The Good Earth

The Good Earth Summary and Analysis of Chapter 7-9


Wang Lung's uncle, a lazy man with seven children, notes Wang Lung's prosperity and insists that his nephew share the wealth. This uncle is a disgrace -- his daughters even run around unchaperoned and "talk to men," which renders them more or less unmarriageable. However, as his elder, the uncle has a claim on Wang Lung, so Wang reluctantly parts with food and even silver.

O-lan, meanwhile, gives birth to a girl, a "slave." Wang Lung perceives this to be an evil omen; the problem with his uncle began because of a girl (his uncle's lazy wife), and now one has been born into his house. He does not even take the time to go look at the new born child.

The misfortune continues as a drought afflicts the village; the crops wilt and die. Wang Lung desperately tries to work the land, but all of his work is worthless without rain. He tries to give water from their well to the crops, until O-lan tells him that if he continues to do this the family will have no water for themselves. To this Wang Lung responds that if the plants starve they will all starve: "It was true that all their lives depended upon the earth" (68). That year Wang Lung sells his grain early, and as soon as he has money he goes back to the Great House -- which continues to suffer decline -- to buy more of their land. Wang Lung gets more land than he did the first time. Furthermore, this time he buys the land without consulting anyone, not even O-Lan.

Winter threatens and the family braces itself for hard times. We get a glimpse into O-lan's past life when she says that they can eat the corn husks instead of using them for fuel. According to her: "It is better than grass" (70). Worst of all, however, O-lan is once again pregnant. She convinces Wang Lung that they must eat the ox, even slaughtering the beast when Wang Lung proves unwilling to do so himself.

In these hard times, Wang Lung finally denies his uncle assistance, which leads the uncle to spread rumors of Wang Lung's riches and greediness. This rumor catches and one night the men of the village sack Wang Lung's house and steal his remaining food. O-lan comes to the rescue and explains that they are starving too. The village men leave, ashamed but hungry: "They were not evil men, except when they starved" (74). Meanwhile, Wang Lung congratulates himself on having spent all his silver on buying the Great House's land, for the money would have been stolen otherwise.

In Chapter Nine, conditions are as bad as they've ever been, and even Wang Lung openly curses the gods. The family hardly works and the children are growing thin; the girl child, who used to clamor night and day for food is now eerily quiet. Wang Lung's father, as the elder, receives the first share of whatever food there is.

Wang Lung's neighbor, Ching, tells the family that a group have men have turned cannibal in their starvation, and Wang Lung's uncle is among these. Wang Lung, horrified, decides to head south, but O-lan must give birth first. Wang Lung asks Ching for food so that O-lan doesn't die during childbirth, and because Ching was among those who sacked Wang Lung's house he reluctantly spares his last beans. Wang Lung gives most of them to O-lan and the rest to his newborn daughter; watching her eat he feels himself fed.

O-lan gives birth to a baby girl and kills the child in its first moment of life. Wang Lung and O-lan do not discuss the matter, though Wang Lung heard the baby cry and knew it was born alive. He buries the dead child, noting two dark bruises on its neck.

The next day, Wang Lung's uncle (looking suspiciously plump) arrives at Wang Lung's door with men who are willing to buy his land. Wang Lung asks how much they are willing to offer and rejects their low price. He decides to sell his furniture instead to finance their journey south, while holding on to his land.


Wang Lung's lazy, greedy uncle hampers his rise in status: "it angered him that as he saw himself and his sons rising into a landed family, this shiftless brood of his cousins should be running loose, bearing the same name as his own" (61). We see that as he grows prosperous, Wang Lung grows attached to his wealth and reputation. He knows, as does the reader, that his uncle's excuse -- that "fortune" has arbitrarily smiled on Wang and frowned on him -- is nonsense. Wang Lung and O-lan worked hard for their portion. At the same time there is a tacit acceptance of tradition in this chapter, for Wang Lung recognizes that his uncle is, above all, his blood and his elder, thus he is compelled to help him even though he doesn't deserve help.

The tendency we've seen already to simultaneously belittle and rely upon women continues in this section. Wang Lung thinks of women as trouble, citing his female cousin and his third child, a girl (and thus a "slave"). At the same time, Wang Lung's good fortune follows from his hard-working wife; even his uncle says so. To complicate this contradiction, the women in the novel confirm the shame of being a female; O-lan herself says of their third child, "It is only a slave this time -- not worth mentioning" (65).

The famine in this section emphasizes the tenuous position of a farmer -- even a relatively successful farmer like Wang Lung. Society itself threatens to fall apart in the face of such widespread hunger, and so it becomes more important than ever to show discipline and resolve. O-lan, again, captures the instinct to survive. She more or less saves her family on several occassions, first by persuading Wang Lung to slaughter his ox. Wang Lung is a sentimental man, attached to the symbols of the old ways, like the ox. O-lan, by contrast, is sharply practical. She sees the ox not as a field companion, but as food. O-lan also stands down the mob when they come to ravage Wang Lung's home. Her life has been harder than Wang Lung's and her experience helps them greatly. Despite all this, her gender still limits the amount of respect she receives.

Perhaps the most difficult passage in this section for the modern reader is O-lan's decision to end her newborn daughter's life. This act captures the gender dynamics of the society in The Good Earth -- it's implied that O-lan would not have killed the newborn if it had been a male child -- as well as the strength and resolve of O-lan. She knows how horrible an additional mouth to feed would be; it might well mean the end of the family. Moreover, she knows that the newborn girl has little to look forward to aside from life as a "slave." Thus, out of compassion and wisdom, she ends a life she can't sustain. As with the ox, Wang Lung is reduced to a passive role, burying the infant and contemplating, in so far as he's able, his wife's striking drive to live.

By the end of this section, Wang Lung's uncle is revealed as more than a simple nuisance. He is a monster, a social parasite. His parasitic function is made alarmingly literal when it's revealed that he cannibalizes others in order to gain an advantage during the famine. The uncle obeys no social code, yet manipulates the code to his advantage. He insists upon extorting money from Wang Lung and even sets the village on them when Wang Lung resists. He is truly the villain of this section, taking advantage of his traditional society and giving nothing back. He doesn't work; he only takes.

Yet through all this despair, the land remains. Again listening to O-lan's infallible advice, Wang Lung relocates south to wait out the famine. When the rain returns, the land will still be there, unfeeling and sturdy, and it will still be his. Indeed, Wang Lung's connection to the land, both sentimental and financial, has literally become his connection to an unchanging past, and to a damaged but persistent hopefulness.