The novel opens on the young Wang Lung’s wedding day. His father had purchased a bride for him from the rich House of Hwang. She was a slave (for the farmer was poor), and not pretty (for his father said that a pretty women is no good for a farmer, she’ll always be wanting clothes and jewels), but not pock-marked or split lipped, either. Wang Lung goes to the House of Hwang, receives his bride amid much ridicule by the butler, purchases a few simple ingredients for the wedding feast. They are married, and though O-lan, his wife, is initially afraid of him, they grow to deeply appreciate one another. O-lan is a superb cook, having learned cooking as a servant to the Hwangs, and she is a diligent worker. She makes clothes, cooks, cleans, and helps out in the field. And Wang Lung decides that, while she is plain, she is more lovely than he suspected. He and O-lan are frugal, selling crops during the winter when the price is high, and saving money. Their home is filled with drying spices, pork, chickens, the scent of food, and two young boys running around.

O-lan has a child, giving birth to a son. She and Wang Lung show him to the Ancient Mistress of the House of Hwang, as she had promised on her wedding day. And it happens that O-lan discovers that the House of Hwang is having money difficulties, such that they are selling a small piece of fertile land near the town moat (easily watered). Wang Lung begins to aspire to be like the House of Hwang, and since land is wealth, he buys their land. Word eventually spreads that Wang Lung is rich enough to buy land from the Hwangs, and his lazy uncle comes to extort money from him by asserting the necessity of filial piety in helping one’s family.

Despite his occasional prayers to the gods of his field, that next year is a drought. It is so severe that no crops can be harvested, and people begin to starve. Wang Lung and his family even eat corn cobs, and when that runs out, kill their ox. Wang Lung has more than most people, and the villagers plunder his house in their hunger, stealing his stache of silver, and all the remaining food. His neighbor, Ching, has the pity to at least give back a handful of beans so that O-lan can suck on them, for she gave birth to a daughter, and would die without food. His uncle comes to purchase his land from him at ridiculously low prices, and Wang Lung refuses. He and his family sell their furniture and go south on the fire-wagon to seek food.

They arrive in a large city (probably Shanghai or Guanzhou) and beg for food. Wang Lung cannot stomach begging and feels like it is more honorable to work for a living. But the only work available is pulling a rickshaw, but the cost of renting the rickshaw is about equal to his fares, and there is barely enough money for his family to buy a bowl of rice at the poorhouse; they can save nothing. While he is working, he meets his first foreigner, and is terrified of their white skin and protuding noses. He also encounters communists and Christians giving out paper tracts. He cannot read, so he gives the paper to O-lan to make shoes. O-lan has experienced famine like this, for she was sold into slavery by her family in such a year (they even refer to their daughter as “the slave”). Wang Lung refuses to sell his daughter, for it would not be right, but he is brought almost to the point of doing so in his despair at providing for his family, were it not for the conquest of the city that happens.

The city had been being beseiged. Soldiers had shanghaied people like Wang Lung, who had avoided capture and then began pulling heavy loads at night for half the wages. Rich people moved their possessions out of the city. And the old beggar, who knew what rich people lived behind the walls their huts were built against, said to Wang Lung, “when the rich are too rich there is a way. And when the poor are too poor, there is a way.” Wang Lung did not understand, and even when the city fell, and the beggars stormed the gates of the rich people, taking everything they could get their hands on, he still could not bring himself to take what was not his. However, he happened into a room alone, and there was a fat rich man who had emerged from hiding. The fat man was terrified that Wang Lung would kill him, and practically gave him his gold in fear as he fled.

Wang Lung packed his family up and returned north. He bought and ox from a farmer on the way, some seed, and some furniture. He repaired his house (which was ruined by the local bandits who had camped out there) and began plowing. He also gave some seed to Ching, who was destitute, and plowed his field, in thanks for the beans he had returned. Wang Lung loved the land dearly, and was deeply content to be once again plowing the good earth and bringing crops from it.

One night he was astonished to discover that O-lan had a packet of jewels between her breasts. Since she had lived in the house of the wealthy, she knew that the wealthy kept a secret brick to hide valuables when the poor rushed the house, so she had known the meaning of the loose brick she saw in the looting of the rich house. And in most elegant dialog we see a glimer that, though O-lan is plain and not beautiful, and quiet and spiritless, though she is diligent, hard-worked, frugal, and faithful, yet deep within her, the feminine desire to be beautiful still glimmers, faintly. Wang Lung does not understand, and though he gives her the two small pearls she requests, he is unable to understand what happened. So he exchanges the jewels for land of the Hwangs, who have fallen on hard times, having been plundered by the robbers during the winter, and in great need of money.

