Wang Lung goes to the great house to find a wife. He grovels before the opium-soused Ancient Mistress of the house, asking to marry one of their slaves.
O-lan, who becomes his wife, is the strongest character in the book. She helps manage their farm, shares in the work, and doesn't even take a full day off to deliver Wang Lung's first first son. (They have many children including three sons and a well-loved mentally handicapped daughter Wang Lung calls "the fool.")
Wang Lung's and O-lan's fortunes rise and fall. Wang Lung becomes rich. In the good seasons, he saves, buys more land, and puts silver by for hard times.
Then Wang Lung's uncle demands silver. Wang Lung gives it to him. Tradition says he is obligated to his elders.
From there, Wang Lung's fortunes change. He fathers his first daughter (considered a sign of bad luck). He faces devastating floods. He and his family live in abject poverty. They move off his land. But through it all, he refuses to sell his land. He hangs on to what he believes is the source of all wealth--the good earth.
And again his fortunes change. In the midst of one of the many peasant revolts, Wang Lung and O-lan steal gold, silver, and jewels from a wealthy man. They use their newfound wealth to return to the good earth and to buy more land.
But Wang Lung's values change. He takes a mistress. He gives his mistress two special pearls he has taken from O-lan, and he finally moves his family into town into the great house where he once groveled to find a wife. He becomes more like the people he detested.
Wang Lung prospers but loses his close ties to the good earth. And all the while, the growing gap between the rich and the poor plants the seeds of the revolution.
The book ends with Wang Lung facing the prospect of a tragedy beyond his imagining. And he doesn't even know it will happen.
The Good Earth is much more complex than I've described it. It shows the role of women in China at the time. (Sons belonged to the family, but daughters were worthless. They were being raised for someone else's family.)
The Good Earth describes traditions like foot-binding. Wealthy mothers bound the feet of their daughters. Men found women with small feet sexually attractive. But women with small feet could do little except move unsteadily about the house. O-lan's large feet (for which Wang Lung finally rejected her) made her strong. She could work from dawn to dusk in the fields and in the house.
My local book club chose this book to read. I had not read the book before. Sometimes it seemed too long, but to me, it was a bottom-up epic. It was the story of world-changing events told, not from the point of view of someone like Ulysses, but from the point of view of a Chinese farmer.
In 1938, Pearl Buck won the Nobel prize for literature.