The overall arc of the story shows Wang Lung’s journey from a poor farmer to a rich landowner. This change is seen most clearly through his relationship with the Hwang family. At the beginning, Wang Lung goes to the House of Hwang as a poor man buying a wife, and he’s terrified of the wealthy and powerful Hwangs. Throughout the course of the story, however, he manages to buy up the Hwangs’ land as their fortunes fall and their family degenerates. By the end, Wang Lung has essentially become the Old Lord of the Hwangs, living in their house and farming or renting out their lands. In fact, Wang Lung’s family effectively changes places with the Hwang family. As Wang Lung becomes more prosperous, the Hwangs begin to struggle. The Hwangs’ difficulties lead directly to Wang Lung’s rise, since he’s able to buy their land from them, which in turn gives them less revenue from crops, causing an almost inevitable reversal of the families’ class statuses.
As Wang Lung becomes more similar to the Hwangs in his wealth and his way of life, he also begins to encounter problems similar to those that caused their demise, implying that these problems are inherently connected to an excess of money. As his leisure time increases, he finds himself drawn to selfish pastimes that drain his money, such as loitering at the tea house and hiring the prostitute Lotus. Lotus eventually disrupts his life even further when he feels that he must have her live in his house, meaning he has to pay for her luxuries and deal with his wife O-lan’s displeasure. Similarly, the Old Lord of the Hwangs kept many concubines and indulged in every luxury. Furthermore, Wang Lung’s eldest son becomes more interested in women and pleasure than in responsibility, just as the Old Lord’s sons wasted all his money in their pursuit of the same ends. Even opium connects the two families—the Old Mistress nursed an expensive addiction to opium, and Wang Lung ends up buying large amounts of the drug to keep his uncle’s family sedated.
The novel doesn’t just portray Wang Lung’s rise from poor to rich in isolation, though. Set in the early 1900s, it also portrays the kind of class struggle that would soon come to the forefront in China with the rise of the Chinese Communist Party beginning in 1921. In the city to the south of Wang Lung’s home, he becomes aware of the wealth and decadence of the rich in comparison to the destitution of the poor, who are starving and living in huts built against the outside wall of a rich family’s house. Though rich and poor are thus in extremely close proximity, their standards of living are as different as possible. Wang Lung also sees the impoverished people around him gaining a consciousness of their class and revolting against the unfairness of their situation by raiding the houses of the rich, effectively leveling the difference in wealth by force.
As a landowner, Wang Lung never sees himself as part of the lower class and never gains much of a political outlook. Rather, he always sees wealth as a worthy goal that he pursues without question. But the novel takes a wider view, and through the fall of the Hwangs, the issues that beset Wang Lung himself as he gains wealth, and the ransacking of the wealthy houses in the southern city, the novel offers a more nuanced view of wealth. While every single character in the novel would rather be wealthy than poor, the novel shows, first, how the attainment of wealth can lead to personal and familial moral decline. Second, it shows a changing world that’s beginning to question whether the wealthy actually deserve their wealth because of some sort of natural supremacy, and one in which class difference is thus likely to erupt in political violence.
Rich vs. Poor ThemeTracker
Rich vs. Poor 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.”
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!
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.’
They cannot take the land from me. The labor of my body and the fruit of the fields I have put into that which cannot be taken away. If I had the silver, they would have taken it. If I had bought with the silver to store it, they would have taken it all. I have the land still, and it is mine.
...[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.
Day by day beneath the opulence of this city Wang Lung lived in the foundations of poverty upon which it was laid. With the food spilling out of the markets, with the streets of the silk shops flying brilliant banners of black and red and orange silk to announce their wares, with rich men clothed in satin and in velvet, soft-fleshed rich men with their skin covered with garments of silk and their hands like flowers for softness and perfume and the beauty of idleness, with all of these for the regal beauty of the city, in that part where Wang Lung lived there was not food enough to feed savage hunger and not clothes enough to cover bones.
“The dead man is yourselves,” proclaimed the young teacher, “and the murderous one who stabs you when you are dead and do not know it are the rich and the capitalists, who would stab you even after you are dead. You are poor and downtrodden and it is because the rich seize everything.”
...[Wang Lung] listened in interest to hear further what the rich men had to do with this thing, that heaven would not rain in its season. And at last... Wang Lung grew bold and asked,
“Sir, is there any way whereby the rich who oppress us can make it rain so that I can work on the land?”
“If I could have two,” she went on humbly, “only two small ones—two small white pearls even...”
“Pearls!” he repeated, agape... Then Wang Lung... looked for an instant into the heart of this dull and faithful creature, who had labored all her life at some task at which she won no reward and who in the great house had seen others wearing jewels which she never even felt in her hand once.
But all this was not a sudden thing. All during the lifetime of the Old Lord and of his father the fall of this house has been coming. In the last generation the lords ceased to see the land and took the moneys the agents gave them and spent it carelessly as water. And in these generations the strength of the land has gone from them and bit by bit the land has begun to go also.
...[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].
And Wang Lung... felt his mouth suddenly dry and parched and his voice came from him in a whisper,
“Silver, then! Silver and gold! Anything to the very price of my land!”
As he had been healed of his sickness of heart when he came from the southern city and comforted by the bitterness he had endured there, so now again Wang Lung was healed of his sickness of love by the good dark earth of his fields and he felt the moist soil on his feet and he smelled the earthy fragrance rising up out of the furrows he turned for the wheat.
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?”
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.
“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.