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The protagonist of the story is initially projected as a simple farmer who strictly follows Chinese traditions and customs. He loves the good earth that he lives on and has complete faith that whatever happens to him is because of this good earth. His existence initially is very simple, living in an earthen house and working his land. As he acquired much land and established his family as one of the greatest, Wang shows a preference for rich and opulent living.
While Wang Lung always feels that the earth is the only essential factor for his well being, his sons, on the other hand, prefer education and other more modern beliefs. They, one by one, disappoint their father by breaking their ties with the land.
Wang Lung, like other rich Chinese men, doesn't hesitate to have relationships with a variety of women other than his wife. Wang, however, is embarrassed by his lustful acts, for he can never forget his traditional, ingrained values of scorning the degenerate lifestyles of other landowners. When he brings home Lotus Blossom, his first concubine, he is somewhat ashamed of the hurt that it causes O-Lan, his faithful wife. When he makes Pear Blossom his concubine, he is ashamed to admit it to his sons and even to Lotus.
During the course of the novel, Wang Lung moves off of his land and lives in the old House of Hwang. Despite his leisure and his wealth, he never finds peace. At the end of the novel, he again seeks the peace of his land; he returns to live his last days in the earthen house that is part of his good earth, so that he can die a peaceful death.
O-Lan is a multi-faceted character, whose incredible inner strength and resourcefulness is shown through the various roles she plays in the novel. As Wang's bride, she is humble, stoic and portrays a perfect Chinese wife. Being adaptable, she constantly makes the best of any situation. This is amply displayed when she is able to steal and hide a bundle of jewels when the big mansion is raided in Kiangsu. She also shows that she is capable of hard work when she immediately returns to the fields after she delivers her babies. Her husband deplores the fact that her feet were unbound, but it is precisely because of her unbound feet that she is able to work shoulder to shoulder with Wang at the fields and contribute to his prosperity.
O-Lan is an amazing character who shows strength in any situation. She goes about her work silently, taking care of her father-in-law, providing for her husband and children, tolerating the uncle and his family, mending, sewing, cleaning, and performing all the domestic chores; and she never complains. Even when Lotus enters her household to live as the concubine of her husband, she handles it gracefully. When Wang's love for Lotus abates, she graciously accepts her husband back.
Throughout the novel, O-Lan is portrayed as a woman who is unconcerned with physical appearance and extravagant things. Yet, when she discloses her bundle of jewels to Wang, she entreats him to let her keep two pearls, which she considers her treasures. Cruelly, Wang later takes these pearls from her and gives them to Lotus Blossom, the concubine.
Though the novel revolves around Wang Lung, it is O-Lan who is the pillar of strength for her husband and her children. Without her help, hard work, resourcefulness, and silent determination, most of Wang's achievements would never have been accomplished.
Lotus is a typical example of a Chinese concubine at the time of the story. Wang is attracted to her because of her slender body, 'a body light as a bamboo' and her face 'as pointed as a kitten's face'. Wang Lung also appreciates her dainty, bound feet.
Wang Lung meets Lotus at a time in his life when O-Lan's plain, strong body no longer appeals to him. Lotus' appearance and feminine ways are a refreshing change for Wang, so refreshing that he moves Lotus into his earthen house. Once she is settled in the house, with Cuckoo to tend to her needs, she relaxes in the luxury provided by her rich master and eats rich and exotic food. By the end of the novel, she has become a huge, puffed-up woman who has difficulty walking on her dainty bound feet while carrying her great weight. It is no wonder that Wang tires of Lotus Blossom and replaces her with another, younger concubine.
Pear Blossom enters Wang Lung's life as his concubine at a very late stage, but she remains faithful to him until his death. She is too young for Wang Lung, who is already seventy years old when he meets her, but she tells him she prefers older men, for they are gentle. She is the gentle one who makes Wang's last days peaceful and who promises to watch after "poor fool" after Wang's death.
Ching, when first introduced, is a part of the band of people who try to rob Wang Lung during the famine days. He steals food from Wang only out of desperation and is ashamed of himself for his actions. He repays the debt of the stolen food by giving food to Wang when his family needs it the most. When Wang returns to his land after his stay in Kiangsu, he appoints Ching to oversee his good earth, a job that Ching performs faithfully. During Wang's days of prosperity and idleness, it is Ching who remains his faithful servant, looking after his field and even searching out a bride for Wang's second son. Ching is a simple but intensely faithful friend whose presence is always an asset to Wang.