In the first part of the novel, Wang Lung pays two separate visits to the House of Hwang. How are these visits different? How do they illuminate the novel’s major themes?
In The Good Earth, Wang Lung’s two early visits to the House of Hwang demonstrate Buck’s interest in the social implications of material wealth. When poor, Wang Lung is abused by the Hwangs, but when rich, he is honored and admired. Similarly, throughout the novel, money confers a host of social benefits on Buck’s characters: the right to extra attention from salespeople, the right to pretentious titles and honorifics, and the right to treat others as if they are not fully human. By contrast, poor people throughout The Good Earth must suffer not only the burdens of frugality but also a sense of diminished status in the eyes of their neighbors. The differences between Wang Lung’s trips to the House of Hwang thus introduce Buck’s idea that money is not merely a means of acquiring objects: It is a ticket to power and deferential treatment routinely denied to the poor.
By emphasizing the contrast between Wang Lung’s two interactions with Hwang’s staff, Buck shows that wealth brings the intangible benefits of widespread fear and respect. When Wang Lung is poor, he has no authority over Hwang’s gateman, who sneers at his provisions, mocks his marital aspirations, and robs him of a silver coin. He makes no offer to seat and entertain Wang Lung while he awaits Hwang and his family. On the other hand, during Wang Lung’s second visit, Wang Lung’s obvious wealth and opulent clothes earn him a great deal of deference from the same gateman. The gateman does not demand a silver coin from Wang Lung (who could now easily afford the toll), and he makes the startling offer to serve Wang Lung in his own chambers. Because Wang Lung is rich, he commits the bold act of refusing the gateman’s tea, a gesture he would never have considered while poor. Wang Lung’s money therefore represents something more than financial clout—it is an excuse to be rude to others and an invitation for awe and kindness from people who would not give a second thought to the poor.
Likewise, many of Buck’s wealthy characters emphasize the notion that money has a social dimension, a way of guaranteeing politeness and superior service in a wide range of settings. Shopping for his newborn son, Wang Lung watches as the salesman’s eyes drift toward a customer who is better-dressed, and Buck implies that the new customer will receive more attention simply because he is richer. The Old Mistress enjoys more than a sense of greater prosperity in Wang Lung’s presence, for her prosperity allows her to criticize Wang Lung’s choice of wife, ignore Wang Lung, and ramble tediously about her own future without fear of repercussions. Dressed well, Wang Lung is mistaken for a teacher instead of a lowly farmer and is therefore greeted with respect by an almsman on the street. Again and again, Buck shows that money means more than buying power.
By contrast, Buck’s impoverished characters demonstrate that a lack of money is also a lack of status. Though attractive and talented in the kitchen, O-lan is called an ugly woman and a poor cook, because she does not have the money that would guarantee her a basic amount of respect. During the widespread drought, the peasants cannot ask one another, “How are you doing?” but only “How am I doing?” for there seems to be no reason to show kindness to a person when he is not wealthy and well established. The friends of Wang Lung’s uncle, who try to buy Wang Lung’s land, feel free to mock and swindle their interlocutor because he is poor and therefore powerless. Repeatedly, Buck shows that poverty infects her characters’ souls, for it is both a loss of material comfort and a loss of the self-worth and social status that make life bearable.
The two different visits to the Hwang household thus alert us to Buck’s interest in the intangible benefits of wealth. Throughout the novel, she will revisit her idea that class difference is more than a matter of economics. The prosperous Wang Lung who takes a courtesan toward the end of his life is infinitely more comfortable and arrogant than the timid, starving Wang Lung who eats dirt during the draught. In Buck’s eyes, wealth enacts a transformation that goes far beyond an increase in material possessions, reshaping the very personalities of its owners.