Wang Lung is your all-American, hard-working, small-town boy. Well, except that he's Chinese. He's a good old boy; he's loyal, informal, and (at least when we first meet him), he's got strong morals. Life for him is all about family and the farm. We wouldn't be surprised to see him in a Western, but it just so happens that he wears a queue instead of a cowboy hat.
Mr. Wang is a pretty complicated character, but first and foremost, he's a farmer. He loves his land, he's a hard worker (farmers who don't work hard starve, after all), and he's pretty innocent about the ways of the fancy town people. Even though these are his roots, Wang Lung struggles throughout the novel to become more than just a small farmer while still remaining connected to his land.
Wang Lung and his land are the one true pairing of The Good Earth. Sure, you might think O-lan is Wang Lung's true love, but the land was there before her, and there after her, too. No matter what he's doing, Wang Lung always thinks about the land.
Even in the first chapter, the land distracts him, "The farmer in Wang Lung was diverted for an instant and he stooped to examine the budding heads" (1.40). When his family is starving, Wang Lung doesn't even want to kill his ox for food; he reacts as if his family wanted to eat his best friend.
Wang Lung also has trouble staying away from his land. The whole time that the family is in the South, Wang Lung is just trying to figure out how to get back home. When he finally does, he feels as if he has never been away, because the land has always been in his heart: "Before a handful of days had passed it seemed to Wang Lung that he had never been away from his land, as indeed, in his heart he never had" (15.1). That's love right there.
Even when the family moves to the great house, Wang Lung has trouble leaving the land: “But Wang Lung himself would not go at once, and he kept with him his youngest son. When the moment came for leaving the land whereon he was born he could not do it easily nor so quickly as he had thought […]" (29.2). In a way, he never really leaves. When Wang Lung gets older, he moves back to the house on the farm. Then, when he thinks he is about to die, he tells his son that he wants to be buried in the same land he lived his life on. He’s not joking about that whole from-dust-to dust thing.
Like we said before, Wang Lung's a hard worker. Farmers who don't work hard? Yeah, things don't work out too great for them. Check out our "Character Analysis" for Wang Lung's uncle if you want to see what we mean.
Now, when we say "a hard worker," we mean a hard worker. This guy can't even sleep in: "He would like to have slept, now that he could, but his foolish body, which he had made to arise every morning so early for all these years, would not sleep although it could, and so he lay there, tasting and savoring in his mind and in his flesh his luxury of idleness" (2.6). Wang Lung's trained his body through so much hard work that he's physically unable to take it easy now and then.
Wang Lung's also smart and frugal: "Much of this would be sold, but Wang Lung was frugal and he did not, like many of the villagers, spend his money freely at gambling or on foods too delicate for them, and so, like them, have to sell the grain at harvest when the price was low. Instead he saved it and sold it when the snow came on the ground or at the New Year when people in the towns will pay well for food at any price" (4.10).
Wang Lung's discipline of his body resembles his discipline in financial matters. He has trained his body to work the land, and he has trained his tastes and his spending habits to match the requirements of the land. He doesn't spend too much, so that he can work the land without having to worry about making more money he'll get from the land itself. He makes sure he only eats what's good for him so that he'll be in good enough shape to work the land.
With all these qualities, it's no wonder that Wang Lung is successful.
Now, there's a downside of being a down-to-earth farmer: naivety. Innocence, ignorance, crudeness, a trusting nature, or whatever you want to call it, it all boils down to the same thing: Wang Lung just isn't sophisticated. That's a sore point for him throughout the whole novel.
Wang Lung is so trusting that—to take just one example—he gets robbed by the gatekeeper at the House of Hwang. He literally pours out all the money he has into this guy’s hands. While he's there, he's afraid to leave any of his stuff unattended: "But he did not dare to put the basket down because he was afraid something might be stolen from it. It did not occur to him that all the world might not desire such delicacies as two pounds of pork and six ounces of beef and a small pond fish" (1.109).
Wang Lung doesn't realize that these rich people wouldn't even be interested in any of his cheap stuff. This shows how different he is, at the point in the novel, from rich people like those in the House of Hwang. He just doesn't know how to act around them. Once he figures this out, it's something that's going to bother him for the rest of the novel. He knows that he's just as good as anyone else, and he wants to prove it.
That brings us to…
We just told you all about how Wang Lung is a simple farmer. There is one teensy thing about him that complicates that: he's got moxie. We guess you could say that he has ambition or pride. You could even say that he's a stubborn and angry person.
While other people just accept things, Wang Lung wants them changed. Even when it's a natural disaster, he doesn't just want to sit back and take it: “Now Ching was a fearful and timid man and however bad the times were he did not dare as Wang Lung did to exclaim against Heaven. He only said 'Heaven wills it,' and he accepted flood and drought with meekness. Not so Wang Lung" (27.8).
Basically, Wang Lung's no shrinking violet. He's going to fight back, even if that isn't the wisest course of action. Sometimes this works out for him. Sometimes it doesn't.
We're not sure where he gets it, but Wang Lung has always been ambitious. He wants people to think he's a hotshot. In fact, when they tell him he's just a farmer, he gets totally angry. His son knows this and even uses it to manipulate his father and get what he wants from him: “Now the young man spoke cleverly for he knew that his father cared mightily what people said of him […] "(30.140). Even Wang Lung's kids are able to recognize his weakness and use it against him.
Wang Lung's pride is what makes him rich. It's the thing that makes him strive to be more than your usual small farmer… but it's also something that makes it possible for other people to manipulate him. It's almost too easy: all you have to do is a) remind Wang Lung that he used to be a poor farmer or b) flatter him, and he'll do anything you want.
With all that hard work and ambition, Wang Lung finally becomes rich. Now here's the problem: rich people don't work on the land. They have better things to do, like go to teahouses and smoke opium. But all of Wang Lung's positive qualities come from him working on the land. So what happens to him?
What happens is a constant struggle within Wang Lung between his farmer nature and his desire to be a big shot. Everything starts going wrong once he stops working. It's the beginning of the end: “And then, since there was not the need for his management that there had been, Wang Lung went sometimes into the town and slept in the court which he caused to be prepared for him […]" (29.18). It used to be that Wang Lung had trained himself to get up early and work all day; now he's just lazing around and getting other people to wait on him. He's got nothing to do.
So what does he do? He starts going to brothels, of course. "[…] Wang Lung had before this passed the place by, filled with horror at the thought of how money was spent there in gambling and in play and in evil women. But now […] he went toward this place" (18.29). The list goes on. He spends money like it's going out of style, buying women and eating fancy foods even though he used to be fine with McDonald’s.
It's not good. Getting away from the land turns Wang Lung into a pretty unpleasant person. Somehow, though, every time he goes back to the land, Wang Lung returns to normal: "Then the good land did again its healing work and the sun shone on him and healed him and the warm winds of summer wrapped him about with peace" (23.111). It seems as if keeping up with the rhythms and moods of the land keeps Wang Lung on track, as if there is something inherently good or right about the land itself.
The problem is that as he gets older, Wang Lung goes back to the land less and less often. Eventually, things get out of control, and nothing he does can fix it. His only saving grace is that when he gets old he reverts back to his youth and returns to the farm. But by then it's too late, and his sons are already corrupt. Wang Lung is saved but his family, the legacy that he worked so hard to achieve, is doomed.
It would be easy to say that The Good Earth is the story of a farmer's struggle to become rich. That's true. But what's the most important thing to Wang Lung, our protagonist? It's the land, isn't it? This story is Wang Lung's story, so in the end it's the story of one man's love affair with his land.