Wang Lung now grew much richer, with the fertile land of the Hwangs. He hired Ching, who was ever faithful and honest, to help him, and soon to oversee other laborers. He enlarged his house so that Ching’s family could live near the fields. O-lan gave birth two twins, although the daughter of the family never was able to do more than stare outside and twirl a piece of cloth in her hands. And he sent his eldest son to learn to read and write so that he could conduct busines for him, since Wang Lung could not read the contracts or even write his name. His younger son he taught to farm, but the son hated it, and was glad when he was allowed to go to school as well.

One year there was too much rain and the fields were flooded for a long time. Wang Lung was idle, and idleness eventually led him to the house of prostitutes in town. He was smitten with a beautiful one, and began to see faithful O-lan as ugly, for she had none of the characteristics of beauty that the culture appreciated. So he took Lotus for a second wife. This cost him a lot of money, because he made a special wing of the house for her, and had to provide expensive things for her, and had to provide for her shrewd and people-smart caretaker. O-lan was neglected and was deeply wounded, although she never understood that, nor did Wang Lung observe it. Wang Lung even took her two pearls and gave them to Lotus Blossom. Some time afterwards, O-lan died of cancer.

His wealth increased, and soon his uncle came to extort more money, revealing why Wang Lung had never been robbed, even though many others had been: his uncle was a member of the robbers. Wang Lung was terrified, and so his lazy uncle and his lazy family came to live with him, proving to be troublesome. Wang Lung was eventually able to get rid of the troublemaking sons, and secured peace for himself by getting his uncle and his wife addicted to opium.

His eldest son became a merchant in town, the other son spent too much time in Lotus Blossom’s quarters and was thrown from the house, eventually becoming a revolutionary. The eldest son became ashamed that the family, though rich, still lived in a house on the fields and convinced his father to rent out the Hwang’s abandoned house. So now Wang Lung had become his aspiration: from a poor farmer, he became the wealthy House of Lung, even living like them. Wang Lung’s daughters, for instance, demanded large expenses for clothes and things, much like the Hwangs before him. As Wang Lung became old, eventually he took as a concubine Lotus’s servant (similar to the Old Man Hwang before him). And since he could no longer farm the land, Ching supervised everything and he was removed from the land he loved, and, as he well knew, from the source of his wealth. Eventually he was gathered to his fathers, and he charged his two sons not to sell the land, for he saw what happened when the Hwangs sold the source of their wealth. Yet, the House of Lung seems destined to a similar fate, as the sons agree with a wink to each other; their wealth is elsewhere, and they think they have no need of land.

This is a superbly written book, simple and elegant, revealing a deep understanding of human nature and of Chinese cultural thought. Buck was a daughter of missionaries to China, and the book has a Biblical feel to it. Like many of the earlier Old Testament narratives, Buck does not explicitly pass judgement on what happens, but expects that the reader’s will perceive the rightness or wrongness of Wang Lung’s actions. Yet, like the Old Testament, there is a subtle undertone that hints at her opinions, which lies in the selection of events and the subtle way of wording of the narrative. Likewise, the plot arc has a Biblical epic and lesson to it: Wang Lung aspires to wealth and becomes it, but at the expense of some of the same decadence of the Hwangs (the Ancient Mistress was addicted to opium, which drained the finances, and Wang Lung addicts his uncle. The Hwang’s children produce an immense drain on finances; his do to. The Old Master had excessive concubines; Wang Lung is more restrained but still breaks his wife’s heart). And even though he sought security in wealth, his family will be just as impermanent since, like the Hwangs, his sons do not recognize that wealth comes from the land.

The writing is some of the most elegantly insightful that I have ever read. Buck is able to succinctly describe Wang Lung’s thoughts in a way that describes every man, yet without the pedantic plodding that, say, sci-fi writers do. A few examples will do more justice than many of my words. The first is when Wang Lung takes the jewels:

