The Good Earth: Essay Q&A
1. Does foot-binding play an important role in the novel? What was the reason for this practice in Chinese society?
Foot-binding plays a role in the novel since it shows how the practice was associated with wealth and social class. In general, the poorer classes in Chinese society did not practice foot-binding, so in the novel, O-lan does not have her feet bound. As a slave, she needed to be able to do whatever work was required of her, rather than being almost crippled with deformed feet, which was the result of the practice of foot-binding. The wealthy classes, in contrast, could afford to have non-productive female family members.
When Wang Lung becomes prosperous he complains to his wife about her big feet, which are a tell-tale sign of her humble origins. He now thinks he deserves better. As a result, O-lan promises she will bind the feet of their second daughter, which will make her more attractive and more marriageable.
For some reason that no one has been able to explain satisfactorily, the tiny, three-inch-long feet that resulted from the extremely painful practice of foot-binding were considered not only attractive but erotic. Men even thought that a tiny foot meant that the woman had enhanced sexual energy. When in the novel Wang Lung meets the prostitute Lotus, one of the things he likes most about her is her tiny feet.
The author does not condemn outright the practice of foot-binding, but she does show how it is associated with finding a marriage partner. For a girl from a certain social class in China, not having bound feet would make it very difficult for her to find a suitable husband.
The practice also shows the unequal power relations between men and women. Women were culturally conditioned to believe that they had to undergo the pain of foot-binding in order to be pleasing to men. And for men, having a wife with bound feet was a way of ensuring subservience and fidelity, since she could not move around easily and was confined to the house.
2. What role does religion play in the novel, and what attitude does Wang Lung have to it?
The village where Wang Lung lives seems to have a religion that worships the kind of agricultural deities that are found in many ancient and traditional societies. Such deities are worshiped as a way of honoring the capacity of the earth to be fruitful.
Wang Lung's attitude to the gods changes during the course of the novel. When he first brings his bride home, he goes straight to the small temple in the village. It is called the temple to the earth and was built by Wang Lung's grandfather. Inside, there are two earthen figures, depicting the unnamed "gods of the earth," the male god and his female consort. The gods wear robes of red and gilt paper, which are renewed by the villagers as part of each New Year celebration. All the people in the neighborhood worship these gods, and Wang Lung appears to be no exception. He takes incense to the temple and burns it before the gods in gratitude. After the birth of his first child, he again burns incense in the temple, and feels protected by the power of the gods.
But during and after the famine his attitude undergoes a drastic change. This time he goes to the temple only to spit on the statues of the gods and accuse God himself of desiring misfortune for men: "Oh, you are too wicked, you Old Man in Heaven!" he says (p. 66). When he returns from the city, after the drought and famine are over, he finds the statues in the temple looking bedraggled. No one has paid them any attention during the famine. "Thus it is with gods who do evil to men!" he says (p. 124).
This hostility to the gods, or to the supreme God, becomes stronger in Wang Lung as he gets older. He repeats these sentiments to Ching, when Ching informs him of the approaching flood (Chapter 28). Wang Lung appears to believe that the "old man in heaven" enjoys the sight of human suffering.
But it also appears that he cannot completely shake off his religious beliefs or his observance of religious customs. When his grandson is about to be born, he ensures that incense is offered to the gods in the temple in the town, which is a more elaborate temple dedicated to the "goddess of mercy" in a "gilded alcove" (p. 257). Then he goes to the country temple and does the same thing-just as he did when he was first married, and when he was expecting his first child. So it seems that Wang Lung, despite his anger at the gods, remains to a certain extent within the framework of beliefs and customs that are normative for his society.
3. Why does O-lan kill her infant daughter? Is it an act of mercy or a crime?
The incident in which O-lan appears to kill her daughter, probably by strangulation, comes in chapter 9. The context is the famine the village is enduring, which is reaching its worst point. There is no food for anyone, and there are rumors that in the village, people are even eating human flesh in order to survive.
The narrative does not state explicitly that O-lan killed the baby, but it is strongly implied. Wang Lung heard the baby cry, so it was born alive. But when he enters O-lan's room, he finds the baby dead on the floor, and he notices "two dark, bruised spots" on its neck (p. 71).
There is no doubt that O-lan regards her deed as an act of mercy. Throughout the novel she is presented as a good mother; she would not have destroyed her own offspring had she not believed it was for the best. Was she correct in her belief? Whether this was an act of mercy or a crime depends on one's own beliefs about when it is permissible to take life and when it is not. But it would perhaps be a hard heart that condemned a starving woman who ended the life of a tiny malnourished infant ("a wisp of bone and skin") perhaps a few more hours or days than it would otherwise have endured. This is certainly the conclusion that Wang Lung reaches. After he has buried the dead baby, he mutters to himself, "it is better as it is" (p.72).
