The Good Earth
Summary: Chapter 2
There was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods.
The morning after his wedding night, Wang Lung suddenly wonders whether his new wife likes him. When she brings him a bowl of tea, a luxury for a poor farmer, he rejoices that she seems to feel kindly toward him. Wang Lung settles into married life with contentment and pleasure. O-lan proves to be resourceful and hardworking. She keeps his small house immaculate and mends all of the family’s clothing. She rarely speaks, however, and Wang Lung wonders at the fear and sadness in her eyes. When their home is in order, O-lan begins working in the fields with Wang Lung. Soon after their marriage, O-lan announces that she is pregnant. Though Wang Lung tries to accept the news calmly, he is filled with a deep inner joy.
Summary: Chapter 3
O-lan refuses to have anyone attend her during her labor and specifically bans anyone from the House of Hwang. She explains that she does not want to see anyone from the Hwang family until she can introduce her son to the Old Mistress. She plans to dress herself and her baby well for the occasion. She tells her husband exactly what she and the baby will wear to the Hwang house and what they will do there. Wang Lung is amazed that O-lan has already imagined their child so clearly. Wang Lung, his father, and O-lan are delighted when O-lan gives birth and the baby is a boy.
Summary: Chapter 4
Wang Lung purchases a pound of red sugar for his wife and new son. In addition, he purchases fifty eggs and dyes them red, a sign for all to see that his new child is a boy. Finally, he buys four sticks of incense to burn in honor of the earth god.
Soon after the child’s birth, O-lan returns to working in the fields, stopping when necessary to nurse her child. The harvest is extra-ordinarily good. Wang Lung has such bounty that he can store some until midwinter, knowing that in the winter, people will pay high prices for grain. On the one-month anniversary of the child’s birth, Wang Lung holds a celebration and gives out his red boiled eggs. This celebration is a small extravagance, but Wang Lung and O-lan are generally frugal people. O-lan makes the family’s shoes and repairs damaged items instead of purchasing new ones. The couple hides the silver they have begun to accumulate in a hole in the wall.
Analysis: Chapters 2–4
Buck draws parallels between the rise and fall of families and the cycles of the natural world—the harvest’s beginning and end is compared to birth and death. She suggests that just as the seasons change, great families come and go, and fortunes rise and fall. Wang Lung’s family, which works hard and loves the land, is entering its springtime, while the Hwang family, which is materialistic and extravagant, is entering its autumn, and nothing is unchangeable but the earth itself.
The idea that all human life begins and ends in the unchanging earth is the bedrock of the novel, as well as the source of its title. The novel repeatedly insists that the land deserves respect and that those who do not accord it this respect will eventually fall on hard times.
Buck’s portrayal of Chinese culture remains objective and understated in tone throughout these chapters. In traditional Chinese culture, the silence of women was highly valued, and O-lan, a conscientious woman, is almost always silent. But even though we learn almost nothing about O-lan’s character from her speech, we learn a great deal about her through her actions. She shows her pleasure with Wang Lung by bringing him hot tea in the morning. She shows her great pride in her home by taking care to make it look the best it can; she cleans and mends household items before joining Wang Lung in the fields. Her actions establish her as extraordinarily capable, hardworking, and resourceful. Buck hints at dark episodes in O-lan’s past, as evidenced by O-lan’s unexplained refusal to allow anyone from the House of Hwang attend her during her labor.
Buck’s characterization of O-lan demonstrates the importance that Chinese culture ascribed to women’s labor. O-lan’s labor is crucially important to Wang Lung, for with her help, he is able to produce a huge harvest and lay the foundations for future success. O-lan’s skill at laboring makes Wang Lung’s initial disappointment by her unbound feet seem foolish, since O-lan would not be able to work in the fields with the tiny, painful feet produced by foot-binding. Wang Lung initially desired a wife with bound feet to prove that he had enough money to support a wife whose feet prevented her from working. Of course, without a wife capable of laboring, he never would have gained the wealth this status symbol was supposed to represent. Buck shows that Wang Lung, despite his love of the land, has a dangerous weakness for the trappings of wealth.
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