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This simple, hard-working Chinese farmer is the central figure in The Good Earth. This is his story, and it is told largely through his eyes. Some readers feel that he is not just a Chinese peasant but a universal one, an example of people who have tilled the earth throughout the ages.
You may not agree with the description of Wang Lung as the universal farmer, if this seems to make him no more than a symbol. To be sure, people have lived and toiled like Wang in many lands, whether in Asia or Africa, Europe of the Middle Ages or colonial America. Many, in fact, still do. But you can also say that Wang Lung is not just a representative peasant but an individual human being who is warm, believable, and sympathetic. As a human he also has his flaws.
Some readers point out that Wang is quick to anger and often acts on impulse. He cares too much about public opinion and what people will think of him, so he often gives in to situations too easily. Many times his wife O-lan provides him with strength and decisiveness. One example of his softness during a critical situation is his inability to kill the ox that has shared his hours of toil, even though his children are starving.
But Wang's tender heart also has a positive side. He can be as tender with people as he is with animals. He cannot bear to sell his daughter during the famine, although Chinese fathers have followed such a custom for centuries. He is reluctant to give the weeping slave girl, Pear Blossom, to his brutal soldier cousin who terrifies her. His affection for his honest neighbor Ching is so deep that he is ready to bury the man in the family plot and is stopped only by his sons' outraged protests.
You may feel that Wang's greatest failure is his treatment of his wife O-lan. Wang himself realizes this on occasion, and he is ashamed. Yet Wang has genuine moments of tenderness toward O-lan. When he brings her home for the first time, he takes her heavy box and carries it himself, an unusual act for a Chinese husband. After their wedding night he is anxious to know whether she is as pleased with him as he is with her. And several times, when she shows herself to be wise as well as strong and capable, he takes pride in her and congratulates himself on having such a woman, although it never occurs to him to tell her so.
In taking O-lan for granted, Wang may exhibit a common human flaw. But isn't his treatment of his wife also related to the inferior status of women in Chinese tradition? Wang acquires a wife in the first place not by his own choice but by his father's. Her most important function is to bear him sons. The taking of a concubine or second wife for pleasure was an accepted practice. Is he obliged to love O-lan or be loyal to her? There's no simple explanation of this relationship, and readers differ in their opinions about it.
Other traditions govern Wang Lung's behavior. One you will find to be significant is the ancient rule of respect for elders and relatives. Besides causing his concern for the community's favorable opinion, this rule obliges Wang to accept his uncle and the uncle's family even though they are freeloaders who take all they can from him.
Wang has his own strict ideas of right and wrong. When he and his family become refugees in the southern city, he refuses to beg. Instead he pulls a riksha, a two-wheeled cart, even though he takes in less money at this gruelling work than O-lan and the children with their begging. When his second son steals a piece of meat, Wang plucks it out of the stew, throws it on the ground, and later beats the boy in punishment.
Wang is human, so don't be surprised to find him inconsistent. Given the chance and pressed by poverty, he extorts money from the frightened rich man by threatening the man's life, and he accepts the jewels that O-lan has stolen in the same raid. But he feels no guilt about this illicit wealth because he uses it to save his land and buy more. The land is his anchor, and away from it he loses direction.
You may feel there is another inconsistency in the simple farmer-his weakness for female beauty. Although he knows that bound feet, traditional objects of beauty, would be of no value to a poor farmer, he is disappointed that O-lan has big feet. (Women with bound feet-feet kept small and reshaped by binding at a young age-find it very painful to walk long distances or to carry heavy loads.) He also notes her plain face with some distaste. This longing for feminine beauty makes Wang a too-willing victim of the practiced wiles of Lotus Flower. Yet again, you may want to ask how much of this is Wang's personal failure and how much that of his culture.
As he grows older, Wang longs for peace in his house. But his sons argue, his daughters-in-law bicker, and he finds peace only on his land. His passion for the land overrides all other emotions. The land is his livelihood, his security, and the source from which he draws spiritual refreshment. In the face of starvation he will not sell a single field. The last words we hear from him as an old man are his appeal to his sons, "If you will sell the land, it is the end."
Some readers have found O-lan the most appealing character in the novel. She reveals very little about herself in words, but you will find out a good deal about her thoughts and feelings from her actions. She was sold by her poor parents to the great Hwang household at the age of ten, during a famine. Too plain to be desirable as a concubine, she was a good worker and so was kept as a kitchen slave. When she is twenty years old, tall, and strongly built she is sold to be Wang Lung's wife.
Note her behavior in her new role as wife. She cooks the wedding feast, but she declines to show herself to Wang's male guests: she is modest and knows the proprieties. She is quick and thorough in performing her household duties, so that she has time to do more than is expected of her. She works beside Wang at hoeing and planting, and yet has his meal on the table when he comes in from his work.
What does this say about O-lan? Perhaps she is happier now than she has ever been since her childhood. You might say that she has achieved what she never dared hope for in her years as a kitchen slave. She is mistress of her own household. She has a husband who does not beat her or order her about but is on the whole gentle and considerate in the small, everyday ways that sweeten life.
O-lan does not express her happiness in words. But it may be revealed in her pride in her household, the care she takes to mend and repair Wang's meager possessions, her diligence, and her thrift. Could you interpret this as evidence that O-lan sees herself as sharing in a joint enterprise with her husband, not as a slave wife but as a coworker? Might this explain why she persists in working in the fields throughout her pregnancy, right up to the onset of her labor pains, and then returns to the fields again with scarcely any rest after giving birth? Possibly you feel O-lan is sometimes extreme in her stoicism and doesn't do enough to make her life easier.
Although she is slow in her speech, O-lan is not slow-witted. She's alert to everything that is going on around her. She recognizes the first signs of decline in the House of Hwang and sets Wang on his land-buying course. Her resourcefulness is largely responsible for the family's surviving the famine, from the sale of the furniture that provides money to take them south, to the hoard of jewels that she steals in the city.
When Wang brings Lotus into the house, O-lan knows she has no choice by tradition but to outwardly accept her husband's concubine. She breaks her stoic silence, though, to reveal her depth of feeling when she responds to a rebuke from Wang, "To that one you gave my two pearls."
O-lan's illness begins after the birth of twins, but she still goes about her work without complaint until even Wang realizes how ill she is. Through the long winter he sits beside her as she waits for death. When he exclaims that he would sell all his land if it would heal her, she answers that she would not let him, since she must die anyway, "but the land is there after me."