“The Good Earth” is a novel published in 1931 and written by Pearl S. Buck. The novel was an instant success and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the next year in 1932. It was the bestselling novel in the United States in both 1931 and 1932 and went a long way toward helping Pearl S. Buck win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.
It is the first book in a trilogy. The second book in the trilogy is called “Sons” and the third is called “A House Divided”.
The novel revolves around the main character, Wang Lung, a poor Chinese farmer living in the country shortly before World War I. In the beginning of the book, he takes a wife in the form of a slave girl from a rich estate nearby. With his wife, O-lan, Wang Lung raises a family and endures many hardships and triumphs. He starts out poor but through his farm and some luck, becomes one of the richest landowners in the country and has many sons and daughters.
Wang Lung lives for many years, even after his wife dies and his children grow into adults. Wang Lung’s children begin to rebel against the life that he has planned out for them and decide that they don’t want to be farmers and, furthermore that they intend to sell the land he has worked all his life after he dies. Wang Lung realizes that he must acclimate to a growing, changing Chinese society that is represented by his children and their spouses, or be left behind.
In the novel’s opening scenes, Wang Lung, a destitute farmer in the fields of rural China, reaches the appropriate age for marriage. Wang Lung’s father endeavors to find him a suitable wife but he insists that she be unattractive, worrying that a pretty girl will be less likely to still have her virginity. Wang Lung does see the wisdom in this, but worries that he will not find his wife attractive. He wants to be married to someone he finds present to look at. He requests that his wife at the very least not have any pockmarks or a split upper lip.
Wang Lung goes from the small farm where he lives with his father to the great house of old lord Hwang. There, he claims his bride, O-lan, a slave to the wealthy family. O-lan is very tall and well built, but Wang Lung is disappointed that her skin is dark and her feet are not bound. The old mistress of the house tells Wang Lung that their family bought O-lan when she was just ten years old during a famine year. She further states that she believes O-lan to be a virgin. Before the couple leave together, the old mistress requests that O-lan bring their first child to see her.
As they return home, the couple stop at the small temple to the earth, located at the edge of Wang Lung’s property, to celebrate their union. Wang Lung’s father complains about the cost of their wedding feast but Wang Lung knows that the older man is secretly happy to have guests on a good occasion. O-lan agrees to prepare the meal but refuses to be seen by other men until after their marriage is consummated. Wang Lung is pleased by her modesty and good cooking.
The next morning, O-lan brings Wang Lung a bowl of tea and the simple action makes Wang Lung feel grateful. He is happy that she seems to like him and feel a measure of kindness toward him. Thus begins their life together.
The next few years are prosperous. The couple work hard in the fields, and O-lan gives birth to their first son and heir. The crops are good; the family live an economical but fulfilling life. After a time, O-lan takes her healthy toddler to the great house of Hwang to show him off to her former masters. She notes that the Hwangs are experiencing hard times, and tells this to her husband. Wang Lung purchases some of the land that the Hwangs are selling off. To own this land gives him special satisfaction because it belonged to the family of which O-lan was formerly a slave.
For a while, prosperity continues and O-lan has another son. However, these good times do not last. Wang Lung’s uncle, a shiftless fellow, asks for money and Wang Lung gives it to him out loyalty to family. Then O-lan has a daughter. For Wang Lung, the birth of a “slave” (as women were called in China at the time) seems a bad omen. Soon afterward, a long drought begins. In it’s first months, despite the signs of coming hardship, Wang Lung buys more Hwang property. Yet the possession of land does not help when, like their neighbors, the family begin to go hungry. One day as he passes the temple of the earth, Wang Lung looks at it with scorn. The gods are useless to him now. As the famine continues, Wang Lung’s uncle spreads a rumor that Wang Lung has a hidden supply of food. Which prompts the desperate villagers to break into Wang Lung’s house and take the few handfuls of beans and corn he does have. This is the moment in the novel when Ching, a poor but honest man who only participates in the raid to feed his child, appears.
