Literature / The Good Earth

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The Good Earth is a novel by Pearl S. Buck, first published in 1931. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932, and topped the best-seller lists in the United States for 1932 and 1933. It is the first, and much the best known, book in a trilogy which continues in Sons (1932) and A House Divided (1935). Though Buck was an American, she spent most of her early life in China, and The Good Earth is credited with doing much to humanise and demythologise China and Chinese people to Americans. By contrast, the book's unflinching depiction of some of the grimmer aspects of life in China have made it less than popular there.

The story concerns Wang Lung, a pre-revolutionary farmer who works his fingers to the bone to become successful with the help of his arranged-marriage wife O-Lan, only to drift away from his roots when he does achieve success.

The Good Earth was adapted for the stage in 1932, and a film version was released in 1937. The film starred Paul Muni as Wang Lung. For her role as his wife O-Lan, Luise Rainer won an Academy Award for Best Actress. The film also won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, and was nominated for Best Director, Best Film Editing and Best Picture. Despite Pearl Buck's objections, all the leading roles were given to white actors in yellowface.


Contains the following tropes:

  • All Love Is Unrequited: O-lan is implied to love Wang Lung, who loves Lotus, who loves only herself. Later on, Wang Lung's third son is implied to love Pear Blossom, who prefers Wang Lung.
  • Alpha Bitch: Lotus.
  • Ambiguous Situation: It's never made clear whether Wang Lung's oldest son slept with Lotus, or if they really were just talking.
  • Arranged Marriage: Wang Lung to O-lan, Wang Lung's two eldest sons to their first wives, Wang Lung's youngest daughter to another family... makes sense, given the setting.
  • Attempted Rape: Wang Lung's nephew assaults his beautiful younger daughter. He's able to separate them before it can go any further, but the man's complete lack of remorse spurs him to marry the girl off as soon as possible.
  • Bad Dreams: O-lan suffers from these thanks to the beatings she received as a slave all her life.
  • Beauty Is Bad: Wang Lung's father specifically denies Wang Lung a beautiful woman, saying that a beautiful woman would not make a good wife to him and would only think of material things. He is ultimately right: a pampered, beautiful woman like Lotus with her bound feet would not have been able to work the fields with him. However, the pampered and beautiful Pear Blossom is a kind character who genuinely cares for Wang Lung and the "poor fool" in his old age.
    • Wang Lung's father also points out, probably fairly, that no pretty girl raised as a slave in a large household would be allowed to grow to maturity as a virgin. He tells Wang Lung that it is better to be the first with an ugly girl than the thousandth with a beauty. O-lan later, tragically, confirms that this is true. When discussing her upbringing, she reported that she was beaten every day. Wang Lung asks if that was the case for all the girl slaves, and she responds "Aye, beaten or carried to a man's bed".
    • Downplayed by his second son, who wants a wife who's pretty but not TOO pretty, as he doesn't want a wife who's vain or selfish.
  • Berserk Button:
    • O-Lan is enraged when her young songs laugh about begging during the famine. She slaps them and shouts at them because they fail to understand the gravity of the situation. It's the first time readers see her show strong emotion.
    • O-Lan is livid when Wang Lung takes Lotus as a concubine and Cuckoo as a servant. She angrily recounts her youth in her master's house, where Cuckoo berated and bullied her.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: O-Lan is usually quiet, obedient, and absorbed in her work. However, she is also capable of pragmatic violence. She strikes her sons when they laugh about begging, and is strongly implied to have committed infanticide when she gave birth during the famine. When a mob of poor people riots during the famine, she joins them and steals jewels from a wealthy household.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Wang Lung is surprised to hear his second son say that his oldest son's wife is secretly vain and haughty, as he thought she seemed like a perfectly nice, humble, obedient girl during the match-making process.
  • Blackmail: Wang Lung's uncle, aunt, and later nephew basically use their relationship to him to extort Wang Lung every chance they can get, threatening to tell everyone he has no filial piety if he doesn't.
