The Good Earth | Study Guide

Pearl S. Buck

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The Good Earth | Chapter 1 | Summary



Wang Lung awakens on his wedding day. He decides because it is his special day, he will use his precious water resources to take a rare full bath. His father interrupts him, complaining he needs his hot water for his lungs. Wang Lung gives his father tea, which is a luxury. His father also demands breakfast, which Wang Lung prepares for him.

Wang Lung goes to the barber despite the cost in order to look nice for his new bride. He is nervous about approaching the House of Hwang, where his betrothed is a slave, so he stops first for some noodles. Because he looks nice, a beggar calls him teacher and asks for money. Wang Lung gives him a small sum. At the Hwang's the gateman asks for a bribe and ridicules poor Wang Lung. He then brings him before the Old Mistress Hwang, who smokes opium and calls for O-lan, her kitchen slave.

O-lan goes home with Wang Lung. He buys her peaches on the way. She prepares a wedding feast for Wang Lung's male friends, but she herself is not invited. That night Wang Lung and O-lan consummate the marriage.


The Good Earth's central theme revolves around the farmer Wang Lung's humble connection with the earth. That is, if he remains "down to earth," he will reap the rewards of the earth. The book begins with a promise of rain, a good omen for Wang Lung's crops and metaphorically for his life and impending marriage.

Because it is his marriage day, Wang Lung allows himself a variety of luxuries he really cannot afford as a poor farmer. "Tea is like eating silver," Wang Lung's father declares. His father roundly criticizes Wang Lung for his "wasteful" acts. He warns Wang Lung his new bride might get used to a more elevated lifestyle. This lifestyle includes not only tea but also water for baths, meat for dinner guests, and a clean-shaven appearance. Wang Lung promises his father he will "throw the water on the earth when I am finished and it is not all waste."

The noble ways of the poor farmers are contrasted with the decadent ways of the richer Hwang family. The Old Mistress sucks "greedily" at her opium pipe, the way the poorer characters react "greedily" to tea and food. Wang Lung's father's eyes opened "greedily" at the sight of tea. Wang Lung eats his noodles "greedily." And O-lan clutches her peaches "greedily." In this world wealth corrupts, and Wang Lung's encounter in the noodle shop with the beggar foreshadows his own descent. Because Wang Lung is nicely dressed and cleanly shaven, the beggar mistakes him for a man of means and asks for "a small cash." His pride awakened, Wang Lung is "pleased" to be addressed as "teacher" and gives him alms.

This chapter highlights the subjugated role of women in poor Chinese society. Wang Lung muses he will never again have to light the fire or fetch water. That is because a woman was expected to do such menial tasks. Women walk behind men. Wang Lung's father pretends not to notice his son's bride when she arrives. Instead the father feigns "great interest in the clouds." Finally O-lan is surprised twice by Wang Lung's kindness. The first incident is when he offers to carry her heavy box and second when he buys her peaches.

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