Realizing their desperate circumstances, Wang Lung decides that his family must go south to the city and they resolve to leave as soon as O-lan (who is pregnant again) has given birth. One night she remains alone to have her child. When Wang Lung asks what happened, O-lan tells him that it was a girl and it was born dead. There are signs, however, that she has killed the unwanted baby. While O-lan is still weak from the birth, the family set out from Wang Lung’s cherished farm in search of food and work.
The family ride a “firewagon” (a train) to Kiangsu City. Once there, they set up a flimsy hut against the walls of a rich man’s house. Their life is hard. Although Wang Lung works long hours pulling a ricksha, with O-lan and the sons begging in the streets, they still barely manage to survive. In the city, Wang Lung learns the new truths about Chinese society. One day he has a female, foreign passenger. He has always considered himself a “country bumpkin” and an outsider in the city but on this occasion he sees himself through the eyes of a true foreigner and recognizes his kinship with all of his fellow countrymen. From other embittered city dwellers, Wang Lung also learns about economic injustice. He hears that the “rich who are too rich” are the cause of his hunger, although he does not yet fully understand these ideas.
Several months of harsh existence pass. Then one day, rumors of war begin to circulate in the city and news of an advancing enemy cause unrest. There are signs of crisis to come as the rich are seen fleeing the city. Finally, there is a tremendous uproar. The enemy has broken down the city gates. The neighbors – with O-lan among them – invade the wealthy house against whose walls their poor huts are built, to steal whatever they can. Wang Lung follows, but cannot bring himself to take anything. Yet, in the house he encounters a fat rich man who has been left behind. To avoid having Wang Lung kill him, the man gives Wang Lung a great deal of silver. With this money, Wang Lung takes his family back to their land.
Using the money to buy seed and tools, Wang Lung returns to work on his farm. To gain good fortune, he again burns incense in the temple of the earth. O-lan reestablishes their household. A surprising event further increases their prosperity. One night, Wang Lung discovers that O-lan has a secret hoard of jewels that she stole from the house in the city. He takes them from her, leaving her with only two pearls to keep. With this new treasure, he goes to the Hwang house, which is in a state of abandonment. Only the old lord, a slave and a former concubine named Cuckoo remain. Wang Lung exchanges the jewels for several large plots of land.
Now he begins to work even harder, and hires the devoted Ching to help him. About this time, Wang Lung realizes that his first daughter is mentally handicapped. He thinks that perhaps their past hardships have been too much for her.
But the present is prosperous. O-lan soon gives birth to healthy twins, a boy and a girl and the family has seven years of good fortune. Wang Lung is now a wealthy man. He has begun to rise in social status. For example, he is now able to send his two eldest sons to school as he has always been ashamed of his own illiteracy.
Then comes a bad season during which Wang Lung’s land cannot be planted. For the first time he has nothing to do. Bored and dissatisfied, he begins to criticize O-lan for her unattractiveness. He spends more time in the town and frequents a tea house in which Cuckoo, the former concubine, is now a servant. There, Wang Lung becomes increasingly attracted to a prostitute named Lotus. He begins to grow distant from his family and think only of Lotus. He buys jewels for her and even gives her O-lan’s treasured pearls.
Other events disturb the families life, too. Wang Lung’s uncle, together with his wife and son, suddenly reappear and move into Wang Lung’s home. The uncle’s unpleasant but shrewd wife helps Wang Lung arrange for Lotus to come and live in his household. Cuckoo accompanies Lotus as her maid. While she is secretly hurt by this, O-lan does not complain out loud.
Wang Lung’s home life becomes increasingly complex. He finds his oldest son has now grown up and concludes the arrangement for a future marriage to the daughter of a rich man from the town. Since his uncle has grown quite troublesome, Wang Lung attempts to drive him out of his house. Wang Lung discovers, however, that he is a member of a very powerful group of robbers. The uncle uses this association to get whatever he wants from Wang Lung. Time passes and these difficult circumstances continue.
Wang Lung discovers that his oldest son (who has put on airs of being a “scholar” but is, in truth, quite shallow) has been spending time with Lotus, and he sends him away to the south. He apprentices his second son to a merchant and arranges a promise to marry his second daughter to the merchant’s son.
