The Good Earth is set in pre-revolutionary China. The main character is Wang Lung, and we meet him on his wedding day. He is a simple man but capable and very willing of hard work. His own father has ingrained in Wang Lung that nothing is more important than the land. The land that his family owns is one of the few constants in this book. I have thought often of its symbolism and irony.
Thanks to Wang Lung's (and his wife's, whose name is O-Lan) incredible devotion to his land, and to hard work, the land is profitable. They live in peaceful sufficiency, until a great drought comes upon the land. O-Lan works wonders with her creative ability to stretch what little food they have, but eventually it is not enough. Horrible atrocities take place when vast populations of people go hungry. Animals are eaten. Children are sold. Children are eaten. Families are attacked and torn apart. One of the saddest aspects of this culture is shown during the times of famine, which is that there is no respect whatsoever for human life...especially females. It is sad to the point of being absolutely maddening.
Eventually, Wang Lung and his family are once again able to work on their land that is once again fruitful. It is so fruitful, actually, that very quickly he becomes a very rich man. Soon their original earthen shack becomes a palace, and Wang Lung quickly forgets the loyalty, ingenuity, and faithfulness of his hard-working wife. Rather, he begins to criticize her appearance and find reasons to seek satisfaction at tea houses with local harlots. (Just one of the many reasons I can't stand this guy!)
The saga continues with Wang Lung's continued conflicts with his children and with other members of his family. At the conclusion of the book, he is an old man preparing for death but crying out for his sons to refrain from selling the land he has loved so much. It's sad that the land, not his faithful wife nor his talented children, is the only thing he truly loves.
When I read more about Pearl S. Buck (link below), I discovered that she knew so much about Chinese culture during this period of time because she had lived in China for much of her life with her missionary parents. Pearl went on to establish the very first international adoption agency. She has written two other novels about Wang Lung's family, and I definitely plan to consume those soon!