The Good Earth

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The Old Mistress Character Analysis

The Old Mistress is the female head of the House of Hwang. Wang Lung meets her only once, when he goes to fetch O-lan from the great house for their marriage, but the meeting leaves a deep impression on him. Along with her husband, the Old Lord, the Old Mistress represents wealth and social superiority to Wang Lung. He becomes ashamed of the fear he felt in her presence, but he also wants to have the power that he felt emanate from her. However, the Old Mistress also smokes vast amounts of opium, which not only leave her weak and helpless, but also help bankrupt her family. During the year of famine that drives Wang Lung’s family south to the city, robbers attack the House of Hwang, and the Old Mistress dies of fright. In sum, she symbolizes both the power of the rich and the dangers of decadence that come with wealth.

The Old Mistress Quotes in The Good Earth

The The Good Earth quotes below are all either spoken by The Old Mistress or refer to The Old Mistress. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Rich vs. Poor Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Washington Square Press edition of The Good Earth published in 2004.
Chapter 1 Quotes

“Raise him,” said the old lady gravely to the gateman, “these obeisances are not necessary. Has he come for the woman?”

“Yes, Ancient One,” replied the gateman.

“Why does he not speak for himself?” asked the old lady.

“Because he is a fool, Ancient One,” said the gateman...

This roused Wang Lung and he looked with indignation at the gateman.

“I am only a coarse person, Great and Ancient Lady,” he said. “I do not know what words to use in such a presence.”

Related Characters: Wang Lung (speaker), The Old Mistress (speaker), The gateman (speaker), O-lan
Related Symbols: The House of Hwang
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

Wang Lung goes to the House of Hwang to fetch his new wife, O-lan, who works as a slave there. The gateman shows him into a great hall, where the Old Mistress is to present Wang Lung with O-lan, and Wang Lung falls onto his knees before her to show his respect.

This is Wang Lung’s first of many visits to the House of Hwang, and this first visit leaves a great impression on him, effectively setting the standard against which he will measure all future visits as he rises in status and receives greater respect in the house. On this visit, even the gateman, a servant himself, feels that Wang Lung is so far beneath him that he can insult Wang Lung even in front of the Old Mistress. Wang Lung himself admits that he’s completely in awe of the great house and its mistress, and that his much lower social status means he doesn’t know how to act here. This scene makes it clear that social status doesn’t depend only on wealth, but also on one’s way of bearing oneself. Wang Lung is not insulted directly for his poverty, but instead for the social acts that mark him out as ignorant.

Much later, Wang Lung will buy the house and sit where the old lady sits, quite aware of the symbolism in the act that shows how his fortunes have risen.

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Chapter 3 Quotes

Wang Lung sat smoking, thinking of the silver as it had lain upon the table. It had come out of the earth, this silver, out of his earth that he ploughed and turned and spent himself upon. He took his life from this earth; drop by drop by his sweat he wrung food from it and from the food, silver. Each time before this that he had taken the silver out to give to anyone, it had been like taking a piece of his life and giving it to someone carelessly. But now... he saw the silver transmuted into something worth even more than itself—clothes upon the body of his son. And this strange woman of his, who worked about, saying nothing, seeming to see nothing, she had first seen the child thus clothed!

Related Characters: Wang Lung, O-lan, The Old Mistress
Related Symbols: The Land
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

Before O-lan gives birth to her first child, she tells Wang Lung that she plans to take the child (whom she assumes will be a son) to the House of Hwang to show him to the Old Mistress. She wants to clothe him well and present him triumphantly as a sign of her social ascendancy, as she used to be a slave in the house. Wang Lung thinks this is a wonderful idea, and he gives her the money for the clothes.