In the meantime, although she has not called attention to her poor health, O-lan has grown quite ill. When Wang Lung perceives her increasing weakness, he realizes that he has neglected her. Growing more and more sick, she finally becomes bedridden and he stays by her side tending to her as if he were a devoted husband. In her fever and delirium, O-lan sometimes calls out to her parents or speaks as if she were still a scared slave girl at the Hwangs. As she lies dying, she expresses one final wish: to see her oldest son married. Though this means moving up the wedding by one year, Wang Lung calls the oldest son back and arranges for the wedding.
There is an elaborate ceremony. O-lan, who is too weak to get out of bed and attend, manages to listen in from her room. O-lan dies soon after the wedding. Her last words are “beauty will not bear a man sons” and talk about how even though she was ugly she has still borne sons to be her husband’s heirs. Wang Lung’s aged father also passes away several weeks later. O-lan and Wang Lung’s father are buried at once during a joint funeral service. After the service, Wang Lung can only think about how he cannot bear to see Lotus wearing the two pearls that he stole from O-lan and decides to take them back.
While his wealth does not diminish, Wang Lung encounters many family problems. The uncle and his wife are burdensome. In addition, their son seems to lust after Wang Lung’s second daughter. Forced to scheme in order to maintain peace in the household, Wang Lung sends the daughter away to the household of her future husband. Then (with Cuckoo’s aid) he arranges for his uncle and aunt to become addicted to opium. Once heavily drugged they are no longer a problem. Their son eventually goes off to become a soldier.
There are further problems, however. The family’s financial prosperity brings about changes in their home life, but not all the changes are positive.
Wang Lung’s oldest son, concerned about social prestige, suggests that the family should live closer to town. Wang Lung is at first reluctant, but on hearing that the Hwang house is up for rent, decides to move his family into it. Wang Lung agrees to live in the old Hwang house because he secretly enjoys living in a house that, for him has always represented wealth and prestige. In addition to this, he is able to leave his uncle and aunt back in the old house and be rid of them.
Slowly, he becomes accustomed to the more luxurious town life. One episode in the book reveals especially well the changes in Wang Lung’s life: when his daughter-in-law is about to give birth, he goes to a temple in town and promises a gift if the child is a boy. A healthy grandson is born shortly after this. Wang Lung worries that he has betrayed the gods of the land and the death of Ching a short while later seems to be a sign of this disloyalty.
Another seemingly small event illustrates the family’s shift away from the land: The youngest son comes to Wang Lung asking to learn to read. Although he had intended that this son, at least, carry on the family tradition of farming, Wang Lung reluctantly consents.
As Wang Lung grows increasingly old and weak, a series of important events is set off by one more disturbing situation. There is war in the country and one day a group of soldiers enter town. Among them is the uncle’s son, who camps out with his comrades in Wang Lung’s new house. Rather than have him pursue the household woman, the family decides to give him a woman. He asks for Lotus’ young maid, Pear Blossom. The girl protests, her pleas move Wang Lung and he gives the son another woman.
Eventually the soldiers leave. Wang Lung retains a lingering fondness for Pear Blossom, as does his youngest son. There has been tension between father and son. The boy is restless and talks of going to join the fight for China’s freedom. Then, Pear Blossom becomes Wang Lung’s mistress. When he discovers their relationship, the youngest son flees the household. While he sends no news, the family later hear that he has become an officer in “a thing they call the revolution”.
As he nears the end of his life, Wang Lung gives Pear Blossom a vial of poison to fed to his mentally handicapped daughter after he dies so that she will not have to live without him under someone elses care. Pear Blossom, however, confesses that she cannot kill the girl and promises to take care of her after he dies.
In the last chapters, we see the bitter years of Wang Lung’s old age. He recognizes that neither of his two older sons is wise and that neither cares for the land. Indeed, there are signs that they will sell off the holdings their father worked so hard to build up. He realizes that he is dying and asks for his two oldest sons to buy him a coffin. When they do this, Wang Lung feels that the coffin comforts him in a strange way.
