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The main character in the story is Wang Lung, a hard working, but poor, farmer. At the age of marriage, and being of low class, Wang Lung, and his father decide that it is best that he marry a slave, who would be less expensive than other possibilities. Also, if it were to be a slave than it was less likely to being a pretty wife, and they did not want their woman to be pretty.
To have a pretty wife would mean that she would have to be kept beautiful and pretty which was expensive, and they were not rich. Wang Lung needed a wife of low maintenance, who would be willing and able to help work the land. Also, a wife who was pretty would be more likely to be looked at and desired by other men and less likely to be a virgin still.
The most important thing in Wang Lung’s life is his land. To him, the land is everything; his work, his food, his standing in society, his sustenance. It is, essentially, his life force. His understanding is that as long as he has land, he has enough, and to live without it would seem impossible.
It is said that every seven or eight years the gods feel the need to punish the people, and they do so sometimes by flooding the precious land. This can be a life threatening occurrence depending on how long the flood stays. The floods take over all of the fields, killing most or even all of the crops. Without their crops to harvest, people starve, and many die.
One of the first floods that takes place during the novel is not as bad as some. It kills much of the crops, but they are able to survive on what they have stored and what they are able to purchase. Many in the nearby village are not as lucky, and many starved to death.
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Another flood that occurred was not as kind to Wang Lung’s family. Though their home was safely built on hill, they were left with almost no food, and the money supply dwindling. This forced them to leave their homes before they, too, starved to death. They went south, as many people did, in hopes if nothing else of making it through the winter.
The city was a hard place to live as well. They were forced to make their home out of boards that basically only gave them a roof to keep the rain off of them. Having no land to harvest and to feed them, they are forced to bring in money in other ways. O-lan, Wang Lung’s wife, would spend each day begging for money from those more fortunate. Wang Lung found himself a job as a riksha puller. A riksha is a carriage for a human, which is pulled by other humans. It is similar to a taxi service, except more degrading for the one pulling is treated like an animal.
Between the two sources of income they still made barely enough to survive each day. They were fortunate that in this city there was a place similar to a soup kitchen that served food to the poor. They received only a small bowl a rice, very cheaply, but any food, no matter how little, is better than nothing at all. The rich people of the city were the ones who funded this rice kitchen. They did so in hopes of people looking on them better for being generous and giving to the poor. It was also just another way of showing the people how wealthy they were in that they were able to spend so much money.
The floods were not the only travesty that the people had to suffer through. One day there was a strange cloud far off in the distance, and the people knew what it must be. It was locusts; hungry, starving and unforgiving locusts. Though the people did what they could to save any of their crops, most were lost once the cloud of locust was there. Some of the poor even ate the dead locusts that remained since the locusts had eaten their entire crop.
All through the devastation they suffered, life was increasing hard due to the rising number of mouths in the home. To have a boy was much more fortunate than to have a girl. If one was to have a girl, then from the day she was born she would only be thought of as a slave born only to serve the men.
Wang Lung had much fortune that his first two children were boys. After the birth of the first, he bought eggs and painted them red to hand out around town, as was tradition with the birth of boys. However, the second birth was less momentous and he did not bother to waste the precious money.
Wang Lung was struck with bad luck when the third child was a girl, and a mentally challenged girl at that. Many would simply put the girl to death, to save her from a lifetime of horrible treatment, but Wang Lung was a caring man and chose to keep her. All through her life he called her the “Poor Fool” and he was the only one who truly cared for her at all. Buck had included the existence of this child as a tribute to her own daughter who had been born mentally challenged.
In times such as the flood when they were not as fortunate, decisions like that were more difficult. When O-lan gave birth to another girl during their time of hardship, she simply suffocated the girl to save her from starving to death later. Infanticide was a common occurrence and Buck witnessed some of this during her stay in China. Just as Wang Lung had, she once even had to save a deceased baby girl from a hungry dog.
However, their lives were not all misery. Most cities had families that were more well-off than most. There was one such family in the city where they stayed. No one ever saw within the walls of the great house, but it was well known that the family must have been very rich.
Wang Lung occasionally heard people talk of the revolution that was going on throughout the country, but not being an educated man, he felt it did not concern him. Then one day the army went rampaging through the city taking some men and killing many others. On this day they also broke into the great house of the rich family.
Many people, like those who were more involved in the revolution followed the army into the house. Wang Lung and O-lan did, though, like many, more to see what was there than get involved. O-lan, who had once lived in a great house like that before marrying Wang Lung, also knew places where great families hid money. She left the house with great handfuls of gems and stones worth more money than she or Wang Lung had ever known.
The new found money brought more to their family than they could have ever imagined. The most important fortune brought to Wang Lung was more land. In order to work the increasing amount of land, he needed more workers as well. In little time, Wang Lung and his family became seen as one of the great families, and Wang Lung was one of the highly respected and influential men in the town.
As their family grew they built more onto their house and eventually needed to move someplace even larger. Then, Wang Lung bought the house formerly known as the house of Hwang, where another prestigious family had once lived, as well as where O-lan had spent many years as a slave. This move marked Wang Lung and his family as one of the truly high families of the town, and people often borrowed and rented from Wang Lung, which was a high honor.
Once they were rich, then there was no need for Wang Lung or his sons to work the land any longer. Wang Lung saw that his sons could live a better life than he had and he sent them to school. He himself had never learned to read or write and he was filled with pride that his own sons would soon be able to. This also meant that Wang Lung would be treated better in the market because his sons would be able to read things to him.
When Wang Lung’s daughters had come of age, he married them as soon as he could and they were no longer part of his family, but rather given to the husbands’ family. However, when the sons were each old enough, wondrous feasts were thrown in their honor.
This excerpt from chapter 26 shows how they prepared a woman for marriage:
“They dressed her in garments she had brought from her home; white flowered silk next to her sweet virgin flesh then a light coat of sheet’s wool of the finest and most curling kind, then the red satin garments of marriage. And then they rubbed lime upon her forehead and with a string tied skillfully they pulled out her hairs of virginity, the fringe above her brow and they made her forehead high and smooth and square for her new estate. They then painted her with powder and with red paint, and with a brush they drew out in two long slender lines her eyebrows and they set upon her head the bride’s crown and the beaded veil…and thus they prepared her for marriage.”
During this time in China, life was not easy for any who lived there. Everyone’s lives could change quickly and nothing was certain. The people worked for everything and to stay alive each day. The Good Earth is a wonderful novel and essential to understanding of what life was like for many in China during the time of the revolution.