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Wang reaps a good harvest of rice, and with the silver from its sale he buys another piece of land from the nearly destitute House of Hwang. But with the spring comes one of the region's periodic droughts. Wang's pond dries up, his crops fail, and even the rice lands that he cares for laboriously do not yield a crop.
Meanwhile O-lan becomes pregnant again so that her milk dries and she is unable to feed her baby girl. With the food stores gone, the ox must be killed to feed the family. Wang can't bring himself to slaughter the animal that has shared his work for so long, so O-lan performs the dread task. Were you surprised at O-lan's strength? What do you already know about Wang and O-lan's characters that prepared you for this incident?
As expected, Wang's uncle comes begging for food. The first time, Wang gives him a handful of beans and corn. The second time, he does not dare to share what little is left to feed his own family. The uncle spreads word in the village that his nephew has food and refuses to share. Stirred up, the neighbors raid Wang's house and take his last small store of beans and corn. They are about to take his furniture when O-lan intervenes. "You still have your furniture," she says, "Leave us ours."
Now Wang Lung comforts himself. If he still had the silver or had bought food with it, the neighbors would have taken it all. Instead he bought land, and they couldn't take that from him. Here again the value of land is superior to mere money. The author seems to excuse Wang's neighbors for raiding his house and stealing his little store of food. Of them she writes, "They are not bad people, except when they are starving." Can you see a justification for the breakdown of law and morality in a time of disaster?
You have frequently read in the newspapers and seen on television accounts of drought and starvation in Africa and India. Today prosperous nations contribute to the relief of the starving. When The Good Earth takes place, however, the outside world hardly heard of the periodic famines in China. In that vast country a drought might strike one region while others had plentiful rain and good harvests. Once during Pearl Buck's childhood, starving refugees from the north poured into Chinkiang, the site of her parents' mission. Buck's mother protested angrily that there was plenty of food in other parts of China and asked why they couldn't feed their own hungry people. The lack of a strong central government and provincial selfishness provided at least part of the answer.
All the animals in the village have been eaten, even the stray dogs. Wang's neighbor Ching says that in the village people are eating human flesh. Wang decides that his family will migrate south. O-lan says to wait only a day and she will have given birth. Ching brings a handful of dried beans to help O-lan through her childbirth. Wang saves a few beans to feed his starving baby daughter.
O-lan gives birth, alone as before, and the newborn, a girl, is dead. Wang sees from bruises on the infant that O-lan has strangled the baby because she can't feed it. Wang takes the body out to bury, but he is too weak to dig a grave in the dry, hardened earth.
Were you shocked by O-lan's action in killing her baby? Would you have counseled her otherwise? Pearl Buck saw the effects of famine during her childhood in China. She must also have known of the practice of female infanticide among poor women. A baby girl was considered worthless, only another mouth to feed or at best a slave you could sell later on.
Infanticide, the killing of newborn babies, has been known in many parts of the world in both ancient and modern times. In some cultures it was an accepted custom and not against the law. The Romans, as well as the Spartans of ancient Greece, put unwanted infants in the wilderness to die of exposure or be killed by wild animals.
Wang's uncle brings two strange men who offer to buy Wang's land for a fraction of its worth. Wang sees his second son crawling, too weak to stand, and is tempted, but then bursts into tears of weakness and anger and refuses. O-lan backs him up. They will not sell the land, but they will sell the furniture. She accepts the two pieces of silver the men pay her, scarcely the price of one bed. Now, she says, it is time to go.
Wang's uncle appears well fed. His three youngest children have disappeared; he does not say where. The implication is that the uncle and his wife, like others in the village, have taken to cannibalism. The uncle shows no shame, except that he remains out of sight while the two speculators put his own elder brother, Wang's father, on the floor and take the old man's bed.