Chinese society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as depicted in The Good Earth, revolves entirely around family structures, and so the course of the novel can be traced according to the development of Wang Lung’s family.
The book begins with Wang Lung becoming the head of his family—in some sense creating a family—by marrying O-lan, which enables him to have children and thus a line of descendants. Family line in this society depends on male children, as girls are either married off into other families or sold as slaves. Much of the rest of the novel, then, involves Wang Lung’s efforts to build and protect his family. Initially, Wang Lung’s life consists of working in the fields so that he can feed himself and his family and take care of his elderly father. He feels responsible for the well-being of those connected to him, and when times get bad, he even thinks of them as mouths to feed and bellies to fill. Wang Lung also sees his family as offering a kind of legacy, as providing a means of preserving his own accomplishments and values down through history.
Yet the novel also never shirks from showing just how much trouble a family – and the social expectations around family – can be. For example, Wang Lung’s uncle and his uncle’s wife and uncle’s son are lazy and often take advantage of Wang Lung for their own benefit. By the bonds of family, Wang Lung does owe them assistance in hard times, and he worries that others will think ill of him if he doesn’t give in to his uncle’s demands for food, money, and shelter, even when his own immediate family is struggling during the famine. Eventually, Wang Lung figures out a way to navigate the tricky obligations of family regarding his uncle. He gets the uncle’s family addicted to opium so that they become lethargic and stop causing him trouble as long as he supports their habit. This solution allows Wang Lung to maintain his honor, as he isn’t outwardly denying his family assistance, but he essentially decides to put the needs of his immediate family above those of his extended family.
But Wang Lung’s own family also thwarts his hopes and ambitions for both himself and his family legacy. Only his mentally disabled eldest daughter, the “poor fool,” who does nothing but sit in the sun and sometimes laugh, allows Wang Lung the power over her that he wishes he could have over his entire family, and thus he treasures her in a way he doesn’t his other children. His other children all have independent desires of their own. The novel ends as his sons, who have grown up wealthy and decadent, lie to Wang Lung as they promise never to sell the family land, and it is clear that Wang Lung’s sons will squander the family fortune just as the Hwang sons did when Wang Lung was young.
The irony of family in the novel, then, is that Wang Lung devotes himself to it almost entirely – seeing his own values and success as bound up in the success of his descendants – but even as he works for the benefit of those descendants, the individual members of his family destroy what he has built for them to satisfy their own independent desires. And because this same fate befell the House of Hwang, the novel makes clear that this is no aberration – that families rise and fall, and always will.
Family Quotes in The Good Earth
Moving together in a perfect rhythm, without a word, hour after hour, he fell into a union with her which took the pain from his labor. He had no articulate thought of anything; there was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods. The earth lay rich and dark, and fell apart lightly under the points of their hoes.... Some time, in some age, bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses had stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth. So would also their house, some time, return into the earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth. They worked on, moving together—together—producing the fruit of this earth—speechless in their movement together.
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!
There was more than enough [milk] for the child, greedy though he was, life enough for many children, and she let it flow out carelessly, conscious of her abundance. There was always more and more. Sometimes she lifted her breast and let it flow out upon the ground to save her clothing, and it sank into the earth and made a soft, dark, rich spot in the field. The child was fat and good-natured and ate of the inexhaustible life his mother gave him.
The voice of his wife answered from the bed more feebly than he had ever heard her speak,
“It is over once more. It is only a slave this time—not worth mentioning.”
Wang Lung stood still. A sense of evil struck him. A girl! A girl was causing all this trouble in his uncle’s house. Now a girl had been born into his house as well.
But [O-lan] rose at dawn and she did her work and Wang Lung saw her only as he saw the table or his chair or a tree in the court, never even so keenly as he might see one of the oxen drooping its head or a pig that would not eat.... And she said nothing but she worked at her cooking and at the washing at the pool even in the winter when the water was stiff with ice to be broken. But Wang Lung never thought to say,
“Well, and why do you not with the silver I have to spare, hire a servant or buy a slave?”
...[M]y mother said I was not to weep aloud because you are too kind and weak for pain and you might say to leave me as I am, and then my husband would not love me even as you do not love her.
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, evil, idle sons—sell the land!” He choked and would have fallen, and they caught him and held him up, and he began to weep.... “It is the end of a family—when they begin to sell the land,” he said brokenly. “Out of the land we came and into it we must go—and if you will hold your land you can live—no one can rob you of land—”
...And he stooped and took up a handful of the soil and he held it and he muttered,
“If you sell the land, it is the end.”
...And they soothed him and they said over and over, the elder son and the second son,
“Rest assured, our father, rest assured. The land is not to be sold.”
But over the old man’s head they looked at each other and smiled.