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The Good Earth | Plot Summary

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Summary

Marriage and Family

A young farmer, Wang Lung, awakens on his wedding day. He is happy because it is the last day he will have to serve his father now that a woman will be in the house. After bathing and going to the barber, Wang Lung goes to the House of Hwang to pick up his new bride, O-lan. She has been a slave there. He brings her home and they consummate the marriage.

O-lan proves to be a valuable addition to the household. Not only does she tend to the kitchen and house, she also works hard with Wang Lung in the fields. After a time she announces she is pregnant, but she will accept no help with the birth. She bears a son. After celebrating the New Year, the couple takes their son to show him off at the House of Hwang. While there, O-lan sees the house is in decline. Wang Lung decides to invest the silver from his good harvest in a small plot of the House of Hwang's land.

O-lan has a second son, harvests continue to be good, and Wang Lung is seen as a man of relative means. It bothers Wang Lung that his uncle's family brings dishonor to his name. His uncle demands silver from Wang Lung, and he must give it to him or be shamed for disregarding his family duty. O-lan's third child is a girl, and Wang Lung sees this as a bad omen.

Change of Luck

Indeed, Wang Lung's luck changes. The rains cease and the harvests dwindle. Famine and starvation descend upon the land. With his poor profits, Wang Lung invests in more land from the House of Hwang. Wang Lung's uncle turns the desperate villagers against him, and a mob overruns Wang Lung's house and steals his only remaining food. Even his neighbor Ching takes food.

The famine continues. After O-lan gives birth, she kills her child, a daughter, to spare her starvation. Wang Lung's uncle comes with profiteers to buy his land. Wang Lung refuses but sells enough furniture to pay for passage south. Now in a strange city in the south, the family must beg to survive. Wang Lung rents a rickshaw to transport people for pay. They live in the shadows for a time, and Wang Lung hears about unrest on the streets. When he sees soldiers forcibly conscripting men like him, he hides. Work and alms dry up, and the public kitchens close. Wang Lung considers selling his daughter.

Landowner

But with a great bang, the gates of the rich fly open. The peasants stream in and take anything they find. Wang Lung does not want to steal. Then he happens upon a hidden man who gives Wang Lung all his gold in his fright. This gold allows Wang Lung's family to return home. Back on his land, Wang Lung works hard. He also helps his neighbor Ching. Wang Lung discovers O-lan has been hiding jewels. He takes them to invest in more land but lets her keep two small pearls. Wang Lung now has so much land he hires laborers and makes Ching his overseer. O-lan has twins, a boy and a girl. They discover their older daughter, "poor fool," is mentally handicapped.

Over the next seven years, Wang Lung builds his fortunes. Because he is illiterate he is embarrassed in his business dealings and arranges for his two older sons to attend school. The next year there is a flood. Wang Lung cannot work and becomes idle. Looking for something to do, he happens upon a tea shop. There he sees a picture of Lotus and finds her enchanting. He later returns and pays for her services, eventually falling in love with her. He takes O-lan's pearls from her to give to Lotus. When Wang Lung's uncle returns, his uncle's wife sees that Wang Lang is in love with another. She suggests Wang Lung bring Lotus home as a concubine.

At first Wang Lung is ecstatic in his love for Lotus. Once the novelty wears off, he understands how much trouble she brings to his household. O-lan and her friend Cuckoo quarrel, and Lotus hates his children, especially his "poor fool." He tires of all the drama Lotus brings and goes out to work on his land again. This cures his lovesickness.

Wang Lung's oldest son Nung En has become moody. Wang Lung arranges a marriage between him and the daughter of a grain merchant named Liu. Meanwhile, Wang Lung discovers his uncle is a "Redbeard," one of the fierce bandits that loot and pillage. To remain safe, he must cater to his uncle's every wish. Nung En is not yet married, and Wang Lung catches him talking with Lotus. He beats both of them and sends Nung En away to university. Nung Wen begins to apprentice with Liu to become a merchant, and Wang Lung promises his third daughter to Liu's son.

Hard Times

O-lan has not felt well due to a "fire in [her] vitals." Wang Lung calls a doctor, who tells him O-lan will die. O-lan wants to see her son wed before she dies, so he returns. O-lan dies after the wedding feast, and Wang Lung's father dies shortly after. They are both buried on the land.

Floods come, and many people starve. Times are hard in Wang Lung's household, too, but his uncle and family still eat well. When Nung En confronts him about this, Wang Lung confides what his uncle really is. Nung En suggests that opium will render this evil harmless. It works. With O-lan gone, Wang Lung needs help around the house, so he buys slaves, including a pretty young girl called Pear Blossom. Wang Lung's sons wish to move to town, and Wang Lung arranges to rent the former House of Hwang. His lifelong dream is symbolically achieved, and he moves his family there.

Wang Lung's uncle's son leaves to go to war. Wang Lung's first grandson is born, and his best friend Ching dies. Nung Wen weds, and Wang Lung's uncle finally dies. War comes near, and Wang Lung's uncle's son returns to quarter himself and his comrades at Wang Lung's house. He cannot turn him away for fear of his knife. Wang Lung's uncle's cousin is offered a mistress. When he chooses Pear Blossom, another slave volunteers in her place.

When the army leaves Wang Lung finds he is attracted to Pear Blossom. They begin an affair. Wang Lung's third son does not approve and goes off to become a soldier against his father's wishes. Following his father's example, Nung En takes a second wife.

Pear Blossom is a comfort to Wang Lung in his old age. She even agrees to take care of his "poor fool" after he is gone. Wang Lung returns to his farmhouse to live out his final days. His sons visit, and one day Wang Lung overhears them plotting to sell his land. When Wang Lung becomes agitated, they assure him they will never sell the land. Their smiles reveal this is a lie.

The Good Earth Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Wang Lung marries O-lan, a slave from the House of Hwang.

Rising Action

2 Wang Lung has a son and buys land from the House of Hwang.

3 Famine strikes and Wang Lung must go south with his family.

4 During an uprising, they acquire gold and jewels and go home.

5 With the money, Wang Lung buys more House of Hwang land.

6 After many years of great harvests, Wang Lung is rich.

7 Wang Lung falls for Lotus and buys her as his concubine.

8 O-lan dies from her tumor after Nung En's wedding feast.

Climax

9 Wang Lung moves his family into the former House of Hwang.

Falling Action

10 Wang Lung takes young Pear Blossom as a concubine.

11 Wang Lung's angry third son abandons him to go to war.

Resolution

12 Old Wang Lung returns to his land, but his sons plan to sell.

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