The Good Earth Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 of Hwang. He allows O-lan to keep two small pearls that she likes. Wang Lung now has more land than one man can handle, and he hires one of his neighbors, Ching, as overseer. Several years later, he has six men working for him. O-lan bears him twins, a boy and a girl, after their return from the south. She no longer goes out into the fields to work but keeps the new house he has built. Wang Lung’s two oldest sons are sent to school in the town.

When his land is flooded and work is impossible until the water recedes, Wang Lung begins to go regularly to a tea shop in town. There he falls in love with Lotus Blossom and brings her home to his farm to be his concubine. O-lan will have nothing to do with the girl, and Wang Lung is forced to set up a separate establishment for Lotus in order to keep the peace.

When he finds that his oldest son visits Lotus often while he is away, Wang Lung arranges to have the boy marry the daughter of Liu, a grain merchant in the town. The wedding takes place shortly before O-lan, still in the prime of life, dies of a chronic stomach illness. To cement the bond between himself and Liu, Wang Lung apprentices his second son to the grain merchant, and his youngest daughter is betrothed to Liu’s young son. Soon after O-lan’s death, Wang Lung’s father dies, and they are buried near each other on a hill.

When Wang Lung grows wealthy, an uncle, his wife, and his shiftless son come to live with him. One year, there is a great flood, but although his neighbors’ houses are pillaged by robbers during the confusion, Wang Lung is not bothered. Then he learns that his uncle is second to the chief of the robbers. From that time on, he has to give way to his uncle’s family, who are his insurance against robbery and possibly murder.

One day, Wang Lung succeeds in coaxing his uncle and aunt to smoke opium, and they become too involved in their dreams to bother him. He does not succeed, however, in curbing their son. When the boy begins to annoy the wife of his oldest son, Wang Lung rents the deserted house of Hwang and moves to town with his immediate family. The cousin leaves to join the soldiers, and the uncle and aunt are left in the country with their pipes to console them.

After Wang Lung’s overseer dies, he does no more farming himself. From that time on, he rents his land, hoping that his youngest son will work it after his death. When Wang Lung takes a slave young enough to be his granddaughter, however, the boy, who is in love with the girl, runs away from home and becomes a soldier.

When he feels that his death is near, Wang Lung goes back to live on his land, taking with him only his slave, young Pear Blossom, his feebleminded first daughter, and some servants. One day, as he accompanies his sons across the fields, he overhears them planning what they will do with their inheritance, with the money they will get from selling their father’s property. Wang Lung cries out, protesting that they must never sell the land because only from it could they be sure of earning a living. He does not notice them looking at each other over his head and smiling.

The Good Earth Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

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; to him wives are for bearing sons, which O-Lan did, and concubines are for love. His sons, now old enough to understand how well-off the family is, urge their father to let them go to school and later to move the family into town so that they and their families can enjoy the lifestyle to which they are entitled.

Perhaps the most deplorable thing Wang Lung does in his fall from humility into arrogance and selfishness is to take two small pearls O-Lan saved from jewels she looted from a house in the southern city. She hoped one day to have the pearls made into earrings for herself. Wang Lung takes them from her to give to Lotus, effectively relegating O-Lan, mother of his sons, to the subservience she endured before marrying him.

Wang Lung shows cowardice and mean-spiritedness in at least one other situation. His father’s indigent brother and family move in with Wang Lung once they realize that Wang Lung can support them. They are disruptive and demanding, and Wang Lung wants them gone. When he tries to oust them, his uncle reveals his affiliation with a fierce robber band which terrorizes the countryside, though never assaulting the Wang household. Aware of the danger if he makes the uncle leave, Wang Lung, showing callous craftiness, concocts the idea of getting the uncle and his wife addicted to opium. He is happy to pay for the opium because keeping them in a drugged state guarantees his peace and quiet.

Wang Lung’s educated sons show him how a man of means should dress and comport himself, so differently from how he dressed and acted when he was a struggling young farmer. Even he is surprised sometimes at how he has changed—and not for the better—over the years. Even so, he retains some virtues: he shows a tender devotion to his retarded daughter, his “poor fool.” O-Lan had always cared for the girl, but after O-Lan dies, Wang Lung realizes no one else, not the sons surely, will care for the girl, so he is always sure she is fed and sheltered. One wonders if his devotion is altruistic or whether he simply finds an otherwise elusive peace in her undemanding company.

Wang Lung’s sense of morality, though weakened over the years, does not die completely. When he takes a second concubine, this time the young slave girl Pear Blossom, even younger than any of his children, he is quickly disgusted with himself and regrets what he has done. He offers to give up the girl, but she chooses to stay with him, and their relationship assumes a father-daughter dynamic. The admirable quality Wang Lung retains throughout the story is his abiding regard for the land, for the “good earth,” which he believes gives his family all that it is and has. He tries to persuade his sons to hold onto the land because of its spiritually nurturing value to the family.

A parallel can be seen between the rise of the Wang family and the decline of the House of Hwang. The rich Hwang family had owned the great house in the town near Wang Lung’s farm. O-Lan, in her youth, had been one of the slaves there. As the Wang family grew in size, wealth, and prestige, the Hwang family declined. Its sons left the region, some going to live abroad. The family wealth was dissipated through luxurious living and apparently very little productive work. As Wang Lung acquired more land, the Hwangs sold off more of theirs. By the end of the novel, the sons of Wang Lung have also moved away from the land of their father. Being more town-bred than peasant-bred in their outlook, they see the farm only as a source of money once sold. Though they tell their father they will never sell the land, it is clear to the reader that they will repeat the mistakes that led to the decline of the House of Hwang. The good earth of Wang Lung’s farm sustained him and his family and brought them prosperity. Divesting themselves of it promises to bring the family to grief.

The Good Earth Summary

Chapters 1–3
As The Good Earth begins, Wang Lung, a poor farmer in north central China, is preparing to get...

(The entire section is 3031 words.)