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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
In the first chapter, the reader is introduced to Wang Lung, who lives with his father in a small three-room house. It is the day of Wang's marriage. He wakes up feeling different because he and his father will now have a woman in the house to do the chores, cook their food, and clean for them. Wang wishes to be prepared for this special day, so he uses up a lot of water to wash his whole body, much to his father's consternation. He then goes out to a barber, shaves himself, buys some pork and meat, and finally, with much trepidation, reaches the gates of the House of Hwang, from where he is going to purchase a slave to become his wife. The old lady of the house, whom he meets, sends for the woman, his wife-to-be. Wang Lung covertly looks her over and is satisfied that she is not pockmarked and does not have a cleft lip. In fact, she is a clean, tall, square, plainly dressed woman, with an even-tempered voice. He is disappointed that her feet are not bound, but he lets that be.
Wang Lung leaves, with his intended wife walking behind him. He feels proud and happy to have her. At home, there is not a formal marriage ceremony. They exchange rings and earrings and burn incense before the god and goddess of the earth. Then O-Lan immediately enters the kitchen and prepares a hearty meal for the guests, who have been invited to come for a celebration later in the evening. Wang Lung is pleased with her culinary abilities, but does not praise her efforts. That night, Wang is anxious to consummate the marriage; he feels exultation as her body lies against his. But then Wang reminds himself that O-Lan is "only a woman."
The first chapter gives an insight into the simplistic life Wang Lung and his father lead. Their house contains only three rooms, and they use water sparingly. Wang is a simple farmer who tills the earth without much thought. He does, however, think about a wife and is impatient to have one; but when she arrives, he displays no show of affection for her, for to do so would be against Chinese custom. In fact, the woman in Chinese culture is given far less importance than she deserves. She is often bought and sold as a slave. When out in society, she knows she must follow behind a man and can speak only when spoken to. She accepts her role as a cook and housekeeper without complaint. Such a role is the accepted norm for women in China.
Through Chinese history, a woman's feet were painfully tied up with cloth from childhood in order to make the feet remain small and delicate. The result of this cruel procedure was a supposed pair of beautiful feet that did not allow the woman to stand for a long time or walk for a long distance. Obviously, with bound feet, the woman was forced to stay close to home. When Wang sees his wife for the first time, he is pleased that she is tall, square, and not disfigured. He is, however, disappointed that his wife's feet are not bound. Ironically, it is only because O-Lan's feet are not bound that she is able to work in the fields with her husband and help in bringing prosperity to the family.
It is important to notice the first stark contrast between the House of Wang and the House of Hwang. The Wangs are poor, simple, and frugal, in contrast to the Hwangs, who live in decadent opulence. The Hwangs look down upon the Wangs because of their poverty. When Wang goes to get his wife from the House of Hwang, he is treated casually, as if he were totally unimportant. There is irony in this treatment, for later in the book Wang Lung becomes owner of this opulent dwelling and all the Hwang property.
It is also important to notice that this opening chapter of the book begins to develop the main theme of the novel. Wang's deep reverence for the earth is immediately revealed and will be developed throughout the book. His house is made of earth, and the religious figurines to which he prays are also made of earth. Wang is also seen thinking about his field and how it needs rain in order to provide food. Wang, in essence, takes his food, his shelter, and his religion out of the good earth.