The Good Earth: Summary, Characters, Setting & Themes

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  • 0:00 Pearl S. Buck & 'The…
  • 0:37 Plot of 'The Good Earth'
  • 2:55 Characters
  • 4:22 Setting
  • 4:52 Themes
  • 5:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Megan Pryor

Megan has tutored extensively and has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fiction.

In this lesson, we will study 'The Good Earth', a novel by Pearl S. Buck. The novel is about the struggles of a Chinese family and its financial ups and downs. This prize-winning novel helped create sympathy for China during World War I.

Pearl S. Buck & The Good Earth

The Good Earth, written by Pearl S. Buck, is a historical fiction novel that was published on March 2, 1931. A year later it won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel. The Good Earth sold well and resulted in Pearl S. Buck writing two more novels in the same trilogy, Sons (1932) and A House Divided (1935). The novel is about a Chinese family who lives in a village on the cusp of World War I. The book experienced a revival in popularity when Oprah Winfrey brought it to the attention of readers in 2004.

Plot of The Good Earth

The novel focuses on Wang Lung. He is about to be married to O-Lan, a slave who works for the House of Hwang. The House of Hwang is slowly losing its majesty. Bad habits, including opium use and bad money management skills, are causing it to lose its fortune. Wang Lung benefits from this by being savvy and earning enough to slowly buy land from the Hwang family.

He and his wife, O-Lan, have a few children: a boy and two girls. One of their daughters suffers neurologically from a period of famine, which results in a mental disability. Wang Lung calls this daughter 'Poor Fool.' His wife kills their second daughter, because they do not have enough money to provide for her.

Due to famine and a bad economy, Wang Lung's family suffers. In a desperate attempt to provide for his family, he sells all their possessions. The family needs to go south, but it is too far to walk in their miserable condition. They cannot afford to take the train, though.

Wang Lung gets a job pulling a rickshaw to support his family. His wife and children beg for money. They make enough to eat, but they remain poor. Wang Lung is miserable. He wants to go back to his land. Wang Lung is forced to abandon his job because the army has started drafting men. He works at night hauling goods instead.

When he catches his son stealing food, Wang Lung gets furious. O-Lan, however, is more practical. She cooks the food for the family to eat. Wang Lung's fury at his son is ironic because Wang Lung eventually gets sucked into a mob that is looting a rich man's house. The rich man, afraid for his life, gives Wang Lung his money.

Now rich, Wang Lung and his family return home. He can afford to restart his farm and even employ servants. His wife bears him three more children. O-Lan reveals to her husband that she stole jewels from the same rich man's house during the mob. Wang Lung buys more of the House of Hwang's remaining land.

The wealth goes to Wang Lung's head. While he is now able to feed and provide for his family, he also hurts his wife by buying a concubine. He gives his concubine a pair of pearls that belong to O-Lan. O-Lan's health wanes and she dies. As Wang Lung grows old, he longs for peace, but his children bicker about their wealth and, against their father's wishes, make plans to sell his land.


Wang Lung is hard-working farmer. He believes that true wealth lies in land. He starts to buy up the land of his rich neighbor, but suffers a lot of financial troubles in the book. He is married to O-Lan and the two have six children, one of whom does not survive past infancy. O-Lan is Wang Lung's practical wife. She is not above eating stolen food if it means feeding her family. She also killed one of her daughters after she gave birth because her family couldn't afford to feed another mouth. She used to be a slave.

Wang Lung's father lives with the family. Poor Fool is the name that Wang Lung gives to his first daughter. During a period of famine, she experienced brain damage and now has a mental disability. Their unnamed second daughter is killed by O-Lan because they cannot afford to feed another child. Their third daughter is born in a more prosperous time of their life and thus survives her childhood. She is married off to the son of a merchant.

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