Spoilers from: The Good Earth
In the year of 2008, I was hanging out with an ex friend at a local bookstore. I remembered we passed by the Fiction Section and she picked up The Good Earth and mentioned how Wang Lung is a despicable man and how she hates him and she wishes she could kill him or something of the kind. Years later, I got all three books; The Good Earth, Sons and A House Divided and I started to read The Good Earth. Even when I checked goodreads.com, a lot of people hated Wang Lung for what he did such as addicting his relatives to opium, getting a concubine and being upset with his wife for no reason, and not appreciating his wife for all the work she did. Yet strangely enough, I can't hate him. Probably I have a little more exposure to Asian culture and learned that it was very common for men to have multiple wives or concubines in the past. In here I'll discuss Wang Lung's love towards O-lan, the idea of beauty, the gender and class dynamics as well as the generations and society.
People are often judged by the beauty, even today. Let's all be honest: would you rather stay with a homely man or woman who will treat you like a king/queen or would you rather be with a beautiful man/woman who won't appreciate you or be there for you in tough times? Even though the politically correct answer will be a homely man/woman, deep inside very few will be that way. Instead it will be beautiful man/woman. I think that very often physical attraction is equated to love. Love though can take many forms. For the most part Asian men are very shy when it comes to expressing love, and with some, maybe old fashioned ones, love equals to actions rather than physical affection. I think at some point early in the marriage Wang Lung did love O-lan and was concerned about her. Also at the end of her life he was always there for her. Let's move on to gender and class dynamics.
Most people often think that in this book the women are the victims of the viciousness or victims of the Chinese men. While some of it is true, there were bad women in the book such as Lotus, Uncle's wife, the elder brother's wife and the younger brother's wife. I think the lesson that she's trying to impart on us is that women who suffered a lot and come from a very low class are the good ones; others aren't good. (It would help if she gave actual names to all the characters instead of calling them 'uncle' or 'uncle's wife' or cousin, and so on.) Also most often, it seemed that women had hidden powers of causing men to go against their natures. (Lotus, for example, had Wang Lung spend lots of money on her and her beauty and her appetite; the elder brother's wife, not happy to be living in the house had her husband spends lots of money on frivolous things that in the end got broken, and so on.) With those kinds of powers, so to speak, how could women be portrayed as helpless?
With class dynamics, there is a parallel between Hwang house getting poorer and Wang house getting wealthier. Eventually, the roots for becoming the future Hwang house are planted; especially when Cuckoo constantly says how the family reminds her of the previous owners and whatnot. (Anyone even notice that if you take away the H from Hwang you get Wang?) At first even, Wang Lung, due to O-lan, becomes very reluctant in taking on slaves and whatnot, but in the end he does and its even described that everyone, from baby to adult has at least one slave. His sons have different behaviors than the father, as well as different desires and motivations and none desire to become a farmer. (In the end, women such as his daughter, the poor fool, and Pear Blossom, stay with him, while his sons cannot make time for him.)
There are at least three or four generations that we know of; his father, Wang Lung, his children, and his children's children. Each generation is different and has different needs. Wang Lung's father is best described as ineffectual, and at some points one can't help but think of him as a leech. (When they were going through famine, the old man got the best of everything at the cost of Wang Lung's and his family's food.) Then there's the current generation, Wang Lung who through luck and good timing as well as stubbornness became wealthy. (One of the reviews compared this one to Gone with the Wind, and now that I think of it, there are similarities; Scarlett O'Hara would rather die than part with Tara; same with Wang Lung. Also Scarlett was never interested in anything emotional and its the same for Wang Lung. All he wanted was peace, there was no interest in emotional health.) Wang Lung is only familiar with hard work and working the earth; he is not familiar with how different he is from the family and how his sons are not like him at all. I don't think he's an emotional man and emotionally he's not there for his family. There are also Wang Lung's children who have different needs and motivations than his father which causes a generation gap. (The sons must obey the father, but Wang Lung's sons are demanding and greedy.) The fourth generation is there as well but they are described best as comfort to Wang Lung.
Society places different expectations on men and women. Women are expected to be the nurturers and caretakers yet at the same breadwinners when there is a need to be. (O-lan fulfilled all those roles.) Also, women must obey and defer to their husbands' wishes, at least a long time ago. That is the picture we get of O-lan. Of her personal feelings and life we learn almost nothing but in the book she also represents a moral compass and the 'earth' itself. (If I'm not mistaken, after O-lan's death, Wang Lung becomes no more interested in earth, and the family sinks deeper and deeper into vices such as addicting an uncle and the uncle's wife to opium, or Wang Lung spending money very carelessly and pointlessly on things that got destroyed in the end.) O-lan requires no help when she births and next or same day she manages to take care of her husband and her father-in-law. There are also descriptions of O-lan nurturing her children with full breasts, as an earth feeding the population with its bountiful harvest. In the book, men are taught to look at women as "property" and although Wang Lung does want to see his wife beyond that label, she doesn't allow him to do it.