However, there is another side to the question. It may be significant that the baby was a girl. In the society depicted in the novel, a baby girl was not considered cause for great rejoicing, even in good times. When O-lan gives birth to her first daughter, she refers to it as a slave, "not worth mentioning" (p. 56). Would O-lan have been so quick to snuff out the life of her child, even in the midst of a terrible famine, if the child had been a boy? It seems unlikely. It was easier for her to kill the infant girl, given the lower value that the society in which she lived placed on women's lives. Had the baby been a boy, she might have felt a stronger need to try to preserve his life, hoping against hope that he would survive.
4. Describe the relationship between Wang Lung and his uncle. Why does Wang Lung allow himself to be exploited by the uncle?
Wang Lung is contrasted at every point with his uncle. Whereas Wang Lung is industrious and thrives as a result, his uncle is lazy. He does not cultivate his land, preferring to spend his time gambling or living off the generosity of others, including Wang Lung. He blames his troubles on bad luck. When he sees how prosperous Wang Lung has become, he simply moves himself and his family into Wang Lung's house and expects to be taken care of.
Wang Lung allows this situation to go on for two reasons. First, he is a decent man who is very aware of how things should be done in his culture. Respect of elders is ingrained into his mind. Once, early in the novel, he forgets himself and expresses anger at his uncle for asking for money. The uncle is quick to exploit the situation, playing on what he knows is Wang Lung's respect for tradition: "Have you no religion, no morals, that you are so lacking in filial conduct? Have you not heard it said that in the Sacred Edicts it is commanded that a man is never to correct an elder?" (p. 55). The uncle cunningly exploits Wang Lung in this way throughout the novel, knowing that his cousin will be extremely reluctant to rebuke an elder, who also happens to be a family member.
The second reason Wang Lung allows the abuse to go on is because the uncle reveals that he is a member, and perhaps even in charge, of the dreaded criminal gang known as the Redbeards. Wang Lung fears that if he crosses his uncle, the uncle will arrange for the gang to attack and rob his house. His uncle encourages him in this belief.
Some critics have pointed out how unlikely it is that a lazy, ineffectual good-for-nothing like Wang Lung's uncle would also be a ruthless gangster, with other cut-throats and robbers at his beck and call. The two roles do not seem to fit together. It is possible that the author introduced the notion of the uncle as gang leader to reinforce the reasons Wang Lung has for not throwing him out, and also to explain why the notorious robber gang never touches Wang Lung's house.
5. In chapter 14, what picture is presented of Christian missionaries?
Pearl Buck was the daughter of Christian missionaries to China, but the picture she presents of such missionaries in this one short passage in The Good Earth is hardly a flattering one. It shows Christianity from Wang Lung's point of view, who knows nothing at all about it. He encounters the missionary while he is in the big southern city of Kiangsu. The missionary, as Wang Lung sees him, is not an attractive figure. He is a tall and lean foreigner, bearded, with eyes "as blue as ice" (suggesting coldness) and a big nose. Wang Lung is frightened of the man's "strange eyes and fearful nose." The missionary hands Wang Lung a piece of paper, on which is pictured the crucified Christ. Wang Lung sees only a white-skinned man, apparently dead, hanging nearly naked "upon a crosspiece of wood." Blood streams from his side.
Wang Lung is horrified at the picture. He shows it to one of his neighbors, who offers the opinion that the man must have done great evil to have been hung in this fashion. Wang Lung wonders whether some evil has been done to the dead man, and perhaps the man who gave him the picture was his brother, and was seeking revenge. He is so concerned about such a possibility that he avoids the street where he encountered the foreigner. Eventually, Wang Lung sews the paper into the sole of his shoe.
The passage suggests the futility of Christian missionary work in China. Although the leaflet had some writing on it that no doubt explained what the picture showed, neither Wang Lung nor the man he showed it to can read. So the Christian message completely fails to come across.
In 1932, only a year after the publication of The Good Earth, Buck published an essay entitled "Is There a Case for Foreign Missions?" in which she was extremely critical of Christian missionaries. The essay includes the following passage: "I have seen missionaries . . . so lacking in sympathy for the people they were supposed to be saving, so scornful of any civilization except their own, so harsh in their judgments upon one another, so coarse and insensitive among a sensitive and cultivated people that my heart has fairly bled with shame." This negative appraisal of Christian missionaries appears to have found its way briefly into The Good Earth.