Study Guide

The Good Earth Themes

By Pearl S. Buck

  • The Natural World

    The Good Earth is about one man's relationship with the natural world. We're not talking about the whole natural world; it's mostly the earth that gets Wang Lung's attention. His life is directly tied to something as simple as whether or not it rains when it's supposed to. If it rains too little, his family starves; if it rains too much, then half of his food is gone.

    It's a tough life, but Wang Lung never gets angry or fed up with nature. He knows that's just how nature is. Sure, nature may not be on your timetable, but nature is good. If you respect it and try to rule its rules and rhythms, it will probably reward you... at least some of the time.

    Questions About The Natural World

    1. Does Wang Lung ever totally lose his connection to the earth? If so, when? If not, what prevents him from losing it?
    2. Is anything more important than the land? If so, what? When? 
    3. What's so "good" about the earth? Are there times when the earth is bad? Is it benevolent, malicious, or neutral?

    Chew on This

    Who needs the earth when you have money? You only use the earth to get money in this novel, anyway.

    The earth is vengeful when it feels it's being ignored in The Good Earth.

  • Women and Femininity

    Worthless. Slaves. These are just the words commonly used to describe women in The Good Earth. Not too pretty, huh? Some of the women in this novel are not even second-class citizens: they're barely considered human at all.

    While this may be the official stance on women in turn-of-the-century China, there's a lot going on in the background. Wang Lung is the title character of the novel, but it's really the women in his life who steal the show, and that tells us a lot about the status of women in families and communities at the time.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Compare the male characters to the female characters in this novel. Which characters are more complex? Which characters do you identify with more?
    2. Pearl S. Buck has been called a feminist. Based on your reading of The Good Earth, do you agree? Why or why not?
    3. What relationships do women have with each other in the novel, if any?

    Chew on This

    Women have no power in The Good Earth.

    The only way for women to gain power in The Good Earth is through beauty.

  • Mortality

    Life and death are just two sides of the same coin. Most of the characters in The Good Earth don't see death as such a big deal. Death isn’t some mystical scary unknown place with totally different rules: the characters in the novel don't talk about heaven and hell, for example. Death is part of the normal cycle of life: it's natural, it's supposed to happen, and people don't seem to concern themselves too much with what will happen to them once they cross over. People who die are still part of the family, anyway—ancestors are very carefully remembered and honored in this society—so what's all the moping for? It's just life.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. What are the attitudes of the characters in the novel towards death? Are there any differences?
    2. On farms, you have to kill plants and animals in order to live. Do you think that is reflected in The Good Earth? How or how not?
    3. Compare the deaths of different characters in The Good Earth. How do they die? How are they mourned, if at all? Where are they buried? How does this reflect on their lives?

    Chew on This

    Death is no big deal in The Good Earth.

    It's important to try to survive in The Good Earth, because suffering is better than death.

  • Change

    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    Things seem to change in The Good Earth, but is the change real? On the small scale, Wang Lung's life changes completely. He goes from starving poor to millionaire rich. But on the big scale, nothing really changes. Sure, there are revolutions and rebellions, but they only replace the old rulers and the old systems with new ones. So change is just an illusion.


    Questions About Change

    1. Find all the moments when characters are compared to members of the House of Hwang. Are these compliments? Are the traits they share good or bad? Do the characters like these comparisons? Why or why not? 
    2. Which events does Buck choose to make the characters relive? Why do you think she chooses these specific moments? Does anyone escape from the cycle of life? If so, who? If not, why not? 
    3. Does the repetition in The Good Earth have anything to do with nature? If so, what?

    Chew on This

    Characters in The Good Earth are doomed to repeat the past.

    Change is possible in the novel, but no one wants it.

  • Religion

    Gods, what are they good for? Huh? Standing all smug in their temples with their songs and books dedicated to them.

    Okay, maybe it's a little more complicated than that. One thing The Good Earth doesn't really tell us is whether it's all humbug or whether there's really something to it. The poor people seem to need religion: the world for them in a scary place full of spirits and gods who want to see them fail. Worshipping the gods is the only way to make the moolah meter go up a little bit at the end of the day—and even then, there are no guarantees.

    As for the rich people... meh. They've got money. What do they need gods for?

    Questions About Religion

    1. What gods are around in The Good Earth? Why does Wang Lung seek those gods instead of others? 
    2. Do you think Wang Lung really believes in gods and spirits? Why or why not? What about the other characters? 
    3. What role does religion play in the lives of the novel's characters? Can it be replaced by anything else? If so, what?

    Chew on This

    The earth gods have no control over Wang Lung's life.

    Gods are an important part of life in The Good Earth, and they control nearly everything that happens.

  • Wealth

    Wealth, you say? Well, that’s a tricky word, indeed. What can it mean? It can mean a bed to sleep on, or food to eat. It can also mean diamonds, jewels, and the ability to do whatever you want, whenever you want. It can also mean having good friends and family you can rely on.

    In The Good Earth, being rich separates you from the land and can lead to trouble. Of course, you can try ignore the gods if you have enough money, and you might have some good times while you wait for disaster to strike, so it's not all bad. But disaster, in some form, is probably going to strike, just to even out the scales. The most peaceful time for Wang Lung's family comes when they are just rich enough to have everything they need and one or two extras. But that doesn't last long.

    Questions About Wealth

    1. Does the definition of wealth remain the same throughout the novel? If not, how and when does it change? 
    2. Who are the rich people in the novel? Are they moral or immoral? What about the poor people? 
    3. What makes being wealthy dangerous in the traditional Chinese society of The Good Earth?

    Chew on This

    Being rich in The Good earth is awesome.

    It's dangerous to be rich in the Good Earth.

  • Town vs. Country

    The city that never sleeps. The big city. The modern Gomorrah.

    Yeah, we're not talking about New York, but the nicknames still fit. When Wang Lung goes to the South, it's like a country boy's first time in the Big Apple. Everything's different, and he just doesn't belong. The country is a slow-paced, relaxed area, with humble, moral people. The town is fast, rich, and full of the seven deadly sins. Even though he makes it out of the city alive, the city seems to follow Wang Lung back to the country. For better or for worse.

    Questions About Town vs. Country

    1. Is Wang Lung's experience in the South particular to China, or could it happen anywhere? Why or why not? Could it happen at any time? 
    2. When Wang Lung goes to the South, he witnesses a rebellion. Could that have happened in his hometown? Why or why not? 
    3. List the differences between the South and the North. What is the most important part of the economy in the South? In the North? Which is the better place to be poor? Why?

    Chew on This

    It's better to be poor with land in the North than to be poor in the South without land.

    The Good Earth's South is kind of like Sodom in the Bible. It's where you can practice any vice you like.

  • Politics

    Vive la révolution! There are revolutions and rebellions going on everywhere. You can't throw a rock without hitting a soldier. Yet somehow, Wang Lung and his family seem completely oblivious. What does politics mean to people like them? Is politics going to get food on the table? If not, then these people don't care. Political turmoil becomes an issue for Wang Lung's family pretty much only if it's brought right to their doorstep.

    Questions About Politics

    1. Do the characters in the novel care about politics? Who does, and who doesn't? 
    2. Why are Wang Lung and his family so isolated from the political events happening around them? Do these people ever change? 
    3. The novel occurs about a decade before the China became the People's Republic of China, a communist state. How do you think these political changes will affect Wang Lung' s family?

    Chew on This

    Politics isn't important to the lives of the characters in The Good Earth.

    Even though they aren't aware of them, the characters in the novel are deeply affected by the important political events happening around them.