No matter Wang Lung’s class status at any point, he’s always very conscious of acting in a way proper to his position so that others will respect him, either as a poor farmer or as a rich landowner with an extensive house.
When Wang Lung initially visits the House of Hwang to retrieve O-lan, he acts extremely deferentially towards the Old Mistress, making it clear that he presents no challenge to her supremacy. In contrast, when he becomes wealthy he later sits just where the Old Mistress sat and presides with great dignity over pairing off a slave and a poor farmer. He changes the way he acts to fit his change in social status.
Wang Lung also wants to ensure that his family members act in ways that will bring only honor to their name. He resents the way his uncle and his family act, because he believes it reflects badly upon Wang Lung himself. Wang Lung even tries to make his uncle rein in his daughter, because he thinks that she’s acting overly bold around men and will be labeled a whore.
Buck portrays many points of Chinese etiquette that American readers may find strange, but are integral to the characters’ way of interacting with the world around them. For example, when O-lan visits her old mistress to show off her first son, Wang Lung doesn’t go into the house with her, because the day is one on which women visit each other. Instead, he waits in the gateman’s house, where he sits in a certain chair accepted as a place of honor. Even as he follows these conventions, he also knows how to forgo politeness for conscious ends. When the gatekeeper’s wife gives him tea, he purposely doesn’t drink it in order to give the impression that he’s on his way up in the world, and the tea is no longer good enough for him. Wang Lung often manipulates social etiquette like this to send a certain message.
Sometimes, Wang Lung struggles to change his way of acting in accordance with his rising social position. When he begins going to Cuckoo’s tea room, for example, she scorns him because he doesn’t know the procedure for hiring a prostitute. To Cuckoo, this inexperience shows that Wang Lung is still an ignorant farmer despite his increase in wealth. Thus, in order to truly improve his social position, he must not only become wealthy, but also change his way of acting in order to live according to the same social conventions that other wealthy men follow.
Essentially, Wang Lung cares deeply about what other people think of him. He pursues wealth not only for his own comfort, but also because it makes people admire him, and he relishes the respect that they pay him as a result. And his experience shows that one’s social class depends not only on money, but also on behavior: wealth grants access to a social class, but the proper behavior grants acceptance within it.
Yet even as the novel portrays Wang Lung subscribing entirely to the established system of social respect in his society, it also depicts how some of those around him refuse to do the same. In fact, the political unrest that Wang Lung largely ignores is based on challenging the old order in China. The contrast between Wang Lung’s personal life and his goals of social advancement with the outside political environment of growing despair and rebellion accentuates the feeling that Wang Lung is a relic in a changing world, and highlights how social rules can both completely guide a life and, even at the same time, be entirely overthrown.
Social Status ThemeTracker
Social Status Quotes in The Good Earth
“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.”
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!
...[O]nce when Wang Lung heard a young man... [say] that China must have a revolution and must rise against the hated foreigners, Wang Lung was alarmed and slunk away, feeling that he was the foreigner against whom the young man spoke with such passion. And when on another day he heard another young man speaking... and he said... that the people of China must unite and must educate themselves in these times, it did not occur to Wang Lung that anyone was speaking to him.
...[N]ow, instead of [his money] passing from him like life blood draining from a wound, it lay in his girdle burning his fingers when he felt of it, and eager to be spent on this or that, and he began to be careless of it and to think what he could do to enjoy the days of his manhood.
Everything seemed not so good to him as it was before. The tea shop which he used to enter timidly, feeling himself but a common country fellow, now seemed dingy and mean to him.
His good brown body that he washed but rarely, deeming the clean sweat of his labor washing enough for ordinary times, his body he now began to examine as if it were another man’s, and he washed himself every day...
He bought sweet-smelling soap in the shop, a piece of red scented stuff from foreign parts, and he rubbed it on his flesh, and not for any price would he have eaten a stalk of garlic, although it was a thing he had loved before, lest he stink before [Lotus].
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.
Now Wang Lung in the old days when the great family were there would have felt himself one of these common people and against the great and half hating, half fearful of them. But now that he had land and that he had silver and gold hidden safely away, he despised these people who swarmed everywhere, and he said to himself that they were filthy and he picked his way among them with his nose up and breathing lightly because of the stink they made. And he despised them and was against them as though he himself belonged to the great house.
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!”
...[T]hese common people found that the rent for the rooms and the courts where they lived had been greatly raised... and they had to move away. Then they knew it was Wang Lung’s eldest son who had done this...
The common people had to move, then, and they moved complaining and cursing because a rich man could do as he would and they... went away swelling with anger and muttering that one day they would come back even as the poor do come back when the rich are too rich.
...[H]e had been of half a mind to walk out on his land and feel the good earth under his feet and take off his shoes and stockings and feel it on his skin.
This he would have done but he was ashamed lest men see him, who was no longer held a farmer within the gates of the town, but a landowner and a rich man.