The Good Earth Summary

Pearl S. Buck

The Good Earth

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The Good Earth Summary

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Pearl S. Buck’s novel The Good Earth examines issues of traditional Chinese culture, feminism and slavery through the life of peasant farmer Wang Lung. The novel begins the day of Lung’s wedding to a former slave of the notable and wealthy Hwang family.  Buck’s exploration of classism is depicted in Lung’s impression of his own impoverished state when he travels to the Hwang household to collect his bride. Despite her comely appearance and demeanor, O-Lan is a strong woman who immediately assumes her role in the household, helping her new husband in the rice fields and tending to various household duties.

O-Lan eventually gives birth to a son, an event that pleases Wang given the patriarchal society in which they live.  And with the support of O-Lan in the fields, the harvest provides enough money to eventually purchase a small parcel of the Hwang family’s land. News of Wang’s wealth spreads quickly and eventually captures the attention of his uncle who persists in asking him for money.  In this sense, Wang is confined to the tradition of honoring one’s elders, and so helping his uncle becomes a matter of obligation more so than pity.

A season of perpetual bad luck follows the young family after the birth of their third, child – a daughter.  A bad harvest compels them to travel south in search of food, and Wang’s greedy, unscrupulous uncle threatens to drain the family of their hard earned riches.  The unfortunate events however, are driven by Wang’s desire to obtain more land and wealth as much as the environmental and societal difficulties he is forced to overcome. He refuses to sell the land he has acquired in order to feed his family, and sits idle as a desperate O-Lan strangles their fourth child to prevent her from dying of starvation.  Their fortune changes after an act of thievery affords them enough money to return to the farm, repair their house, and eventually buy more land from the struggling Hwangs.

The years of prosperity they enjoy as a result of their hard work and plentiful harvest are once again followed by natural disasters that lead to more famine. This time Wang’s undoing is not due to the shortage of food or money, but an idle restlessness that finds him drawn to the arms of a prostitute named Lotus.  Lotus is everything O-Lan is not: beautiful, as well as cunningly manipulative.  As a result, Wang’s disposition toward his wife and children sour. He becomes cruel and exhausts much of his fortune to build the courtesan a courtyard on his land where she can live as his concubine.  Tensions mount within the family as Lotus luxuriates in costly attire and delicacies using the money Wang and O-Lan have worked tirelessly to accumulate.  Yet, discord between Lotus and Wang’s children causes his affection for her to wane.  He once again turns to farming the land, his fixation with love no longer the driving force it once was.

It is at this point in the novel that Buck’s narrative begins to shift.  Wang’s struggles are not longer solely external. The once singular goal of cultivating his land and acquiring wealth has been further complicated by familial and societal concerns. O-Lan’s health begins to fail. Wang’s kindnesses toward her during her illness fall short of compensating for the despicable manner in which he treats her while his affections were primarily focused on Lotus.  O-Lan eventually succumbs to her illness, and Wang’s father also dies in short order. Indicative of the highs and lows Wang has experienced all his life; these losses are followed by the birth of grandchildren, which ensures his legacy will endure.

As the story concludes, Wang’s fate comes full circle. He has amassed enough wealth to purchase the estate owned by the Hwangs and is able to rent much of his farmland to tenants.  He feels a sense of pride at the idea of claiming the land of the family who once intimidated him long ago. Yet, the contentment and peace he sought all his life still eludes him. The dissention within his family worsens.  The children bicker among themselves and refuse to follow in their father’s footsteps by becoming farmers. His passion for Lotus, far from the beautiful girl that captivated him in his youth, is all but nonexistent. Once again, he tries to find comfort in another consort.

Financial stability has afforded him only temporary satisfaction while his social interactions are superficial and unfulfilling.  The simplicity of struggling to turn the land into a profitable enterprise has vanished. His eagerness to provide for family by working the good earth where his father had once toiled had instead become an insatiable pursuit of wealth. In the end, his avarice inevitably caused more problems than it solved.  And as his health deteriorates, he must once again contend with familial discord as he overhears his sons plotting to sell the land the moment he dies.

In The Good Earth, Buck draws a stark parallel between the earth and the family whose life long task it is to cultivate it.  She illustrates the more robust aspects of Chinese culture deeply rooted in family, hard work and the overwhelming poverty that is a very real part of life as a farmer. More importantly, Buck’s narrative is a cautionary tale of the often-irreparable effect greed and self-centeredness can have not only on the immediate family, but also on the generations that come after.