Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Wang Lung’s father chooses for his son’s bride a slave girl from the house of Hwang, a girl who will keep the house clean, prepare the food, and not waste her time thinking about clothes. In the morning, Wang Lung leads her out through the gate of the big house, and they stop at a temple and burn incense. That is their marriage. O-lan is a good wife. She thriftily gathers twigs and wood so they will not have to buy fuel. She mends Wang Lung’s and his father’s winter clothes and scours the house. She works in the fields beside her husband, even on the day she bears their first son.
The harvest is a good one that year. Wang Lung has a handful of silver dollars from the sale of his wheat and rice. He and O-lan buy new coats for themselves and new clothes for the baby. Together with their child, they go to pay their respects to the Hwangs, where O-lan had once been a slave. With some of the silver dollars, Wang Lung buys a small field of rich land from the Hwangs.
The second child is born a year later, and again it is a year of good harvest. Wang Lung’s third baby is a girl. On the day of her birth, crows fly about the house, mocking Wang Lung with their cries. The farmer does not rejoice when his little daughter is born, for poor farmers rear their daughters only to serve the rich. The crows are an evil omen, for the child is born feebleminded.
That summer is dry, and for months no rain falls. The harvest is poor. After the little rice and wheat has been eaten and the ox killed for food, there is nothing for the poor peasants to do but die or go south to find work and food in a province of plenty. Wang Lung sells the furniture for a few pieces of silver, and after O-lan has given birth to their fourth child, which is dead with bruises on its neck when he sees it for the first time, the family begins their journey. They are lucky to fall in with a crowd of refugees who lead them to a railroad. With the money Wang Lung received for his furniture, they travel on a train to their new home.
In the city, they construct a hut of mats against a wall, and while O-lan and the two older children beg, Wang Lung pulls a ricksha. In that way, they spend the winter, each day earning enough to buy rice for the next day. One day, there is to be a battle in the town between the soldiers and an approaching enemy. When the wealthy people in the town flee, the poor break into their houses. By threatening one fat fellow who has been left behind, Wang Lung obtains enough money to take his family home.
O-lan soon repairs the damage to their house caused by the weather during their absence; then, with jewels O-lan had plundered during the looting in the city, Wang Lung buys more land from the house...
(The entire section is 1120 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Good Earth is Buck’s masterpiece. Even though she wrote more than eighty books after its 1931 publication, it is her best-remembered work. Made up of thirty-four chapters dividing the story into two distinct parts, it tells of four generations of a Chinese family as it grows from poverty to prosperity. The narrative begins when young peasant farmer Wang Lung meets his bride, a slave girl named O-Lan, on the day of their arranged marriage. It ends when Wang Lung is an old man, a father and grandfather, placidly awaiting the end of his days.
The novel, a roman-fleuve, tells the saga of Wang Lung’s family and its changes over the years. It is also an in-depth character study of Wang Lung, revealing the many sides of his personality. When first seen, he is a timid, humble young man on his wedding day with several admirable qualities: He is hard-working, unquestioningly doing the backbreaking work necessary to make his farm productive. He is respectful of his old father and to the gods he believes hold power over his farm’s productivity. He may not love his wife, whom he meets for the first time on their wedding day, but he is as considerate of her as a good husband is expected to be and rarely has a harsh word for her. He even shows appreciation for her uncomplaining labor beside him in the fields, for her presenting him with three sons, and for her subservient kindness to his old father.
Though Wang Lung is illiterate, he is not a stupid man. He understands the value of his land and the importance of increasing his holdings whenever he can. Thus he shows shrewdness, saving money from his harvests and buying land until eventually he is one of the richest men in the region. When others around him sell their crops as soon as they are harvested, he understands the wisdom of holding back until demand is higher and prices are greater. By doing so, he manages to make a profit when others are only subsisting.
Still, when drought hits the region, even his thrifty ways do not prepare him for the famine that strikes everyone in the province. He must pack himself and his family off to a less stricken area in the south. There, in a city, his family begs while he, desiring to work instead of beg, pulls a ricksha. The southern city brings out another side of his character: When a frightened rich man whose home is being looted by rioting peasants thinks Wang Lung is a threat and offers him gold to spare his life, Wang Lung takes the money. He uses it to take his family back to his farm and to purchase additional acreage as well.
His resulting prosperity produces unpleasant qualities in Wang Lung. He spends less time actually working his farm; he hires workers to till his “good earth” and bring about the harvests. Bored and displeased with his plain-looking drudge of wife, he frequents a tea house, where he falls in lust with a young, pretty prostitute named Lotus. He takes her home as his concubine. He has no consideration for O-Lan’s feelings about the arrangement;...
(The entire section is 1233 words.)