short." (19.45)

    For Wang Lung, the South has now become something more than a physical location: it's now a state of mind. Wang Lung behaves—and now, to some extent, even looks—like someone from the South, even though he's living back in the North.

  • Politics

    "Oh, if I had an instant's strength in this hand of mine I would set fire to the gates and to those houses and courts within, even though I burned in the fire. A thousand curses to the parents that bore the children of Hwang!" (10.8)

    That is some serious hate. It's this kind of hate that will eventually lead to rebellion in the South. Wang Lung doesn't notice, but the same rebellious ideas he hears years later were already getting tossed around in his hometown.

    [The] young man said that China must have a revolution and must rise against the hated foreigners […] (12.6)

    This guy was talking about what would become the Boxer Rebellion, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of foreigners and Chinese Christians. Buck herself was a foreigner living in China, and her father was a Christian missionary. How do you think she feels about these events? Can you tell from the way she writes about these issues? Or does she seem removed from these events?

    They themselves had no idea of what manner of men they were. One of them once, seeing himself in a mirror that passed on a van of household goods, had cried out, "There is an ugly fellow!" And when others laughed at him loudly he smiled painfully, never knowing at what they laughed, and looking about hastily to see if he had offended someone. (13.4)

    A guy called Marx (you might have heard of him) would say that these poor guys in the South had no political consciousness. That's fancy talk for: these dudes are poor and don't realize that the rich are oppressing them.

    "Shall I never see it again! With all this labor and begging there is never enough to do more than feed us today.” Then out of the dusk there answered him a voice, a deep burly voice, “You are not the only one. There are a hundred hundred like you in this city." (13.29)

    Okay, so first of all, that random voice is totally weird. But second of all, if Wang Lung actually got was the voice was telling him, he would be on his way to that Marx guy's political consciousness thing. Why do you think Wang Lung never gets there? We saw that sometimes people are just too poor to understand the way they're being exploited. They don't have time to think about it, and often they don't have the education, either. But, wait. Maybe the rich people are too rich to think about, too? Why would they bother thinking about it? Things are good for them, so what do they care who they're exploiting? Maybe Wang Lung never develops a political consciousness due to the fact that he's either too poor or too rich to figure it out.

    "Now how ignorant you are, you who still wear your hair in a long tail! No one can make it rain when it will not, but what has this to do with us? If the rich would share with us what they have, rain or not would matter none, because we would all have money and food." (14.30)

    Communism! No, really, he's talking about communism. Communism makes the land—you guessed it—communal. How do you think Wang Lung would feel about this? Is this system better or worse than the system of farming and land ownership in the South? In the North?

    "These soldiers are going to battle somewhere and they need carriers for their bedding and their guns and their ammunition and so they force laborers like you to do it. But what part are you from? It is no new sight in this city." (14.43)

    Turn-of-the-century China was full of rebellions and wars with foreign countries, so this was probably pretty normal in a city with a port like this one. Since he lives all the way inland, and there's no 24-hours news channel (aside from the local gossips) for him to check, there's no reason for Wang Lung know about it.

    The common people had to move, then, and they moved complaining and cursing because a rich man could do as he would and they packed their tattered possessions and went away swelling with anger and muttering that one day they would come back even as the poor do come back when the rich are too rich. (30.101)

    This sounds a lot like our first quote, doesn't it? The first brother should watch out: kicking these people out could very well upset the balance in town. There's very little to stop these people from coming back and dealing with him as he did with them.

    And to him war was a thing like earth and sky and water and why it was no one knew but only that it was. Now and again he heard men say, "We will go to the wars." This they said when they were about to starve and would rather be soldiers than beggars; and sometimes men said it when they were restless at home as the son of his uncle had said it, but however this was, the war was always away and in a distant place. Then suddenly like a reasonless wind out of heaven the thing came near. (31.1)

    So, why are people joining the army? Is it because they're interested in politics? Guess again. Some are hungry, some are bored, some are stupid, and some, like Wang Lung's cousin, are all three. What does this tell us about all these wars being waged? Who's in charge? Who benefits? What's the point of it all?

    "There is to be a war such as we have not heard of—there is to be a revolution and fighting and war such as never was, and our land is to be free!" (32.40)

    Wang Lung's third son was the first person in his family to care about politics. He's a dreamer. He's also grown up witnessing a lot of unrest—and he's got an education. Oh, and that thing about the land being free? It happened during the Communist Party's land reforms about 16 years after this novel was published. How was the land made free, you ask? By killing the landowners, naturally. That would be Wang Lung's family.

    "Do you study the Four Books?” Then they laughed with clear young scorn at a man so old as this and they said, “No, grandfather, and no one studies the Four Books since the Revolution." (34.40)

    Not studying the Four Books is a big deal. The Four Books were one of the basic foundations of Chinese society for hundreds of years. This quote shows us that Chinese society has completely changed—or is in the process of completely changing—and it's leaving Wang Lung behind.