Your Guide to The Good Earth: Character Journey
After five years, Wang Lung has increased his lands and laborers so that he does little farming himself. Now a merchant of sorts, selling his harvests in the village, he is ashamed that he cannot read or even write his own name. He initially decides to send only his eldest son, now 12 years old, to school, but is quickly persuaded otherwise. Still challenging his authority, Wang Lung's second son, "a wordy, noisy lad from the moment he spoke at all, always ready to cry out that his share was less than that of others," whines, "It is not fair that my brother can sit at leisure in a seat and learn something and I must work like a hind, who am your own son as well as he!" (p. 162)
Wang Lung agrees, saying, "If Heaven in its evil take one of you, there will be the other one with knowledge to do the business for me." (p. 162) So Wang Lung takes his sons from the fields and deposits them at school, his heart fit to burst with pride. The boys, especially Elder son, do well in school and are given something more than an education—they are given names. Nung En and Nung Wen respectfully, where Nung means "one whose wealth is from the earth." (p. 164) Wang Lung is proud his land has given his sons this education and he fully expects them to in turn use their education to tend to the land, never realizing that he has put them on the path to becoming sons just like Old Lord Hwang's.
Wang Lung also fails to be a strong role model for his boys when it comes to matters of love. While Nung En and Nung Wen are away at school, Wang Lung becomes idle and falls in love with Lotus, a "tea house" prostitute who he eventually brings home. He keeps Lotus separate from the family, ashamed to have more than one woman when his father did not, but feeling entitled to have her. Just when Wang Lung restores the balance in his own life between his women and his work, he notices his eldest son is moody and irritable. Eventually, his second son tattles that his brother has been ditching school. Perplexed at his behavior, Wang Lung beats him and is shocked that his moody son stoically bears the pain without crying. Only O-lan suspects the real root of her adolescent son's turmoil. "I have seen this thing come upon the young lords in the courts of the great house, and it when it came the Old Lord found slaves for them if they had not found any for themselves. You worked on the land. But he is like a young lord and he is idle in this house." (p. 219) Although he is pleased that his son is like the son of a lord, a scholar, and not a laborer, Wang Lung cannot bring himself to buy his son a slave nor can he bear the thought of his son going to a rich man's house to beg for a slave, as he had. He sets out to deliver yet another gift to his eldest son—a proper wife to suit his new status.
For Wang Lung, a son is an heir to his land and name. For his father, a grandson means a little body to warm his old bones and provide him with a home and food in his old age. For O-lan, bearing a son secures if not elevates her social status, and she can depend on her sons to support her—particularly if her husband were to take a second wife.
Are the sons merely a means to their elders' comfortable ends? Will they embrace the land before it's too late? Keep reading to see what kind of men they turn out to be!