  • Book Dumb:
    • Most of the first generation characters are either peasants or former slaves, and are thus uneducated and illiterate. A scribe pokes fun at Wang Lung's illiteracy by asking if "Lung" is spelled with the "dragon" character or the "deaf" character.
    • Wang Lung arranges for his sons to receive educations, averting this trope for the sons.
  • Brainless Beauty:
    • Lotus is attractive, but not terribly bright or practical.
    • The poor fool is an almost literal case, as she's so mentally handicapped that she can't so much besides smile.
  • Christmas Cake: Wang Lung feels lucky to have landed such a beautiful concubine until his relatives laugh that Lotus' looks are starting to fade, thus it's obvious she only agreed to be his because her days at the brothel are numbered.
  • Child Hater: Lotus is implied to be this, since she's disgusted when Wang Lung's children come near her.
  • Childhood Brain Damage: The poor fool is implied to have this, as she was born during a terrible famine and was malnourished as an infant that her brain never developed properly.
  • Death by Irony: O-lan has many sons like her society says she should, and is implied to get uterine cancer as a result.
  • Deconstruction:
    • Pre-revolution Chinese society placed great emphasis on filial piety and family harmony. The Good Earth deconstructs these values by showing a Chinese household characterized by a selfish patriarch, jealousy between a wife and a concubine, and an aunt and uncle who abuse their nephew's filial piety.
    • The Good Earth also deconstructs traditional assumptions about the ideal wife. O-Lan displays all the qualities of the ideal pre-revolution Chinese wife — quiet, obedient, hard-working, resourceful, and fertile — but none of these earn her Wang Lung's love or her relatives' respect. She bears Wang Lung multiple sons, only to develop uterine cancer for her trouble.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • Though Buck was a die-hard feminist, she depicts traditional Chinese practices (such as polygamy, concubinage, child marriage, and foot-binding) fairly straightforwardly.
    • Buck also depicts physical abuse of children in pre-revolution China very matter-of-factly. O-Lan was regularly beaten during her youth as a slave. Later, O-Lan repeatedly slaps her sons when they laugh about begging during the famine. Wang Lung beats his son for stealing meat during their time in poverty.
    • Played with to some extent with polygamy. Wang Lung never questions his right to take a concubine, and never thinks about the impact it has on O-lan until the day that his young daughter accidentally drops a Truth Bomb on him. The soft-hearted Wang Lung feels sorry for his daughter, who is having her feet bound, and she mentions that her mother has told her that it must be done or that she will never be loved by her future husband; "even as you do not love her". Later, after O-lan's death, Wang Lung can't bring himself to look at Lotus for a while, and he respects O-lan's wishes that Lotus should never come into her rooms or touch her things. Also, when she was alive Wang Lung sometimes found himself wondering about her past, thoughts, and opinions, but then chastised himself for wondering because it was not socially meet for a man to think such things of his wife.
    • Also played with in terms of slavery. O-Lan and Lotus were sold into slavery as children. O-Lan's description of the beatings and rapes endured by house slaves are chilling, and she warns Wang Lung that such a fate would await their children if they were sold into slavery during a famine. However, when Wang Lung becomes wealthy, his household includes several slaves. No one bats at eyelash at his sexual relationship with Pear Blossom, even though Pear Blossom is a slave and a minor.
    • The characters' attitudes toward people with disabilities are harsh to 21st century western readers. Poor Fool's intellectual disability is treated like a calamity. She is ignored by the other household members, with the exception of her parents and Pear Blossom. Lotus is enraged when Poor Fool gets too close to her. Wang Lung is considered odd for loving the girl and spending time with her. Wang Lung instructs Pear Blossom to mix poison in Poor Fool's food after his passing, believing that death would be a kinder fate for the girl than a life of abuse and neglect without his protection.
