The Good Earth

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Opium Symbol Icon

Opium represents the destruction of the wealthy by their own excessive wealth. When Wang Lung meets the Old Mistress at the beginning of the book, he sees that her opium use makes her weak and forgetful. Later, he hears that her need for the drug is draining the family coffers, and eventually it weakens her so much that she dies of fright when the robbers come to the House of Hwang. Opium is quite expensive, so only the rich can afford to become addicted to it in the first place, and then it destroys them.

Later Wang Lung purposely gives opium to his uncle and his uncle’s wife in order to keep them from causing him trouble. Their complete loss of will shows the power of money to wipe out awareness of the world outside of a wealthy person’s house or mind. When Wang Lung moves his uncle’s wife to the house in town, she seems to take the place of the Old Mistress, who was similarly addicted, and thus to foreshadow that Wang Lung’s family will follow the same path of degeneration as the Hwang family.

Opium Quotes in The Good Earth

The The Good Earth quotes below all refer to the symbol of Opium. 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 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.

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Chapter 28 Quotes

Then Wang Lung’s uncle took it greedily, for it was sweet to smell and a thing that only rich men used, and he took it and bought a pipe and he smoked the opium, lying all day upon his bed to do it. Then Wang Lung saw to it that there were pipes bought and left here and there... and the silver for this Wang Lung did not begrudge because it bought him peace.

Related Characters: Wang Lung, Wang Lung’s uncle
Related Symbols: Opium
Page Number: 281-82
Explanation and Analysis:

Wang Lung’s uncle’s family becomes so troublesome, with the uncle threatening to set his robber band on the house and the uncle’s son molesting Wang Lung’s daughter, that Wang Lung decides his only choice is to get the uncle’s family addicted to opium. Opium acts as a narcotic, subduing the user’s energy and causing strange dreams.

However, opium is also regarded as a luxury. The uncle is eager to accept the opium partly for this reason, since he sees it as a toy of the wealthy and he wants to live in the comfort of the wealthy. Though it’s very expensive, Wang Lung would rather spend the money on keeping his uncle’s family quiet than spend it on giving them everything they ask for.

Additionally, opium is associated with the House of Hwang, as the Old Mistress smoked copious amounts of it. In fact, her constant desire for opium contributed to the family’s loss of their fortune. Thus, Wang Lung should perhaps be more cautious about bringing opium into his household, since it adds to the ways in which his family imitates the Hwangs, who ended in ruin.

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Opium Symbol Timeline in The Good Earth

The timeline below shows where the symbol Opium 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
...up at the ceiling. The Old Mistress sits on a dais (raised platform), holding an opium pipe. Wang Lung kneels before her, and when the gateman calls him a fool who... (full context)
Chapter 5
Rich vs. Poor Theme Icon
...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 demands all the best... (full context)
Chapter 8
Rich vs. Poor Theme Icon
Connection to the Earth Theme Icon
...ever, and the Old Mistress wants the agent to sell land so she can have opium. The Old Lord has taken another concubine, as he desires younger women the older he... (full context)
Chapter 27
Rich vs. Poor Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
...their power. The eldest son has the idea to buy the uncle’s family as much opium as they want. Wang Lung is doubtful, saying opium is expensive, and he needs to... (full context)
Family Theme Icon
The Oppression of Women Theme Icon
...his house. Liu agrees to the arrangement. On his way home, Wang Lung buys some opium. (full context)
Chapter 28
Rich vs. Poor Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Social Status Theme Icon
After Wang Lung sends his second daughter away, he offers his uncle the opium, pretending he’d bought it to help his father sleep. The uncle is happy about it... (full context)
Family Theme Icon
...of his uncle’s son. His uncle and his uncle’s wife have been weakened by the opium and no longer make trouble, but their son doesn’t give in to it. He refuses... (full context)
Chapter 30
Rich vs. Poor Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
...cold winter. Wang Lung’s uncle and the uncle’s wife have long lain in bed smoking opium, which has left them weak and ill. Wang Lung brings two coffins to their room... (full context)
Family Theme Icon
Social Status Theme Icon
...Lung gives his uncle’s wife a room in the house in town, and she smokes opium next to her coffin. Wang Lung can’t believe he used to fear this woman who... (full context)
Chapter 31
Family Theme Icon
...the floor. She’s amazed to see him, and can only think to offer him her opium pipe, but he refuses. Wang Lung is worried he’ll be angry for what Wang Lung... (full context)