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The wives of Wang's first and second sons rarely appear directly in the story but the contrast in their two characters is striking. The eldest son's wife, proper and conventional, urges her husband on in his aspiration toward upper-class status. The second son's bride is a hearty, robust village girl with a lively, unconventional style. The two women bicker constantly, sharpening the underlying feud between their husbands and depriving the household of the peace that Wang Lung longs for.


The youngest of Wang's sons, one of twins, disappoints Wang's hope of raising one son who will love and work the land. This son, too, demands an education. A silent boy, he keeps his thoughts and wishes to himself. From his cousin and the soldiers quartered in the house, he gains a taste for soldiering, and he runs away to join one of the armies roaming the region. When last heard of, he has become a high-ranking revolutionary officer. Some readers see in this son the new China which has lost all contact with the land and tradition.


O-lan's third child, she was born just before the famine. The deprivations of her first years have left her retarded. Wang makes her his special care. He feels a profound tenderness for his "poor fool," as he calls her, and is anxious about how she will fare after he dies, until his last love, the concubine Pear Blossom, promises to care for her. You might argue that Wang's "poor fool" represents all those who have suffered from starvation and poverty. She also reflects a good side of Wang.


The third son's girl twin turns out to be a pretty child, and Wang arranges a marriage for her to one of the grain merchant's sons. In preparation for the little girl's future in a middle-class family, O-lan binds her feet. When Wang discovers her weeping over the pain and offers to have her feet unbound, this daughter refuses, saying that then her husband will not love her. Wang's younger daughter illustrates the fate of a girl in a well-to-do Chinese family. Following custom, she leaves her parents' home forever to join her husband's family and come under the rule of her mother-in-law. How do you think this would be received by the young married women you know?


Lotus Flower is a high-class prostitute. She is painted, perfumed, dressed in silks and jewels, skilled in pleasing men and exacting expensive gifts from them. She can scarcely walk on her tiny bound feet and is not expected to do any work in the house where she comes to live as Wang's concubine. Selfish and self-indulgent, Lotus Flower exerts considerable power over Wang until her behavior toward his children offends him, and he frees himself from his emotional dependence on her. Although a slave, as his concubine she has a secure and permanent place in the household, and as Wang grows old she simply grows fatter, lazier, and more self-indulgent. Before condemning Lotus Flower, though, consider what options she had, or perhaps didn't have, as a girl sold into slavery.


Cuckoo was the Old Lord's last slave in the House of Hwang before its downfall. She later becomes the proprietor of the house of prostitution where Wang finds Lotus, and she comes into Wang's household as Lotus' servant. A shrewd, sharp-tongued woman, she appears cunning and grasping. Might you find a more sympathetic interpretation of her character as a woman who has spent her entire life in slavery and is seeking only security in her later years? In Wang's household she is at last secure for the rest of her life.


Wang buys this small, frail seven-year-old girl as a little serving maid for Lotus. She grows into a pretty young woman who catches the eye first of Wang's soldier cousin and then of Wang's youngest son. When Wang is attracted to her himself, she convinces him that she likes only old men because they are kind. You might consider whether, unlike the more robust Cuckoo, Pear Blossom has responded to a life in slavery by becoming more sensitive to the unfortunate and rejected. She becomes Wang's mistress and a comfort in his later years when he is rejected by his own family, and she volunteers to take care of Wang's retarded daughter after his death.


From the beginning, Wang feels a brotherly affection for this honest neighbor, a poor farmer like himself, described in the novel as a "small, spare, lean man of great gravity." In the worst days of the famine, Ching proves his friendship by sharing his last remaining food, a handful of dried beans, with Wang for the pregnant O-lan. When Wang comes back from the south with his new wealth, Ching is barely alive. As Wang's partner and later his overseer, he proves himself a capable farm manager worthy of Wang's trust. When Ching dies, Wang feels that he has lost his only true friend. Besides O-lan, he is the only character who remains consistently true to the "good earth."


The Old Lord, head of the House of Hwang, and the Old Mistress, his first wife and matriarch of the household, are an intimidating pair to Wang at the beginning of the story. But the Hwang fortunes are already fading. The five young lords (sons) are away in the city, spending their wealth on pleasures. The Old Lord is occupied with his concubines, the Old Mistress with her opium, and nobody cares for the land. These two characters and the House of Hwang present an object lesson in the rise and fall of families. Wang Lung's family seems destined for the same end.

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