  • The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: O-Lan's illness, which she refers to as "a fire in my vitals": likely cancer. All but confirmed as uterine cancer, when the doctor refers to "a rock the size of a man's head in the womb".
  • Downer Ending: All the sympathetic characters are either dead or no longer sympathetic, Wang Lung has learned absolutely nothing and is just as much of a Jerk Ass - if not more - as when the novel started, and it's heavily implied that Wang Lung's sons are no better than he is, and they won't honor his wishes after his death.
  • Dull Eyes of Unhappiness: Wang Lung notices that O-lan has a smile that never reaches her eyes.
  • Dumb Is Good: The poor fool is too sweet and simple to do much besides smile, and she doesn't give Wang Lung any trouble like his other children. She becomes Wang Lung's favorite child in his old age because she isn't greedy or troublesome like his sons.
  • Easy Evangelism: Subverted. When handed a pamphlet with a picture of Jesus nailed to the cross, Wang Lung and his family marvel at it... because they're trying to figure out what a wicked deed this man must have done to deserve such a punishment. They then use the flyer to line the soles of their shoes.
  • A Fate Worse Than Death: Most characters see the poor fool as this. Only Wang Lung, O-Lan, and Pear Blossom can stand to be near her.
    • O-Lan sees the selling of a daughter into slavery as this, since that's what her parents did to her. She even tells Wang Lung that if it were up to her, she'd sooner kill her own daughters than sell them into slavery during a famine.
  • Foil: O-Lan and Lotus were both sold into slavery when they were little girls, but because she was pretty Lotus was sold to a brothel where she was pampered but sexually abused, while O-lan was made to work because she was plain where she was regularly beaten but not sexually violated. As wives to Wang Lung, O-lan is an excellent house-keeper and child-bearer but not beautiful enough for him, while Lotus is beautiful but barren and useless. Personality-wise, Lotus is vain and cruel, while O-lan is humble and hard-working.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Downplayed. His eldest son is more concerned with spending money than making it, while his second son is more concerned with making money and saving it.
  • From the Mouths of Babes: Wang Lung tells his youngest daughter she shouldn't get her feet bound if it hurts her so much, to which she innocently replies that her mother told her she needs to have her feet bound or else her future husband won't love her "the way your father doesn't love me."
  • Generational Saga: Wang Lung and his descendants.
  • Gold Digger: Lotus refuses to agree to be Wang Lung's concubine until he's able to guarantee he can provide the luxurious lifestyle to which she's become accustomed.
  • Gossipy Hens: Lotus and Cuckoo spend their time gossiping.
  • Heel Realization: After O-Lan's death, Wang Lung realizes that he took her for granted and weeps.
  • Hidden Depths: Wang Lung assumes O-lan is slow and stupid because she doesn't speak or emote much, and so is often surprised when she displays moments of cunning, prudence, resourcefulness, insight, and passion.
  • Hollywood Mid-Life Crisis: Wang Lung has a massive one.
  • Hopeless Suitor: Wang Lung's third son is implied to be this for Pear Blossom, who can't love him back and is interested in his father because she doesn't like young men.
  • Hypocrite:
    • Wang Lung doesn't like women with unbound feet, but objects to O-lan binding their daughter's feet even though failing to do so would make her unattractive in her own future husband's eyes. O-lan indirectly calls him out on this.
    • Wang Lung is unhappy to learn that his daughter-in-law wants to have a wet nurse in order to keep her breasts nice and pert, fondly reminiscing the days when O-lan nursed their children. He conveniently forgets that this caused her breasts to sag as she got older, which he threw in her face when he left her bed for Lotus's.
    • Wang Lung (noticing a pattern, here?) is enraged when Lotus mistreats his youngest daughter, conveniently forgetting that he had callously taken the pearls O-lan had planned to save for her as a wedding present to give to Lotus.
