In the early part of the novel, when Wang Lung is poor, he is content. He lives close to the land, which provides him with all that he needs. He lives the way he has always done. He is humble, honest, and loves nothing more than working in his fields. The first few years of his life with O-lan are simple and relatively untroubled. As long as the land produces, they have no wants that cannot be met. They are hard-working, self-reliant, and thrifty. But this changes when famine comes to the land. Wang Lung is forced to leave his land and go south to the city to find work and earn money to feed his family. He feels that he is a stranger in the city, but he holds on to his values, rebuking and striking his son when he discovers that the son has been stealing. But then, because he is so desperate to return to his land, he compromises his own values by stealing from a man as a mob sweeps through one of the houses of the wealthy. It is this stolen money that provides the basis for his prosperity.
The richer Wang Lung becomes, the more he compromises the values he has always lived by. He is no longer so hard-working, and he does not work directly on the land, but delegates the work to others. For a while, he becomes idle and starts to indulge in vices that would not have occurred to him when he was a simple farmer. He spends money lavishly on the prostitute Lotus and becomes vain about his own appearance, buying fashionable new clothes. He even forces his wife to hand over the pearls he had earlier allowed her to keep.
Because people now regard him as a rich and important man, he forgets where he came from, starting to despise the common people and think himself above them. He also allows himself to be persuaded by his son into acquiring property in the old House of Hwang in the town, rather than being content living on his land. The thought of living in the former House of Hwang appeals to him because when he was a young man the old House symbolized wealth and power, and he cannot resist acquiring that symbol of wealth now he is a man of substance. But living there does not make him happy, and he finally realizes, when he is seventy, that he must return to live in a simple fashion on his land because that is his true home.
The theme of the corruption of wealth is continued in Wang Lung's eldest son. Not having spent much time working on the land as a boy, the eldest son does not share Wang Lung's original values. He too is a snob, despising the common people, and he loves to spend money making their house more and more lavish, so people will be impressed by it. The superficial values generated by wealth and the need for social approval have replaced the timeless values of simplicity and hard work.
The "Good Earth"
With the exceptions of the times in his life when he forgets himself, Wang Lung has an almost mystical connection to the earth. The knowledge of his relationship with the land, the soil, is almost a religion for him, far more so than worshiping the gods in the temple, whom he comes to despise.
The land, with the coming and going of the seasons, and its periods of drought and flood, is linked to the rise and fall of human generations. Everything comes and everything goes. As Wang Lung and O-lan work the land he observes, "The earth lay rich and dark . . . . Some time, in some age, bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses had stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth. So would also their house, some time, return into the earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth" (p. 27).
When Wang Lung is distressed, the land comforts him. He knows it is something, unlike material wealth, that can never be taken away from him. After the villagers rob him during the famine, he says, "The labor of my body and the fruit of the fields I have put into that which cannot be taken away . . . . If I had silver, they would have taken it. . . . I have the land still, and it is mine" (p. 65).
When Wang Lung goes to the big city in the south, he knows instinctively that he must get back to his land as soon as possible. His land is his life. And when he does return, he sets about building wealth so that he will never again be forced off his land, by famine or flood. The "good earth" may not always be so good, since such droughts or floods come every five to ten years. But when they do, Wang Lung blames the gods, not the land itself. For him, the land is always something to be revered.
He also believes that the House of Hwang fell because it forgot its connection to the land. When he first realizes this, he resolves to take his two young sons out in the fields to work, "where they would early take into their bones and their blood the feel of the soil under their feet, and the feel of the hoe hard in their hands" (p. 133).