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
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.’
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.