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11. The Hwang family decline begins when the heirs no longer recognize that the land is the source of their wealth and that it is not inexhaustible. The failing fortunes come across as a kind of moral judgment as well, on the lavish spending for concubines and city pleasures by the young lords and for fashionable weddings and clothes by the daughters.
In the Wang family the eldest son has already begun this style of living, and the second son, while watchful with money, is also planning to separate himself from the land as soon as Wang dies. You might draw analogies here if you can, with other countries whose farmers and landowners eventually took their wealth from the land. Have American farmers kept their way of life as their sons have left the land?
12. Confucian teachers wrote that a man took a wife for her virtue and a concubine for her beauty. The women in The Good Earth bear out this rule. As a poor farmer's wife, O-lan has duties that include care of the household and of the old father, the preparation of meals, and the sewing and mending of the family's clothes. She also works beside her husband in the fields. But she fulfills the wife's most important function by bearing sons.
By contrast, the uncle's wife is as shiftless in her household duties as he is in farming. But he could not divorce her-supposing he cared enough to do so-because she has borne him a son. Chinese tradition had many causes for divorce, but barrenness, especially the failure to produce a son, was the most important one. A rich man's wife has servants to perform all other duties, but she is obliged to bear sons. As a concubine, Lotus Flower has none of these duties or obligations. She can't perform physical tasks because of her bound feet. In fact, she is not expected to do any work at all, and she is not required to bear children. Her only duty is to make herself a beautiful, desirable object to her master and to be available to him for his pleasure at all times.
13. The three main forms of religion in Wang Lung's village are represented by the Taoist temple, the Buddhist temple, and the temple to the goddess of mercy. On important occasions he makes gifts to all three. In addition, when he comes back with treasure from the southern city, he sets up a picture and candles to the god of riches in his house.
In Wang's later years his eldest son installs an ancestor-worship shrine in the family mansion. Wang is pleased that a tablet for his own name is there, even though this is a practice of upper-class rather than peasant families. But Wang Lung's deepest religious feeling is not for these faiths but for two small earthen idols in a field shrine built by his grandfather. It is his belief that this little god and goddess have power over the earth and bring him both his good and his bad fortune. He thanks the idols for good times by burning incense before them, and he scolds them like bad children when drought and famine strike. He also believes in evil spirits that hover in the air and bring trouble down on anyone who boasts of good fortune.
Christianity is being taught in China during Wang's time, and in the southern city a missionary hands out leaflets showing Christ on the cross. Wang can't read and doesn't understand the picture, and he gives the leaflet to O-lan as padding for the soles of the cloth shoes she makes for the family.
14. Considering the Chinese attitude toward women and girl children, Wang Lung's relationship with his daughters might almost be called liberated. When his third child turns out to be a girl, he sees it in the traditional way as an evil omen (and sure enough, the drought and famine follow as though to confirm his belief.) In Chinese tradition a daughter had no value. She was only another mouth to feed until she could be married off at thirteen, and then her dowry and wedding were still further expenses. Poor families often destroyed a female child at birth or sold her at an early age as a slave. Even during the famine, Wang Lung is too tenderhearted to do either. He knows that O-lan killed the female infant born during the famine, and he does briefly consider her suggestion that they sell their first daughter, also during the famine.
When he realizes later that the girl is retarded, he is horrified by the thought that her masters would have killed her as a useless slave. His devotion to his "poor fool" is a touching aspect of his character but apparently it was not typical in a Chinese family. After O-lan's death, no one except Wang Lung takes any responsibility for the girl's care. Wang Lung treats his younger daughter in a more conventional way, as an object to advance his status. She is to have her feet bound so that she can make a good marriage. But here, too, his soft heart intervenes: he would have her feet unbound because of the pain. She refuses because, as O-lan has told her, if she does so, her future husband will not love her "as you do not love my mother." He protects this girl's virtue by packing her off to her future home-never to see her again.
15. You can take either side in the case of O-lan's infanticide. Either you believe she was justified by both the custom of her people and the circumstances, or you hold that taking a life is a crime for which there is no possible justification. If the latter is your position, then you must decide what O-lan should have done. She has no milk for this baby, as she herself is starving. She sees that the daughter born the year before is already stunted and near death, and her two small sons are not much better off. In such a situation a mother's only other choice may be to watch her newborn child starve to death.