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The other characters in The Good Earth are not as fully developed as Wang Lung and O-lan. They are often types that reflect various aspects of Chinese society. But they also contribute to the progress of the story, and each one reveals some facet of Wang Lung's personality and of the picture of life in China. Some of these characters have no names but are identified only by their relationship to Wang Lung. In Chinese families, one is usually identified by a relationship rather than a proper name.
WANG LUNG'S FATHER
This once hard-working farmer is a frail old man who demands the care and respect that are due him in his old age. He complains when his comfort is not properly attended to, and he scolds Wang Lung for spending money to celebrate his wedding or the birth of a son. At the same time he is proud that his son can make such a fine show before the neighbors. As the story of Wang progresses, you will notice certain traits shared by father and son. What are they? How do the men differ?
The old man has absolute faith that his son and grandsons will take care of him, and he endures the hardships of the famine with good nature. He has an earthy sense of humor. When O-lan gives birth to twins, for example, he exclaims, "An egg with a double yolk this time!" He is also capable of simple loyalty to the past. When he sees Lotus, the concubine, painted and dressed in silks, he refuses to accept her, insisting that one wife was enough for him and for his father before him. Wang's father illustrates the old-fashioned virtues and especially the virtue of deference to one's parents and ancestors.
WANG LUNG'S UNCLE
Unlike Wang's father and Wang himself, this younger brother of the old man is a shiftless farmer who is careless of his house and land and lets his children run wild in the town. He exploits the traditional obligation toward blood relatives to prey upon Wang. During the famine he sells his eldest daughter and his younger children disappear without explanation. He and his wife and son continue to be well-fed and are even suspected of cannibalism. A gambler at the beginning of the story, he later turns out to have criminal connections. He seems to represent the disintegration of life and family that follows breaking with the land. If you agree that he is the nastiest character in the book, do you think Wang Lung should have dealt with him differently, given Chinese family obligations?
THE UNCLE'S WIFE
This fat, self-indulgent woman takes full advantage of her husband's hold over Wang Lung. She demands delicacies of food and drink, and she does no work in the household. But neither does she do any real mischief. On the contrary, she is useful to Wang in arranging the purchase of Lotus. Her gossipy good humor pleases Lotus, but their closeness bothers Wang.
THE UNCLE'S SON
As a youthful scamp, he has a bad influence in Wang's house. He has no respect for family or tradition and introduces Wang's eldest son to drinking and seeing prostitutes. He also tries to seduce Wang's younger daughter before going off to fight in the local civil warfare. He returns when Wang is rich and has moved into the Great House. Although he has become a coarse and brutal ruffian, he has some of the sinister charm of an adventurer. He leaves one of Wang's household slaves pregnant as he goes off, laughing and without a care. An echo of his influence comes later, when Wang's third son storms out of the house to follow in his soldier cousin's footsteps.
WANG LUNG'S ELDEST SON
When Wang Lung begins to prosper, he gives his first-born son an education and arranges his marriage to a girl of the middle class, the daughter of a grain merchant. Unlike Wang, the son grows up contemptuous of the land. While his father wants only to be a wealthy farmer, this son aspires to go beyond the family's farm origins and live in the style of the young lords of the House of Hwang. He is the one who persuades Wang to move into the mansion in the town, which he furnishes and decorates in aristocratic style. In Wang's old age you see this son already plotting with his brother to divide and sell the land. Some readers see in this son a symbol of the old Chinese aristocracy with all its pompousness.
WANG LUNG'S SECOND SON
To Wang's distress, this son is also unwilling to work in the fields but demands an education like his brother. He is quick and shrewd, and he progresses from an apprenticeship in the grain merchant's business to becoming Wang's steward over the growing estate. In contrast to his elder brother, he loves money not for what it can buy but for itself. He wants a wife who will not ask for expensive luxuries like his brother's, and he stints even on his wedding feast. His tight control of their father's money irks his elder brother, so that these two have a running feud. They agree, however, on the project of selling the land after their father's death. You might see in this son another facet of traditional Chinese society, the landless merchant class that made its money by squeezing the poor.