    • Earlier, when living on the streets during the famine, Wang Lung beat his eldest son for stealing some meat, calling the boy a thief. He later has no problem taking jewelry from a rich man who had assumed Wang Lung to be one of the violent looters he was hiding from. Nor does he mind O-lan stealing an even larger bag of jewels.
    • Lotus herself is jealous when Wang Lung takes Pear Blossom as a mistress, despite starting off as Wang Lung's mistress to O-lan.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Suspected of Wang Lung's aunt and uncle during a period of famine: They appear much better fed than their neighbors, and some of their children disappear and are never seen again.
  • Impoverished Patrician: The House of Hwang, which is forced to sell most of their properties to Wang Lung.
  • It's All About Me: Wang Lung rarely thinks of anyone but himself. The few times he does he worries about whether he looks good in the eyes of other men, or whether his family makes him look bad to the neighbors.
  • Jerk Ass: Wang Lung to variable degrees, particularly his treatment of O-Lan. Many of the characters are none too kind.
  • Karmic Death: Wang Lung's uncle and aunt die of an opium addiction. Invoked because Wang Lung notices their addictions and sends his sons to give them more.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • Wang Lung's treatment of O-lan after he starts seeing Lotus; particularly when he makes her give him the two pearls she'd humbly asked to keep (from the bag of gems she'd originally stolen that made them rich), and which she'd planned to make into earrings as a wedding gift for their youngest daughter, so he can give them to his mistress Lotus.
    • Lotus has an almost literal case when she strikes the poor fool for trying to touch her.
  • Like Father, Like Son: Wang Lung's oldest son takes after him the most.
  • Like Parent, Like Spouse: Played with. Wang Lung's oldest son is a lot like him, so when Wang Lung learns of his son's interest in his concubine he finds him a wife who looks just like her. He does this by asking Lotus if she knows of anyone, and she tells him of an old client who stopped seeing her because she looked just like his young daughter. Small world, right?
  • May–December Romance: Wang Lung and Pear Blossom. Although in an odd way, it seems to switch back and forth between being a romance and a more father/daughter relationship. He loses sexual interest in her quickly, but enjoys her companionship.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Cuckoos are birds that lay their eggs in other birds' nests and push the other eggs out in favour of their own. Cuckoo will do anything for money, and she inserts herself into Wang Lung's household to do so.
    • Lotus flowers are beautiful but grow in dirty, muddy water. Lotus is beautiful on the surface but everything underneath is dirty and disgusting.
    • Pear blossoms are often used as a symbol of hope and lasting friendship. Pear Blossom becomes Wang Lung's companion who he views with affection rather than lust.
  • Mistaken for Servant: Wang Lung realizes that he, in all respects still a peasant despite his great wealth, would look like a servant next to his well-dressed son. He doesn't like this realization.
  • Morality Pet: Wang Lung develops some affection for his mentally handicapped daughter.
  • More Deadly Than the Male: While both Wang Lung's uncle and aunt extort him for money and favors after he becomes wealthy, he soon notes that his uncle usually just asks for simple pleasures and then lets him be, while his aunt keeps making incessant and increasingly unreasonable requests.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Wang Lung doesn't realize how cruel and unfair he's been to O-lan all these years until she's on her deathbed, but by then it's far too late to make it up to her.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Subverted. When Wang Lung pulls a rickshaw, he gets a generous payment from a foreigner, but he soon realizes that she doesn't know how valuable the payment she gave was.
  • No Name Given: Most characters in the narrative are not named, including all of Wang Lung's relatives and their spouses.
  • No Woman's Land: The trials and tribulations of the novel's female characters remind readers that pre-revolution China was a scary place to be female. Men had absolute authority over their wives, concubines, and children. The social acceptability of polygyny and concubinage meant that a wife's status in the home was never secure. The absence of contraception meant that women could expect to bear large numbers of children and suffer reproductive health problems as a result. Girls born to impoverished families could be killed as infants or sold into slavery, where a life of servitude, physical abuse, and sexual violence awaited them. Middle and upper class girls were subjected to foot binding and child marriage.
