Your Guide to The Good Earth: Character Journey
No man is an island—especially in rural China where filial duty and social customs bind every man's life to another's. As Wang Lung's fortune changes, so do the lives of those around him. Although Wang Lung is consumed by thoughts of his own family, prosperity and land, all he has to do is to look in his neighbor Ching's face to see a reflection of his own humanity.
A Circle of Friends
When Wang Lung celebrates his marriage to O-lan, Ching is part of the small circle of men Wang Lung invites to dinner. A small, quiet man, "ever unwilling to speak unless he were compelled to it," Ching is merely a body at the dinner table. (p. 22) Ching exists on the periphery of Wang Lung's life but during the first year of the newlywed's marriage he appears again. This time, Ching has been forced to kill his pig that appeared to be getting sick before its meat became worthless. Because he has been frugal with his money and waited to sell his harvest until winter, Wang Lung is able to buy a leg of pork from Ching. And while others are struggling through the harsh winter, Wang Lung hosts another "feast" to celebrate his first son's month birthday, giving each of his guests ten red boiled eggs. (p. 42) In this sense, it seems everyone benefits from Wang Lung flaunting his good fortune, but they also grow to envy him.
Reaping What You Sow
In envy lie the seeds of jealousy, suspicion and resentment. When the drought ravages the province, Wang Lung's uncle spreads rumors in the village that Wang Lung is hording money and food while they all starve. Driven by desperation, Ching is among the villagers who raid Wang Lung's house. When O-lan shames the men into leaving, Ching lingers behind, weighted by his guilt, yet anxious to hang onto the meager portion of food he's stolen from Wang Lung. A silent understanding passes between the two men. "He would have spoken some good word of shame, for he was an honest man and only his crying child had forced him to do evil. But in his bosom was a handful of beans he had snatched when the store was found and he was fearful lest he must return them if he spoke at all, and so he only looked at Wang Lung with haggard, speechless eyes and he went out." (p. 75) And, according to ancient Chinese belief, when you save a man's life, that man literally owes you his life.
Ching will darken Wang Lung's doorstep once more. Worn away to a shadow with a "death-like head", Ching whisper's through "lips dried and black as earth" that people in the village have resorted to eating human flesh to stay alive—including Wang Lung's uncle and his family. (p. 79) Frightened, Wang Lung decides to leave his land. Desperate to save his family, Wang Lung calls on Ching's guilt to repay his debt. "If you have any food left, for a good heart's sake, give me a handful to save the life of the mother of my sons, and I will forget that I saw you in my house as a robber." (p. 80)
Kharma in the Balance
Ashamed and humbled, Ching confesses that he has saved dried beans so his wife and daughter can die with food in their stomachs. "Some of it I will give to you, and tomorrow go south, if you can. I stay, I and my house. I am older than you and I have no son, and it does not matter whether I live or die." (p. 80) Ching sacrifices his family's last moment of comfort to give Wang Lung's family a morsel of sustenance for their journey.
What fate does The Good Earth hold for Ching? Keep reading—there's more to come!
While Wang Lung grew up with a sense of physically belonging to the land, producing what he needed to survive, his boys come of age in a big city, surrounded by extravagance and begging for a portion of what others have. They crave the cakes they've never tasted, not the pride of a hard day's labor or a bountiful harvest. From their parents toil and tenacity, Elder son and his younger brother will reap the benefits of a life their family never dreamed, but they will lack the moral fiber the land has rooted in their father's heart to guide them.
Toddling on the Earth
While the boys are toddlers, there is a powerful connection between the family, the earth and the gods. After their first son is born, O-lan works alongside Wang Lung in the fields, stopping when necessary to nurse her baby or simply allowing her overabundant breast milk to soak into the soil. Wang Lung lights incense at the temple and his harvest is good. Wang Lung does not welcome or celebrate his second son's birth in the same way, but he still counts himself as fortunate and his harvests are good again. By the time his daughter is born the following year, he is too busy dealing with his uncle and working in the fields to even stop and look at her. As Wang Lung becomes more successful, his appreciation of his family and veneration of his gods waver. And then the gods turn their back on Wang Lung.
The drought and famine that that follow force Wang Lung's family to move rob the growing boys of their earlier connection to something larger than themselves. No longer sun-baked from playing in the fields, the bustling city in Kiangsu becomes their playground. Though there is little doubt in Wang Lung's mind that his children will be farmers, he does little to plant those seeds of tradition in his sons' heads. Caught up in his own desire to feel the earth under his feet again, Wang Lung fails to realize that this world, in a shack against a great wall with stones as pillows, is all his sons know as home. The land means nothing to them.
The School of Hard Knocks
O-lan, however, lives in the here and now and quickly teaches the boys the art of begging to survive in the real world. The eldest son "was more timid than the younger and more ashamed of what he did," but the younger son "grew more adept at petty thieving than at begging." (p. 110) In a telling moment when Wang Lung discovers his second son has stolen pork for dinner, he throws the pork on the ground and declares no one will eat it. O-lan, in her stolid fashion, cleans the pork off, saying, "Meat is meat," and feeds the family with the stolen pork. Wang Lung's son has a fierce sense of pride and ownership, boasting, "I took it, it is mine." (p. 111) Angry and afraid that his sons are turning into little thieves, Wang Lung compromises his own values and takes a rich man's gold during the riots in order to return to the land with his family in tact.
