Study Guide

The Good Earth Wealth

By Pearl S. Buck


There was never anything hanging from the rafters in his uncle's crumbling old house. But in his own there was even a leg of pork which he had bought from his neighbor Ching when he killed his pig that looked as though it were sickening for a disease […] In the midst of all this plenty they sat in the house, therefore, when the winds of winter came out of the desert to the northeast of them, winds bitter and biting. (4.12)

Wealth doesn't have to mean money. It could mean something as simple as not suffering. How does this kind of wealth differ from monetary wealth? Is it more stable? More fulfilling?

He would pull up the stones later and he would put his own name there—not yet, for he was not ready for people to know that he was rich enough to buy land from the great house, but later, when he was more rich, so that it did not matter what he did. And looking at that long square of land he thought to himself, “To those at the great house it means nothing, this handful of earth, but to me it means how much!" (6.6)

Even Wang Lung knows that wealth means something different to poor people from what it means to rich people. For him, gaining just one plot of the House of Hwang's land makes him feel like a millionaire.

It was this word "money" which suddenly brought to Wang Lung's mind a piercing clarity. Money! Aye, and he needed that! And again it came to him clearly, as a voice speaking, "Money—the child saved—the land!" (14.103)

We are not sure how many other people would be so practical thinking about what they would do with lots of money. We're guessing there would be a lot more BMWs and mansions on that list if you went around polling people on the street. Does Wang Lung keep up this kind of thinking once he actually gets money, or does his thinking change?

Then she went into the town one day with Wang Lung and together they bought beds and a table and six benches and a great iron cauldron and then they bought for pleasure a red clay teapot with a black flower marked on it in ink and six bowls to match. (15.30)

Ah, "for pleasure." This is the first time in the novel that anyone thinks of buying something "for pleasure" instead of out of plain necessity. Is this an innocent pleasure, or is it the beginning of the end for Wang Lung and his family?

Nevertheless, when the house was itself again, and the pewter candlesticks gleaming and the candles burning in them shining red, and the teapot and the bowls upon the table and the beds in their places with a little bedding once more, and fresh paper pasted over the hole in the room where he slept and a new door hung upon its wooden hinges, Wang Lung was afraid of his happiness. (15.33)

Why do you think Wang Lung is afraid of his happiness? Does he think it must inevitably end? Does this remind you of the time when Wang Lung said he was afraid of too much good fortune? Do you think he gets too much good fortune?

But all this might have been nothing if Wang Lung were still a poor man or if the water was not spread over his fields. But he had money […] So that now, instead of it 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. (18.23)

Why does Wang Lung's money burn his fingers? Why does he want to get rid of it so much? How does the simple fact that he has money change Wang Lung's personality and outlook on life?

And she said, "It is useless for you to beat the lad as you do. 1 have seen this thing come upon the young lords in the courts of the great house, and it came on them melancholy, and when it came the Old Lord found slaves for them if they had not found any for themselves and the thing passed easily." (22.42)

When you're poor, you're too busy and tired to become melancholic. It's kind of like how you can never find anything good on TV when you have 5000 channels, but the three channels you had as a kid were the most awesome in the world.

"Now that old man in heaven will enjoy himself, for he will look down and see people drowned and starving and that is what the accursed one likes.” This he said loudly and angrily so that Ching shivered and said, “Even so, he is greater than anyone of us and do not talk so, my master.” But since he was rich Wang Lung was careless, and he was as angry as he liked and he muttered as he walked homeward to think of the water swelling up over his land and over his good crops. (27.10)

As we mentioned in our discussion of the "Religion" theme, rich people don't need the gods' help, but the poor do. Well, at least that's what the rich people think. Does their neglect of the gods contribute to their unhappiness? If the gods are a metaphor for the earth and for the cycle of life, does this mean that rich people's neglect of the earth contributes to their ultimate misfortune?

And he, thinking constantly of the child to come and of others to come from his sons when they were all wed, bought five slaves, two about twelve years of age with big feet and strong bodies, and two younger to wait upon them all and fetch and carry, and one to wait on the person of Lotus, for Cuckoo grew old and since the second girl was gone there had been none other to work in the house. And the five he bought in one day, for he was a man rich enough to do quickly what he decided upon. (28.17)

When he was poor, Wang Lung took a long time to decide anything. If he made a mistake, it could cost him everything, so he had to be careful. Now that he's rich, Wang Lung can make decisions quickly, because even if he makes a mistake, he'll still have money left over. Does this make him less responsible? Less conscientious? What are the broader consequences of these decisions?

And Wang Lung took it into his heart to eat dainty foods, and he himself, who once had been well satisfied with good wheaten bread wrapped about a stick of garlic, now that he slept late in the day and did not work with his own hands on the land, now he was not easily pleased with this dish and that, and he tasted winter bamboo and shrimps' roe and Southern fish and shellfish from the northern seas and pigeons' eggs and all those things which rich men use to force their lagging appetites. (29.31)

Why do you think rich men have "lagging appetites?" Is it because they never work up enough of a sweat to get hungry? Because they already have so much to eat that they're always stuffed, anyway? Because they're cut off from real life to such an extent that normal body processes start to shut down?