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The protagonist of the novel is Wang Lung, who dearly loves the good earth. Wang Lung rises from a simple peasant, who fears the house of Hwang, to a wealthy landowner, who buys the Hwang's house for himself. Although various calamities fall on Wang Lung, his ties with the earth sustain him.
The antagonist in the play is the composite of Wang's many difficulties, which he must face one by one and overcome. One of Wang's main problems is his poverty. He wants to rise above his position as a small, unimportant farmer and he diligently works, saves, and invests to make this happen. Wang's Uncle is another problem for Wang. This uncle is a lazy, idle, and evil-minded person who has no qualms in sponging off his relatives. Though Wang helps his uncle during the famine, it is the uncle who instigates the villagers into plundering Wang's house. Even later, when Wang becomes prosperous, the uncle stays with his family and continues to create trouble.
The climax in the novel occurs when Wang becomes a wealthy landowner. No longer does he fear poverty or starvation; his family can live for years without needing to till the land. He has, in fact, taken the place of the Old Lord of the House of Hwang by buying and living in that house.
The story ends in comedy for Wang, for he succeeds in overcoming his difficulties in life and is a wealthy and respected landowner at the end of the book. His success, however, is bittersweet, for his children have abandoned Chinese customs and have no ties to or respect for the good earth that Wang so dearly loves.
On a symbolic level, the protagonist can be viewed as the old, traditional Chinese way of life, as symbolized in Wang Lung. The antagonist is the more modern way of life that ignores Chinese customs and traditions, as symbolized in Wang's sons. On the symbolic level, the story ends in tragedy, which causes the bittersweet ending for Wang.
Ancient Chinese tradition is abandoned for a more modern and convenient lifestyle. His sons have dismissed many of the old Chinese ways and deserted the good earth. His well-bred wife drives the eldest son to a life of opulence and extravagance. His second son, though practical, even considers selling the family land to make a profit. His third son, on whom Wang places his highest hopes, leaves the house to join the revolution. Thus, Wang sees no traces of the respect and love that he has had for his land in his sons. This outcome is probably an expected one, considering the changing times and values in the country; the old has to give way to the new, not just in China, but in life.