In his last days, Wang Lung returns to the old house on the farm, bringing his coffin along with him and spends his time thinking about the past. While his sons are visiting him one day, he overhears them discussing selling his land. Wang Lung shouts out that if they sell the land it will be the end. The sons assure him many times that they don’t intend to sell the land but over Wang Lung’s head they smile at one another in understanding.
Wang Lung – a Chinese peasant who is, at first, extremely poor but becomes increasingly wealthy through diligent labor and some luck. As the novel opens, he is a simple, generally honest man who occasionally displays some signs of moral weakness but is never truly bad or evil. He is also at times indecisive, until an incident or event stirs him into action. Wang Lung is devoted to the earth but as the novel progresses this healthy concern for his own and his family’s stability becomes a drive merely to possess more and more land. Hardworking and cautious, he can also be crafty (for instance, he never neglects his aged father but schemes to lead his uncle and aunt into an addition to opium).
Wang Lung is occasionally insensitive, especially in his feelings toward O-lan. He plainly does not pick up on her bitterness toward Lotus and his relationship with the woman. He also does not perceive of her deathly illness until it has completely overtaken her. As Wang Lung grows richer and older, he shows more signs of weakness of character. He beings to give into his sons demands that the family make an elaborate show of their wealth and power and takes a young concubine. In old age he finally becomes powerless again and foolish.
O-lan – Wang Lung’s wife who was originally a slave in the Hwang household. Stocky and coarse featured, O-lan is not considered physically attractive by most. Wang Lung does not value her for her beauty but for her devotion, strength and capacity to work hard. She is more practical and decisive than her husband and does what needs to be done. When the enemy invades the city, she does not hesitate to join the mob that loots the rich man’s house. O-lan is generally silent but capable, on occasion of giving surprisingly sound advice. When Wang Lung is alarmed at the unrest in the city, O-lan suggests that they wait patiently for rumors of invasion to come true. She does not display feelings, even of emotional or physical pain. O-lan gives birth to her children alone, without assistance and suffers Wang Lung’s neglect in silence.
As Wang Lung grows wealthy, a distance appears and increases between husband and wife. While he encounters rich merchants in town and goes to a luxurious tea house, O-lan, like a servant, continues to do most of the work of the household. Displaced in her own home by a concubine, O-lan’s last years are bitter. Her dying wish to see her oldest son married represents her final attempt to reassert her rightful position as wife and mother.
Wang Lung’s children – three sons and two daughters. The children in the novel are nameless except for their position in the birth order (“oldest son”, “second son”, etc.) The mentally retarded oldest daughter is affectionately called “poor fool”. The sons do not share their father’s love for the land and do not have much respect for him. Oldest son is concerned only with social status. Second son is interested only in money. However, youngest son, although stubborn and rebellious, offers some hope. After his father takes the woman he loved as a concubine, he leaves home to participate in making China a free and more just country.
Lotus – Wang Lung’s mistress. Lotus begins her part in the story as a prostitute in a tea house but later goes to live in Wang Lung’s household. She is a very shrewd, selfish and manipulative character. When Wang Lung first encounters her, Lotus is delicate, beautiful and seductive. But as time goes on she grows more sure of her hold over him and becomes ill-tempered and demanding. In her old age, Lotus grows fat and lazy. After O-lan’s death, Lotus is the main female presence in the household. This, of course, suggest increasingly moral decadence in Wang Lung’s family.
Cuckoo – first a slave to the Hwang family, then a servant in the tea house where Wang Lung first encounters Lotus, and finally Lotus’ maid and, thus, Wang Lung’s servant, Cuckoo goes through many different phases and specialties in the novel. She becomes something of a confidant to Wang Lung and someone that he often goes to for help with his troubles, sometimes for the worst. It is Cuckoo who helps him bring Lotus into his household as his concubine and she who helps him think up the plan to get his uncle and aunt addicted to opium. Cuckoo represents somewhat of a devil on Wang Lung’s shoulder and as a link between the old ways of the Hwang household and the newer ways of Wang Lung’s household she is also meant to represent the corruption in both.