Back in Anhwei, Wang Lung throws himself into rebuilding his fields, tending the gods' temple and practicing a reverence for the earth his sons have never seen. While Wang Lung is content to spend all day in the fields, sleeping in the furrowed earth when he is tired, "he bade his two sons sharply each morning to come into the fields with him… If they could accomplish no great labor, at least they'd know the heat of the sun on their bodies and the weariness of walking back and forth along the furrows." (p. 158) It is possible the boys saw this as punishment, since their father never nurtured their love for the land like he coaxes crops from the soil, but their stint at "hard labor" is short.
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!
A servant. A prostitute. An aunt. Three very different women who play three very different roles in Wang Lung's life, and yet, ultimately, they are all physical reminders of his passionate and troubled relationship with the land.
Cuckoo, the Dream Broker
A chamber slave who takes advantage of her sexual relationship with Old Master Hwang, Cuckoo becomes the gatekeeper to Wang Lung's dreams. During the famine and drought, Hwang's children and staff abandon him so all that is left of the rich man's former life is Cuckoo and his worthless land. In this desperate time, the old social rules break down and Cuckoo isn't confined by traditional female roles. When Wang Lung goes to buy Hwang's property, he is mortified that he must broker the deal through a woman. However, Cuckoo knows she alone can influence Hwang and laughs at Wang Lung's naïveté. She literally holds the keys to Wang Lung's desires.
Later, Wang Lung will be forced to go through her to access desires of a different kind—sexual. After Old Master Hwang dies, Cuckoo moves on to manage the prostitutes at the teahouse and introduces Wang Lung to Lotus Flower. Later, she will act as matchmaker for his children's marriages. And finally, she will be the one to tell Lotus that while she may be Old Mistress Wang by default, she has been replaced.
Lotus Flower, the Erotic Reward
Her small, delicate features—her hands, face and particularly her bound feet—are truly other compared to O-lan's hard, calloused hands, large feet and broad, dull features. Wang Lung never thought a lowly farmer like himself could ever access a woman like Lotus. Now that his land has made him wealthy, he feels entitled to the pleasures of a rich man. At first he is timid as Lotus teaches him the art of lovemaking though he is driven by a limitless lust. Wang Lung lives a double life, sneaking off to the teahouse instead of tending his fields, wracked with guilt. However, like his need to possess land, Wang Lung soon needs to possess Lotus, too. Eventually, Wang Lung realizes that he has enough money to take a second wife.
Since it is "not meet" that he arrange for Lotus to become his concubine, he sends the only woman he can as his emissary—his aunt. Lotus, knowing that her tiny stature and makeup won't conceal her age forever, drives a heavy bargain. She demands jewels, finery, gifts and delicacies, and brings Cuckoo along as her servant. Lotus never bears Wang Lung's children and grows fat like a cat kept for pleasure. Even in her old age, she knows that women hold power over lustful men and, in her own way, grooms the little slave Pear Blossom to awaken Wang Lung's aged passion so she can once again obtain the trinkets her heart desires.
Although she is described as fat and lazy, Uncle's wife is an opportunist. Never one for work herself, Uncle's wife calls on Wang Lung's filial responsibility to share his good fortune with his less fortunate relatives. Having survived during the famine because her husband joins the "red beard" robbers, they quickly insert themselves back into his life when Wang Lung's fortune returns. Wang Lung's own desperation soon puts his fate in his aunt's greedy hands. In exchange for silver, she acts as matchmaker and arranges the deal for Lotus with Cuckoo. Once they are installed in the house, she befriends Lotus and Cuckoo so she can dine on their expensive food and gossip in the inner court away from O-lan. Accustomed to Wang Lung's cowardice and traditional compliance, she demands meat and silver, even when another flood forces Wang Lung to ration food. She is treated as an honored guest when she is most despised.
When Wang Lung finds a willing ally in his oldest son, his Uncle's family's reign of terror quickly comes to an end. He moves his cousin's favorite attraction—the women—to rented rooms in the old Hwang house and his cousin goes off to war. Once the threat of his cousin's retaliation is removed, Wang Lung manipulates his uncle and aunt into smoking opium. Lulled by their drug-induced haze, they waste away in Wang Lung's old house, all but forgotten. After Uncle's death, Wang Lung moves his aunt to the Hwang house to live out her last days under the care of her son's consort. In a strange twist of fate, her proximity to wealth finally gives her what she always wanted—she becomes just like Old Mistress Hwang.
The Pleasure and the Pain
Wang Lung is caught in a Catch 22. Without his profit from the land, Wang Lung wouldn't be able to afford a concubine, servants and a big house, or be obligated to support his extended family. However, because he has the means, he cannot turn away. All he has, his joy and his burden, are a direct result of his relationship with his land and the women in his house are a constant reminder.