  He wrapped the stones in the rag again as he spoke and tied then hard together with string, and opening his coat to thrust them into his bosom, by chance he saw the woman’s face. She was sitting cross-legged upon the bed at its foot and her heavy face that never spoke of anything was moved with dim yearning of open lips and face thrust forward. ...
  “I wish I could keep two for myself,” she said with such helpless wistfulness, as of one expecting nothing, that he was moved as he might be by one of his children longing for a toy or for a sweet.
  “Well, now!” he cried in amazement.
  “If I could have two,” she went on humbly, “only two small ones—two small white pearls even...”
  “Pearls!” he repeated, agape.
  “I would keep them—I would not wear them,” she said, “only keep them.” And she dropped her eyes and fell to twisting a bit of the bedding where a thread was loosened, and she waited patiently as one who scarcely expects an answer.
  Then Wang Lung, without comprehending it, looked for an instant into the heart of this dull and faithful creature, who had labored all her life at some task at which she won no reward and who in the great house had seen others wearing jewels which she never even felt in her hand once.
  “I could hold them in my hand sometimes,” she added, as if she thought to herself.
And he was moved by something he did not understand and he pulled the jewels from his bosom and unwrapped them and handed them to her in silence, and she searched among the glittering colors, her hard brown hand turning over the stones delicately and lingeringly until she found the two white pearls, and these she took, and tying up the others again, she gave them back to him. Then she took the pearls and she tore a bit of the corner of her coat away and wrapped them and hid them between her breasts and was comforted.

And after O-lan is angry with him for bringing Lotus Blossom’s servant, who was more important than O-lan at the Hwangs:

Wang Lung watched her as she went and he was glad to be alone, but still he was ashamed and he was still angry that he was ashamed and he said to himself and he muttered the words aloud and restlessly, as though he quarreled with someone, ...

The plot is equally well done, as it provides the opportunity to display almost the entire range of human emotions and temptations, yet in a way that is also able to describe the life of the traditional Chinese townspeople, slaves, beggars, men, woman, rich and poor. Some themes in particular are woven into the plot. The overarching theme is how wealth does not solve anything; perhaps the fact the Wang Lung’s wealth really came by chance, not by his hard work, is part of the theme as well—money may happen to you, but it may not. A very strong second theme is how men relate to women. Women are consistently viewed as slaves by the culture, yet beautiful women are spoiled. On the one hand, a wife that shares your values is a great joy—Wang Lung and O-lan had a great marriage for many years because of this, and he counted himself fortunate—yet on the other hand, beauty is important in a wife, too., and Wang Lung is treats Lotus well for the rest of his life. And although O-lan has been so mistreated that she views herself as worthless, even so, she retains the desire for beauty. When Wang Lung takes Lotus as his wife, the reader is struck by the terrible injustice to O-lan, who has been a lowly helpmate and partner, and is now betrayed by her husband. A third, not quite theme, is how the characters relate to each other. Neither Wang Lung nor O-lan have any understanding of who they are emotionally and so their actions are often reacting to feelings. Wang Lung seems to take the easy approach to conflict—get rid of it. So he just pays money so that Lotus Blossom can be pampered, instead of dealing with her self-centeredness. Similarly with his sons.

The Good Earth is in many ways a heart-breaking book, as the characters go through many painful hardships, an increasing number of them preventable as the book progresses. I was struck by the confusion that the characters have because they do not have an awareness of sin: the fundamental tendency to act self-centeredly often at the expense of others. Nor do they seem to have any hope; the best hope is money, but even that turns out to not work. Yet, the reader is drawn to love the characters deeply. We suffer with them as you read of the famine, and we are glad when prosperity comes to Wang Lung.

It is also an insightful window onto traditional Chinese culture. The parents of my Chinese-American friends make more sense now. When they insist on their children planting fruit trees in the backyard, it is because they value the land. The land is the source of prosperity, and a backyard should not be wasted: grow fruit. We, on the other hand, see the grocery store as the place to get fruit, so it often does not occur to us to plant fruit trees in our yard.

I highly recommend his book. It is one of the greatest pieces of fiction that I have read and is a simply beautiful and elegantly written portrait of traditional Chinese values and people.
Review: 10
Wang Lung Simple farmer. He loves the land, and sees the land as the source of wealth. He aspires to wealth
O-lan Wang Lung’s wife. She is fairly dull-witted, and not beautiful. She views herself as worthless, but faithfully serves Wang Lung.
Lotus Pretty prostitute whom Wang Lung marries. She is extremely self-centered, and becomes a bitter old woman.
Cuckoo Originally a servant of the Huangs and has managed to continue the favorite concubine of the Old Master with her understanding of how to manipulate human nature. Becomes Lotus’ servant. Is hated and resented by O-lan.
Wang Lung’s father Has very traditional values. Is somewhat senile through much of the book, and has to be served hot water instead of tea, even though they are wealthy enough, because he views tea as an expensive luxury. Is alert enough to recognize that Lotus is a prostitute and loudly proclaims it.
Ching Wang Lung’s neighbor. He is a good and honest man, grateful for Wang’s generosity to his family. Is an excellent manager for Wang.
House of Hwang The decadent rich family. The Ancient Mistress is addicted to opium, the Old Master has a bunch of concubines, the manager helps himself to the money, and the butler has to be bribed to let people in.