The protagonist of The Good Earth, Wang Lung begins the novel as a poor, simple young farmer forced to marry a slave, and ends it as a wealthy patriarch with enough money and influence to own concubines. Though he gains a fortune, Wang partially loses his connection to the earth, his simple piety, and his ability to participate in the old traditions that have given his life meaning. His success is, therefore, a mixed blessing.
Throughout the novel, Wang’s character is essentially defined by two contrasting and even contradictory traits. The first trait is his love of the land, which enables his piety, his good sense, his frugality, his work ethic, and his love of family. The second trait is his desire for wealth and status. Though Wang’s love of the land keeps his heart pure for much of the novel, his acquisitiveness and desire for status eventually sullies his character and darkens his actions. Though in the end Wang’s moral sense causes him to repent his separation from the land, he never quite loses his tendency to desire wealth and status, and he passes on this tendency to his sons. Consequently, in his old age, he is doomed to watch them repeat the mistakes of the Hwangs and sever their connection from the land that created their fortune.
In many ways the strongest and most memorable character in The Good Earth, O-lan exemplifies the situation of women in traditional China and the sacrifices they had to make in order to adhere to cultural notions of feminine respectability. O-lan spends her life working for an endeavor for which she never sees a reward: she gives all her effort and applies all her considerable capability to improving Wang Lung’s position, and she receives neither loyalty nor passion from him in return. He is annoyed when she becomes pregnant with her second child, fearing that her condition will keep her from working in the fields, and later he has no qualms about cruelly insulting her unbound feet and taking her treasured pearls to give to his concubine. O-lan spends much of the novel in the position of victim, but she gains a great deal of dignity in the reader’s eyes by stolidly and uncomplainingly enduring her husband’s behavior. It is O-lan who makes many of the hardest decisions in the novel—smothering her infant daughter to spare food for the family, for instance—and she bears these hard decisions with admirable fortitude.
Because O-lan is so reticent, silence being a quality that is highly valued in wives in Wang Lung’s culture, Buck uses means other than speech to indicate the extent of O-lan’s inner pain. For instance, on her wedding night, O-lan unconsciously flinches away from Wang Lung, which suggests that she has been abused as a slave in the House of Hwang. O-lan never complains about Wang Lung’s cruelty in insulting her feet—but she does immediately begin binding her daughter’s feet, warning her daughter not to complain of the pain for fear of angering Wang Lung. We see the extent of O-lan’s bravery when she makes no complaint for years and years about the grave illness that swells her belly. O-lan represents the dignity and courage of the marginalized wife.
Wang Lung’s oldest son is in many ways similar to Wang Lung himself. The primary difference is that Wang Lung was raised in poverty, and his son is raised in luxury. Like Wang Lung, the oldest son is focused and ambitious—but whereas Wang Lung only desires to obtain wealth and respectability, his son desires to become a great scholar and live a life of splendor. Wang Lung and his son both show outward signs of respecting their elders, but while Wang Lung truly believes in the custom of filial piety, his son merely pays it lip service, not truly caring about the needs of the older generation. This difference in their respect for elders is an example of the general difference between Wang Lung and his son: Wang Lung retains his connection to tradition even while craving wealth and advancement, whereas his son has no interest in what he considers quaint and outmoded ethical ideas, and feels free to live only for himself.