The Good Earth is an epic depiction of agricultural life during the last half-century of the Manchu or Ch’ing dynasty (1644-1911) in China. The Chinese man of the soil is embodied in the character of Wang Lung. Wang Lung brings the slave O-lan to his earthen house where he cares for his aged father and from which he farms his land. After O-lan bears him two sons and a mentally retarded daughter, the region is devastated by drought and famine, and Wang Lung takes his father, children, and wife many miles south to a city, where they become street beggars while Wang Lung earns what he can as a rickshaw runner. O-lan will give birth later to a second girl and, after leaving the city, to twins, a boy and a girl.
In this first part of the novel, the customs of prerevolutionary China are detailed as part of the story. Filial respect, not only for the father but also for the father’s brothers, is absolute. Wang Lung must obey his father’s wishes, even though the old man is immobile and losing his memory and good sense. In addition, Wang Lung must take his shiftless uncle, along with the uncle’s wife and son, into his household as dependents. The uncle imposes upon his nephew’s charity with impunity: Wang Lung learns that his home is spared the ravages of bandit gangs only because his uncle is a member of a particularly vicious gang.
While there is something of merit in the tradition of filial piety, little can be found in favor of the concurrent status of women. In all but very wealthy families, “girl” is synonymous with “slave.” Girls and women are bought and sold as wives, concubines, and servants. A woman achieves status only by bearing one or more sons. Infant girls may be put to death for the sake of convenience. O-lan herself strangles at birth her second girl during the height of the famine when there is no possibility of adequate nursing or care. Another measure of status of women is the size of their feet. The feet of girls in wealthy or solvent families are bound from birth to maturity in order to create small, delicate feet. O-lan, a slave who is physically unattractive in other respects, becomes repulsive to Wang Lung at one point because of her large feet. He had not been bothered by their size during the famine and after the family returns to the land and makes a success of the farm. With the worst of these hardships behind them, however, Wang Lung sees things differently and purchases Lotus, a delicately featured concubine with tiny feet.
The acquisition of Lotus marks Wang Lung’s achievement of wealth and prestige. It is in this second part of the novel that Wang Lung’s sons begin to assert themselves as individuals and to part from the tradition of patriarchy that had been sacred to Wang Lung. Meanwhile, O-lan, having given her entire life to her husband and having been responsible in no small degree for his success, dies in the agony of cancer and without the love of her husband.
The conclusion of the novel passes stylistically from simple narrative to an approximation of biblical lyric, cadenced and polysyndetonic—for example, “Then Wang Lung was humbled and anxious and he was submissive and he was sorry and he said . . . ” The formalism of the language is in accord with Wang Lung’s function as a representative of prerevolutionary China. The world passes away from him as none of his sons commits himself to farming: His youngest son leaves to become a soldier, and his first and second sons are determined to sell his land.