This passage essentially acts as Wang Lung’s meditation upon the land, money, family, and social status. He recognizes the life-giving quality of the earth, but he also sees how the earth produces money, and money produces objects that can both take care of his family and increase his importance in the eyes of others. Now that he has a family of his own, he feels that his work produces rewards that it never did before because he can see his family prosper directly because of his work. However, the fact that this passage comes directly after O-lan’s plan to impress the Old Mistress implies that Wang Lung also sees his son’s clothes as a mark of his status, which increases along with his wealth. He, too, was humiliated in front of the Old Mistress (though certainly to a lesser degree), and he would like to see his money go to salve that humiliation.

Finally, Wang Lung expresses amazement at O-lan’s inner life. O-lan is consistently a more complicated character than Wang Lung understands. It seems that because she’s a nearly silent woman, he thinks there’s nothing more to her than what he sees. However, he here realizes that she has dreams just like he does, even if she doesn’t always tell him about them.

Chapter 5 Quotes

I had but a moment for private talk with the cook under whom I worked before... but she said, ‘This house cannot stand forever with all the young lords, five of them, spending money like waste water in foreign parts and sending home woman after woman as they weary of them, and the Old Lord living at home adding a concubine or two each year, and the Old Mistress eating enough opium every day to fill two shoes with gold.’

Related Characters: O-lan (speaker), Wang Lung, The Old Mistress, The Old Lord
Related Symbols: The House of Hwang, Opium
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

After O-lan visits the House of Hwang with her son, she tells Wang Lung as they walk home that the family is experiencing financial difficulties. The Hwangs are so used to having endless amounts of money at their disposal that they have neither the ability nor the desire to limit their pleasures. The description of the Hwang family in this passage shows that wealth has led them into constant decadent indulgence, and throughout the book, wealth will be associated with this same sense of excess.

Furthermore, as Wang Lung later begins to grow prosperous, he will imitate the Hwang family in many aspects of his life, as he continues to admire their wealth and superiority in the town. However, he will fail to fully consider the mistakes they made in order to avoid making them himself. O-lan’s account of the Hwangs’ mistakes in this passage actually foreshadows the later progression of Wang Lung’s family. His eldest son will pursue women he shouldn’t and spend excessive amounts of money; Wang Lung himself will buy concubines; and he will have to constantly supply his uncle and his wife with opium. O-lan is the only one who never gives in to the temptation of debauchery, perhaps because she sees clearly the fall of the Hwangs as she relates it in this passage.

Chapter 28 Quotes

There before him was the great carven dais where the old lady had sat, her fragile, tended body wrapped in silvery satin.

And moved by some strange impulse he went forward and he sat down where she had sat and he put his hand on the table and from the eminence it gave him he looked down on the bleary face of the old hag who blinked at him... Then some satisfaction he had longed for all his days without knowing it swelled up in his heart and he smote the table with his hand and he said suddenly,

“This house I will have!”

Related Characters: Wang Lung (speaker), The Old Mistress, The gateman’s wife
Related Symbols: The House of Hwang
Page Number: 293
Explanation and Analysis:

Wang Lung has been considering renting the House of Hwang, and he comes upon the gateman’s wife, who shows him into the inner courts and the great hall where Wang Lung met the Old Mistress the first time he came to the house. On Wang Lung’s first visit here, he was humiliated by his poverty and his ignorance of how to act around such social superiors. Even the gateman, a servant himself, acted as though he were far better than Wang Lung.

This experience has stuck with Wang Lung his entire life, and now he’s finally able to retrospectively take control of the situation. As he sits in the Old Mistress’s chair, he symbolically becomes the social equal to the Old Mistress. Furthermore, he’s clearly a social superior to the gateman’s wife. Though this may seem like a very small triumph, the fact that the gateman so humiliated Wang Lung on his first visit gives it significance as well.

Although Wang Lung hasn’t quite realized it, it seems that he’s been working his entire life towards this moment, towards being able to take this seat that he’s always thought of as the ultimate place of power. As it represents the pinnacle of his achievement and occurs before his family begins to more earnestly follow the Hwangs’ path to self-destruction, this moment can be seen as the climax of the novel. However, in the fact that Wang Lung symbolically becomes the Old Mistress just before her family’s decline, this passage also marks the moment that his family slips into her family’s dangerously luxurious shoes.

