Places: The Good Earth

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1931

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Anhui

*Anhui. Good Earth, TheLarge inland province in east central China divided by the great Yangzi (Yangtze) River. The far northern part of the province, in which the novel is set, is part of the broad northern China plain that is usually hot and dusty but subject to frequent flooding from the Yellow River.

Wang Lung’s farmhouse

Wang Lung’s farmhouse. Rural farmhouse that is the scene of most of the novel. The house is located in Wang village, described as composed of only a half dozen households, within an hour or so walk of an unnamed walled administrative town in the inland province of Anhui. The changes the farmhouse undergoes closely mirror the fortunes of Wang Lung and his family. Wang Lung toils daily in the fields and has a deep attachment to the land–the “good earth” of the title. In famine he lets the house go into disrepair and sells the household goods but will not sell his land. A multitude of trials face the family and threaten the farmhouse, but both survive. In prosperity, Wang Lung buys additional land and improves his house.

The house first appears as a run-down three-room, earthen-floored structure made of mud-and-straw bricks with a thatched roof in which Wang Lung and his widowed father live. When a wife, O-lan, joins the household, the interior of the house improves through her skill and hard work. Additions to the house come as the frugal and hard-working family members raise themselves up. These improvements include sheds for animals and a room in which laborers reside. Eventually a tile-roofed, brick-floored addition is built for Wang Lung’s secondary wife, Lotus. The house sits above the high-water marks of the frequent floods and so both the house and Wang Lung’s family survive flooding.

Hwang family mansion

Hwang family mansion (wang). Walled compound located in an unnamed walled administrative city in Anhui that has its own imposing gates. The unnamed city is probably Nansuzhou (now known as Suxian), in northern Anhui, where Buck lived from 1917 through 1919. Wang Lung’s wife, O-lan, comes to him from the Hwang mansion where she grew up as a harshly treated orphan kitchen servant. In the course of the novel, Hwang family members dissipate the family fortune and eventually sell land to Wang Lung. The Hwang mansion falls into ruins, leaving only a servant or two living in its collapsing courtyards. In his greatest period of prosperity, after O-lan’s death, Wang Lung purchases the property. Now a great extended Chinese family, the Wangs move into the refurbished mansion, where Wang Lung falls heir to some of the same excesses and faults of the Hwang family. He can never find peace in the mansion and prefers his modest farmhouse.

City in Jiangsu (Kiangsu) province

City in Jiangsu (Kiangsu) province. Unnamed city to which Wang Lung and his young family flee by train during a famine in Anhui. There they live in a “little village of sheds clinging to the wall.” Country folk who are never comfortable with city life, they eke out a living through Wang Lung’s work as a rickshaw puller. O-lan and the children beg on the streets. After Wang Lung comes into some money by chance, the family immediately return to their farmhouse and land. Although never named, this city is clearly modeled on Nanjing (Nanking).

BibliographyBuck, Pearl S. The Good Earth. New York: Washington Square Press, 1994. Provides a lengthy introduction about Pearl Buck and The Good Earth by Peter Conn. Also includes commentary from the time of the novel’s publication and sources for further research.Buck, Pearl S. House of Earth: “The Good Earth,” “Sons,” “A House Divided.” New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1935. A trilogy that begins with The Good Earth and thereafter unfolds the fate of Wang Lung’s family after his death. Although critics thought less of the latter two novels, they nevertheless offer a wonderful portrait of the dissolution of traditional China. Contains a brief essay on the origins of The Good Earth.Buck, Pearl S. The Mother. New York: John Day, 1934. A novel based on a woman named Mrs. Lu whom Buck had known in China. The central figure is a failed mother and unfulfilled peasant woman who Buck hoped would be seen as reflective of such women’s lives everywhere. Biographers have perceived this character as a mirror of Buck’s own emotions, many associated with the need for men and her lifelong care and love for a retarded daughter. Important for understanding Buck’s appeal among a whole generation of women.Cowley, Malcolm. “Wang Lung’s Children.” The New Republic 99, no. 1275 (May 10, 1939): 24-25. Contains information about the style of The Good Earth as well as the other two novels in the trilogy: Sons (1932) and A House Divided (1935). Includes a short explanation for Buck’s unfavorable reputation in some literary circles.Doyle, Paul A. Pearl S. Buck. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Interesting for its excellent critical comments on the literary origins of Buck’s novels and on the character and quality of her prose. A good survey of major points of Buck’s life, but not intended as a profound assessment of a remarkable personage. Includes a chronology, notes, bibliography, and an index.Harris, Theodore F. Pearl S. Buck: A Biography. 2 vols. New York: John Day, 1969-1971. Because of its importance, The Good Earth is discussed at various points in both volumes. Indicates the effect of the Wang Lung and O-lan characters on Buck’s formulation of The Good Earth.Spencer, Cornelia. The Exile’s Daughter: A Biography of Pearl S. Buck. New York: Coward-McCann, 1944. Cornelia Spencer is the pseudonym for Grace Sydenstricker Yaukey, Pearl Buck’s sister. Includes an interesting passage on why Buck’s publishers accepted The Good Earth for publication.Stirling, Nora. Pearl Buck: A Woman in Conflict. Piscataway, N.J.: New Century, 1983. The ablest, most insightful, and most rounded biography of Buck. Reveals many details of her personal and emotional life. Deals with Buck’s feminist convictions and the way in which they grew out of her own struggles and disappointments in a man’s world. Contains a brief bibliography and a superb index.
Categories: Places