The Good Earth

The Good Earth Summary and Analysis of Chapters 20-21


Wang Lung's uncle returns, disrupting his obsession with Lotus. The uncle hasn't changed a bit and insists upon moving in with his now-wealthy nephew and taking the whole family with him. Wang Lung is irate, but accepts his social duty, a decision that O-lan echoes.

His uncle's wife notices Wang Lung's affected behavior and maliciously tells O-lan that her husband is courting another woman. Wang Lung overhears her suggest to O-lan that he will buy Lotus and keep her at the house: a possibility that hadn't occurred to Wang Lung independantly but that he likes. He asks his aunt to buy Lotus from Cuckoo at any price.

O-lan dreads Lotus' arrival while Wang Lung builds a new court adjacent to his house for his mistress. He enlists his aunt's help in decorating the house as he is ashamed to face O-lan. Wang Lung grows irritated with his wife and snaps at her to comb her hair; O-lan cries and says, "I have borne you sons -- I have borne you sons -- " (194) Wang Lung momentarily sees how unreasonable he has become.

Wang Lung pays the exorbitant price for Lotus -- as well as a fee to his aunt -- and she arrives with Cuckoo. Wang Lung shakes off the feeling that he is bringing trouble into his house when he sees Lotus in all her beauty. His aunt criticizes her at first, hinting that Lotus is not as young as she looks (and that the reason she accepted Wang Lung's offer is because she is getting old). Wang Lung is furious at these insinuations and forces his aunt to retract her statements.

O-lan keeps away from the house while Lotus moves in. When O-lan returns she acts as though nothing has changed, does her chores and goes to sleep alone. Wang Lung, on the other hand, has an entirely new set of priorities. He spends all the time he can in Lotus' inner courts, basking in her beauty. Cuckoo also moves into the inner courts to keep Lotus company.

Wang Lung had expected O-lan to clash with Lotus, but instead O-lan clashes with Cuckoo, whom she openly despises. Wang Lung had forgotten that O-lan was once a slave in the Great House where Cuckoo was a concubine. Cuckoo acts civilly toward O-lan but she will have none of it: O-lan refuses even to allow Cuckoo warm water, saying that if her mother were living she would leave for her mother's house rather than bear this humiliation. Wang Lung feels ashamed of hurting O-lan, but feels that his behavior is well within his rights as a man. At one point Cuckoo enters the kitchen to fetch water for Lotus, and Wang Lung violently shakes O-lan when she withholds warm water.

Circumventing this conflict, Wang Lung builds another kitchen for Lotus. However, Cuckoo immediately begins preparing exotic and rich foods for which she charges Wang Lung. Wang Lung's aunt, who loves such food, joins the women in the courts; their friendship puts Wang Lung ill at ease, but Lotus convinces him to allow it. Lotus' insistence on always having her way wears on Wang Lung, who loves her less and less, though he cannot discuss his changed feelings with anyone.

Exacerbating the situation further, Wang Lung's father wanders into the inner courts and slanders Lotus, calling her a harlot. Wang Lung attempts to defend Lotus, but his father replies, "I had one woman and my father has one woman and we farmed the land" (208). He continues to torment Lotus, putting Wang Lung in the awkward position of trying to appease both his mistress and his father.

One day Wang Lung's twins and his older daughter -- his "poor fool" whose starvation during infancy has left her mentally impaired -- wander into the inner courts to see Lotus despite their father's order to stay away. The sight of Wang Lung's eldest daughter horrifies Lotus, who says, "I will not stay in this house if that one comes near me, and I was not told that I should have accursed idiots to endure and if I had known it I would have never come - filthy children of yours!" (209) Wang Lung snaps back that he will not have his children insulted, especially his eldest daughter. He buys his daughter sweets to make her smile and stays away from Lotus for two days. When he finally returns she fawns over him; however, Wang Lung's love for Lotus is seriously compromised.

Finally the summer ends and the water recedes. Wang Lung feels the call of the land once again, a call deeper than anything he feels otherwise. He goes to work on the land.


The arrival of Wang Lung's uncle shifts the plot significantly. For one thing, we notice how affluent Wang Lung has become. In the past, he could hardly afford to give his uncle a handful of corn; now he can support his uncle in comfort without too much annoyance. For another, we see that despite his fling with Lotus Wang Lung's devotion to his elders remains strong. Further, Wang Lung's aunt begins to play a major role, pushing Wang Lung into a more decadent lifestyle. She gives him the idea to buy Lotus, she relishes the rich foods that Cuckoo prepares (and then charges up the nose for!). Indeed, one might begin to wonder whether Wang Lung's uncle didn't have a point all along -- he married a wife who gives rather than takes. The contrast with O-lan couldn't be more stark.

Speaking of O-lan, these chapters show her growing more and more miserable. Wang Lung neglects her, criticizes her, and even physically shakes her, but she will not budge in her pride nor in her convictions. She sees that Wang Lung is weak, but his weakness does not implicate her; she remains strong and proud. On occasion, she pointedly reminds Wang Lung of how ungrateful he is to her -- such as when she reminds him that she has borne him sons, or when she rebukes him for giving Lotus her pearls. But for the most part, O-lan suffers through Wang Lung's self-indulgence as she has always suffered through everything, quietly and patiently.

There is one exception, of course. Cuckoo and she have some history. They were both slaves in the House of Hwang, though Cuckoo was of higher status than O-lan and behaved in a haughty and cruel way toward her. O-lan will never return to that past life of disgrace and servitude -- she makes it clear that Cuckoo will receive no respect at her house, even at the cost of offending or abandoning her husband. Again, O-lan has strong, unwavering principles. At the beginning of the novel she seemed submissive and invisible. However, with each chapter we notice her resilient strength. She has always had her convictions, it seems, and even Wang Lung, her ostensible master, can do nothing to shake them.

This leaves Wang Lung in a bind. In general, he is torn in these chapters between opposing urges -- on the one hand, to take what he feels to be rightly his as a rich man, and on the other, to feel shame at hurting the mother of his children and his father due to his lust. Wang Lung struggles between indulging in his patriarchal privileges and fighting off the sting of his conscience. The fact that his father does not respect Lotus -- or Wang Lung's right to a second woman -- brings the struggle to a head, for Wang Lung still feels honor-bound to his elders. Lotus begins to lose power.

She speeds up this loss of power when she lashes out at Wang Lung's daughter and twins. Finally Wang Lung sees the absurdity of bringing such a needy, stuck-up woman onto his farm. As though she, who has given him no children, has any right to insult his flesh and blood! Although Wang Lung still returns to Lotus, her allure is fading fast.

When the water recedes at the end of this section, Wang Lung's speedy return to his old priorities reminds us that his whole episode with Lotus is really quite artificial. He was drawn into his tryst by idleness -- not because he doesn't want to work the land anymore, but because he couldn't. Indeed, after the decline of Wang Lung in the past few chapters we're relieved to see that his good portion remains intact. He will still defend his family from slander, respect his father's experience, and work the land happily when he can.