The Good Earth
Summary: Chapter 17
Wang Lung buys more livestock and builds new rooms for his house. He purchases Ching’s land and invites him to live with the family and work for them. The land is so extensive that Wang Lung must hire more laborers, and he puts the trustworthy Ching in charge of them. O-lan gives birth to twins, a boy and a girl. Because he has enough money to care for more children, Wang Lung is delighted at the birth of the twins. Wang Lung’s first daughter does not talk or do those things normal for a child her age, and Wang Lung realizes she is retarded. He is relieved that he never sold her, because she would have been killed once her owners learned of her disability. He becomes more attached to the little girl because of his guilt over almost selling her, and he takes her to the fields with him.
Wang Lung enjoys a number of good harvests and stores enough food and money to tide the family over in bad years. He lives a life of success. He builds a new house. Ashamed of his own illiteracy, Wang decides to send his oldest son to school. The second son, who is always quick to complain, whines that he wants to go to school too, and Wang Lung agrees. At school, the boys are called Nung En and Nung Wen. Nung means “one whose wealth is from the earth.”
Summary: Chapter 18
When a flood prevents Wang Lung from planting his fields, he finds himself idle and restless. His laborers take care of everything that needs to be done. One day, he looks at O-lan as if for the first time and finds her a “dull and common” creature, not fit to be the wife of a wealthy landowner. Although he knows he is hurting her and wants to stop, he cruelly criticizes her appearance, especially her large, unbound feet. O-lan does not get angry, but looks scared and hides her feet. Wang Lung’s guilt about what he has done makes him angrier, especially when he recalls that he would have none of his new wealth if O-lan had not stolen the jewels and given them to him when asked.
He goes to the old tea shop, which used to impress him. Now, however, it looks cheap in his newly wealthy eyes and makes him impatient. A little nervously, he goes to the extravagant new tea shop. The opulent surroundings astonish him, especially the pictures of beautiful women on the walls, which he assumes are “women in dreams.” After spending day after day there, he discovers that Cuckoo, the beautiful woman who worked as a slave in the Hwang house with O-lan, works there. A masterful businesswoman, she teases him for only drinking tea in the teahouse instead of enjoying wine or women. Cuckoo tells him that the pictures on the wall are of real women, and that he can have any woman he chooses. Wang decides he prefers a beautiful young girl painted holding a lotus flower, but he leaves the tea shop without telling Cuckoo of his decision.
Summary: Chapter 19
O-lan returned to the beating of his clothes and when tears dropped slowly and heavily from her eyes she did not put up her hand to wipe them away.
Wang returns to the tea house unsure of what he will do. When Cuckoo sees him approaching, however, she says scornfully, “Ah, it is only the farmer!” Stung, Wang Lung angrily shows her a handful of silver. She quickly takes him upstairs to Lotus. When he sees the beautiful young girl, with her tiny hands and “apricot eyes,” he becomes mesmerized by her. He admits to her that he is a sexual novice, and she must teach him everything. After their first encounter, he returns to her every day, never able to satiate his thirst for her. His interest in Lotus changes Wang Lung completely. Lotus thinks Wang Lung’s ponytail is old-fashioned, so he cuts it off, much to O-lan’s dismay. He loses interest in farming. He buys new clothing, takes a special interest in his appearance, and spends money extravagantly. Eventually, although what he is doing makes him sick, he demands O-lan’s two pearls, planning to give them to Lotus.
Analysis: Chapters 17–19
Buck had a severely retarded daughter, so her portrait of Wang Lung’s affection for his retarded child was likely influenced by her own feelings for her daughter. We do not learn the exact reason for Wang Lung’s daughter’s retardation, though Wang Lung wonders if the severe malnutrition she suffered as a baby caused it. Wang Lung’s fierce attachment to his daughter is unusual: a retarded daughter is a lifelong burden because she will not marry and cannot contribute economically to her own family.
Throughout this section, the increasingly wealthy, increasingly decadent Wang Lung begins to resemble the Hwangs as they were at the zenith of their wealth. This transformation has been foreshadowed by Wang’s obvious desire for material success and by his admiration of the trappings of wealth, such as women with bound feet. At last he achieves his goal of accumulating a great fortune: his wealth equals what the Hwangs’ once was. But in becoming wealthy, he begins to fall prey to the same decadent practices that eventually destroyed the Hwangs. His wealth creates as many problems as it solves, but Buck does not seem to imply that wealth alone causes these problems. Rather, it is the idleness and moral decay that often comes with wealth that is at the root of Wang Lung’s difficulties.
As long as Wang Lung maintained an intimate relationship with the land, he continued to live his life according to sound moral principles. However, when made idle by the flood, he starts to contemplate his image and his social status. He looks at O-lan as a possession and finds her unworthy of a rich man. He realizes he is rich in the first place only because of the help that O-lan has given him, both with her jewels and with her constant work and support. Even this realization, however, does not stop him from becoming enamored with possessions and another woman.
Lotus symbolizes Wang Lung’s shift from revering principles like hard work and frugality to revering sensual pleasures. Lotus is described entirely in terms of physical objects: her nails are the “color of lotus buds,” her laughter is like a “silver bell,” and her hand is “like a fragile dry leaf.” For Wang Lung, she is not a true person but “the painted picture of a woman.” Lotus’s sensual, one-dimensional existence contrasts with O-lan, who is depicted as fully human. Buck writes not of O-lan’s likeness to physical objects but of her inner qualities: kindness, selflessness, loyalty, and determination. The women’s feet provide a miniature summation of their differences. Lotus’s bound feet, like Lotus herself, serve a purely decorative function, whereas O-lan’s unbound feet allow her to work for her family.
Buck emphasizes the healing power of the earth in Wang Lung’s life by connecting his downfall to a time when he is kept from working the land. She hints that Wang will be able to restore his good sense by giving himself back to the earth. The fact that the first word of his sons’ names at school means “one whose wealth comes from the land” suggests that Wang Lung should recall that he owes his good fortune to the land.
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