  • Oblivious to Love: It's strongly implied in the novel that O-Lan has fallen in love with Wang Lung (a rarity in old fashioned arranged marriages, especially in China) but Wang Lung mistakes her devotion and obedience as slowness and stupidity, and repays her years of faithful servitude—and her having given birth to several sons, especially a first-born one—by falling in love with another woman, which breaks O-Lan's spirit.
  • Offing the Offspring: A particularly tragic example, when O-lan is implied to have killed her newborn daughter during the famine.
  • One of the Kids: The poor fool with the twins when they're toddlers, despite nearly being an adolescent at the time, because developmentally she's at the same mental state as them.
  • Papa Wolf: Wang Lung has ONE moment in his life, when his children sneak into Lotus' room to get a look at her, and she screams and tries to strike them. Wang Lung is PISSED, and tells her off for it.
  • Parental Favoritism: Wang Lung openly favors his eldest son, since he's a first-born son who takes after him. His second son doesn't mind since he knows how to manipulate his dad into giving him what he wants anyway, but his third son does mind. It goes without saying that he favors his sons over his daughters.
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage:
    • Subverted. O-lan is indeed the perfect wife to Wang Lung, but since she is not beautiful Wang Lung can't love her.
    • Invoked by his second son for himself. After Wang Lung finds his eldest son a beautiful wife, he assumes his second son will want the same. The kid replies that he actually wants a girl who's sensible, pretty but not so pretty as to be vain, and from a decent family but not so good a family that she's be haughty or arrogant. Confused, Wang Lung carries out his requests, and from all appearances his second son's marriage is more stable than any other man's in the family.
  • Pet the Dog:
    • Wang Lung burying Ching in the family cemetery to honor a lifetime of service, despite his sons' protests.
    • When the female slave that the family gives Wang Lung's nephew (to keep him from assaulting the other girls) gives birth to a girl instead of a boy, thus they are not obligated to welcome her into the family, Wang Lung gives her a decent settlement anyway.
    • Wang Lung is kind to Poor Fool, who is ignored by almost everyone in the household. For example, he takes delight in Poor Fool's love of sticky barley candy.
  • The Quiet One: O-Lan, as well as Wang Lung's third son.
  • Rags to Riches: Wang Lung and his family start the novel as peasant farmers and end as a wealthy family.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil:
    • O-Lan tells Wang Lung that the masters of the house where she served would frequently rape beautiful servant girls.
    • Cuckoo recounts a story in which she hid in an urn while bandits raped and pillaged all around her.
    • The book strongly implies that Pear Blossom experienced sexual assault at the hands of at least one man in Wang Lung's household. She prefers the elderly Wang Lung to "cruel" young men.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Wang Lung's third son, after he finds out about his dad's relationship with Pear Blossom, whom the book implies he was in love with.
  • The Scrooge: Trying to get Wang Lung's second son to part with money is like trying to get him to part with his fingers.
  • Self-Made Man: Wang Lung.
  • Shaming the Mob: O-Lan manages to disperse an angry, starving mob who try to steal food from the equally poor and starving Wang Lung household.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: His two eldest sons. His eldest son is lusty, passionate, and a notorious spendthrift, while his second son is shrewd, calculating, and a huge miser.
  • The Sociopath:
    • Wang Lung's uncle.
    • Wang Lung's nephew is no better.
  • Sociopathic Soldier: Wang Lung's nephew after he joins the army, as he seems to revel in a job that allows him to rape, plunder and kill without consequence. When quartered at Wang Lung's mansion, he even threatens to do the same to Wang Lung and his family unless he gives him his way in everything.
  • The Stoic: O-Lan. She endures a loveless marriage, famine, poverty, and other perils with a stoic attitude.
  • Sweet Tooth: Lotus, as she ages. She ends up getting fat.
