The Good Earth is a family saga centered on the figure of Wang Lung, a simple farmer in the village of Anhwei. The novel opens on Wang Lung's wedding day, when Wang Lung arrives at the Great House of Hwang to claim his bride. He is a poor man who has come to marry a slave, the only wife he can afford, and for this reason he is very aware of his inferior status. The Old Mistress asks that they bring their first-born for her to see. Wang Lung agrees and departs with O-lan, now "his woman."
O-lan is plain and simple, though a hard worker. She plans the wedding feast, and Wang Lung and his father are pleasantly surprised by the delicacy of her food. That night, they consummate the marriage.
Wang Lung is happy in his life with O-lan. She is a quiet being, but diligent and respectful. Also, he finds comfort in her and soon is overjoyed to learn that she is pregnant. O-lan also takes it upon herself to go into the field and work with Wang Lung, thus bringing in a better harvest that year.
Wang Lung and O-lan continue saving silver and having children. They hide the money in an earthen wall until Wang Lung decides to buy some land from the House of Hwang. There is talk in the village about his prosperity, and with that Wang Lung's mooching uncle comes around and asks for money. Wang Lung is forced to help his uncle financially because he is family.
The next year a famine strikes. The harvest is minimal and hunger abounds. O-lan gives birth to a girl, something Wang Lung considers a bad omen. Eventually the family migrates south in search of food. They settle in this foreign city and make do as best as they can. During this time there is an uprising and a rich house is sacked by the poor. Wang Lung steals a rich man's gold. With this money the family heads back to the land with seeds, an ox, and renewed spirits.
The village is desolate when the family returns. Ching, Wang Lung's neighbor, is still alive, but barely so. Wang Lung tells Ching he will help him plant again, and soon they become close friends. Ching later works for Wang Lung as his foreman.
One night Wang Lung finds out that during the night of chaos in the south, O-lan found a collection of jewels. O-lan asks to keep two pearls, something to which Wang Lung obliges, and the next day he goes out to buy more land from the House of Hwang with the remaining jewels.
Wang Lung thus becomes a rich man and begins to delve in the pleasures of life. He seeks out a concubine, Lotus, sends his sons to school, and becomes widely respected. He also realizes that, as much as he owes to O-lan, he does not love or desire her. She is simply the mother of his children. He remains bound to sustain his uncle, aunt and nephew, because they know of Wang Lung's wealth and will not work when he can provide for them.
By the end of the novel the family has changed drastically. The sons have been raised without knowing the value of the land, all they know are monetary riches. They convince Wang Lung to rent the Great House in the city rather remain in the country. Wang Lung, though occasionally enjoying the pleasures of a rich man (for example fine food and clothes, and another concubine named Pear Blossom) never wholly sheds his identity as a farmer. However, his sons, who are eager to sell the land and make more money, represent the changes to come.
A novel of simple beauty, The Good Earth is above all a glimpse into the life of Chinese peasants and the social changes that affect their traditions.