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The Old Mistress Character Timeline in The Good Earth

The timeline below shows where the character The Old Mistress appears in The Good Earth. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Rich vs. Poor Theme Icon
Social Status Theme Icon
...Wang Lung’s arrival and leads him through a series of courtyards. Finally they come to the Old Mistress ’s rooms, but the gateman protests that Wang Lung can’t go in carrying his basket... (full context)
Rich vs. Poor Theme Icon
Social Status Theme Icon
...a huge room, and Wang Lung almost trips as he gapes up at the ceiling. The Old Mistress sits on a dais (raised platform), holding an opium pipe. Wang Lung kneels before her,... (full context)
Family Theme Icon
The Oppression of Women Theme Icon
Social Status Theme Icon
...he’s so nervous. He’s satisfied with her voice, but disappointed that her feet aren’t bound. The Old Mistress has Wang Lung stand next to O-lan, and she tells him that she bought O-lan... (full context)
Chapter 3
Rich vs. Poor Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
The Oppression of Women Theme Icon
Connection to the Earth Theme Icon
Social Status Theme Icon
...bring her son. Both will be clad in new clothes, and she’ll present herself to the Old Mistress . Wang Lung realizes that O-lan has been planning this for a long time, even... (full context)
Chapter 5
Rich vs. Poor Theme Icon
Social Status Theme Icon
...would want to eat them. O-lan says that she’s going to bring the cakes to the Old Mistress when she visits with the baby after the New Year. Wang Lung is very pleased... (full context)
Rich vs. Poor Theme Icon
...O-lan whispers in shock that it seems the House of Hwang is lacking in money. The Old Mistress and the slaves were all wearing the same coats as the previous year. The clothes... (full context)
Rich vs. Poor Theme Icon
...that the young lords spend too much money, the Old Lord has many concubines, and the Old Mistress never stops eating opium. A daughter about to get married has a huge dowry and... (full context)
Rich vs. Poor Theme Icon
The Oppression of Women Theme Icon
Connection to the Earth Theme Icon
Social Status Theme Icon
The Old Mistress told O-lan that the family is looking to sell land just outside the city wall.... (full context)
Chapter 8
Rich vs. Poor Theme Icon
Connection to the Earth Theme Icon
...despite everything. He’s heard that the House of Hwang is struggling more than ever, and the Old Mistress wants the agent to sell land so she can have opium. The Old Lord has... (full context)
Chapter 16
Rich vs. Poor Theme Icon
The Oppression of Women Theme Icon
Connection to the Earth Theme Icon
Social Status Theme Icon
...can hardly believe it. Cuckoo says that bandits stole the slaves and the goods, and the Old Mistress died of fright. Most of the servants left even before this, when the food and... (full context)
Chapter 28
Rich vs. Poor Theme Icon
Connection to the Earth Theme Icon
Social Status Theme Icon
...to the House of Hwang, and his eldest son’s idea makes him imagine sitting in the Old Mistress ’s place and acting as she did. He smokes and fantasizes about this. (full context)
Rich vs. Poor Theme Icon
Social Status Theme Icon
...doesn’t identify himself, but follows her to the great hall where he first came before the Old Mistress . Wang Lung sits where she sat and looks down at the gateman’s wife. He... (full context)
Chapter 30
Family Theme Icon
Social Status Theme Icon
...Lung can’t believe he used to fear this woman who now looks as weak as the Old Mistress used to look when the House of Hwang collapsed. (full context)
Chapter 32
Rich vs. Poor Theme Icon
Social Status Theme Icon
...the farm laborer who accidentally caused Ching’s death. Wang Lung sits on the dais where the Old Mistress used to sit and presents the laborer with the slave as his wife, feeling how... (full context)