  • Take a Third Option: When Wang Lung's aunt and uncle drive the rest of the family crazy with endless extortions, his sons seriously plan to kill them and Make It Look Like an Accident. When Wang Lung sees that they both become too lethargic to make demands when high on opium, he opts to have his sons give them as much as they want until they eventually die from it.
  • Theme Naming: The pretty girls are given flower names - Lotus and Pear Blossom.
  • The Three Faces of Eve: Young and innocent Pear Blossom is the Child, dutiful and diligent O-lan is the Wife, seductive and sexual Lotus is the Seductress.
  • Traitor Shot: In the ending, Wang Lung's sons pretend to agree to his Last Request, but look at each other over his eyes and smile, indicating that they intend to go back on their word.
  • Undying Loyalty: O-Lan to Wang Lung. Not that he appreciates it.
  • The Unfavorite: Wang Lung's third son, whom he never even thinks about unless someone asks, "How many sons do you have?"
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Wang Lung repays years of faithful servitude and child-rearing from O-lan by taking a concubine and bad-mouthing her for not being pretty enough for him. He also makes his fortune off the stash of gems she had the good sense to steal from a noble's mansion (and which he made her give him), but never gives her any nice things in return despite lavishing many jewels and presents on his concubine, Lotus.
  • Unto Us a Son and Daughter Are Born: The twins.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Lotus and Cuckoo. Lotus was her slave at the brothel, then Cuckoo was taken in to be Lotus's servant in Wang Lung's house. Despite the constant trading of power, they remain friends.
  • Why Couldn't You Be Different?: Although he's her husband rather than her father, Wang Lung gives a very cruel variant of this to O-lan at one point after he starts seeing Lotus, angrily demanding why she isn't prettier or why her feet are unbound; all things she can't do anything about.
  • Would Hurt a Child
    • O-Lan is strongly implied to have committed infanticide when she bore a baby girl during the famine.
    • Lotus lashes out at Poor Fool when the girl gets too close to her.
    • Wang Lung instructs Pear Blossom to quietly poison Poor Fool after his death, since he knows that Poor Fool will probably be abused and neglected without his protection.


Tropes unique to the 1937 film:

  • Adaptational Comic Relief: Uncle is more pompous and less threatening than his book counterpart.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Wang Lung realises he does love O-Lan on her deathbed, and gives her back the pearls he took, something he didn't do in the book.
  • Adaptational Modesty: The sexual aspect of Lotus is toned down at the request of the censors.
  • Adapted Out: The twins don't appear in the film. Neither does Pear Blossom.
  • Blade-of-Grass Cut: Some closeups of stalks of wheat.
  • Book Ends: The movie begins with Wang Lung's wedding and ends with his son's wedding.
  • Circling Vultures: They aren't circling. But vultures are seen perched next to a dead dog during the drought, and they are perched and waiting a couple of shots later after the camera catches dead refugees in various states of decomposition along the roads.
  • Demoted to Extra: Wang Lung's cousin features more prominently in the book as a constant source of tension. In the film he has just one scene at the beginning.
  • Fix Fic: Many viewers describe Wang Lung giving O-Lan back her pearls on her deathbed as something they wished he would have done in the book.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Wang Lung dies at the end of the book, but the film ends much earlier in the story when his son gets married.
  • The Swarm: The big climax has Wang Lung and the villagers setting fires in an attempt to ward off a horde of locusts that threaten to eat their entire harvest.
  • Tempting Fate: Wang Lung starts bragging about his fine sons and his five fields and how everything is awesome. His wife recoils in superstitious fear. Right after this a devastating drought strikes.
  • Time Skip: Multiple time skips shown by the tree O-lan plants in the yard—first a seed, then a sapling, then a full-grown tree.
  • Yellowface: The Chinese characters were played by white actors. Chinese American actress Anna May Wong wanted to play O-Lan; however, she was not allowed to play Paul Muni's wife, due to The Hays Code's anti-miscegenation rule.


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