Summary and Analysis Chapters 1-2


In these first two chapters, we are immediately introduced to the main theme of the novel — our basic relationship with the earth and how we gain strength and sustenance from it. Wang Lung, the central character of the novel, feels a deep respect for the earth. We discover that his house is made of earth and even his gods before whom he places incense are also made of earth. Thus he gains his food, his shelter, and his religion from the earth. As Pearl Buck notes, everything comes out of the earth, but ultimately everything returns to the earth.

Wang Lung's relationship with the earth is not an intellectual one; instead, it is simple and basic. Wang Lung has "no articulate thought on anything; there was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods."

Another theme that is introduced is the contrast between the simplicity and innocence of Wang Lung and the luxury, opulence, and decadence of the House of Hwang. For Wang Lung, it is a luxury even to have a bath before he goes for his bride, and he has to measure out each ounce of food so as to have enough to invite a few humble guests into his house. In contrast, when he arrives in town, he is made fun of by the barbers, and he feels uncomfortable and embarrassed at the House of Hwang.

He is taken advantage of by the gateman because of his rough appearance and his lack of knowledge. The reader should keep this scene in mind when Wang Lung later returns with his first-born child and is dressed in a new coat of black cloth. Then he is treated with more respect. Ultimately, one should remember that Wang Lung will become the owner of this house where he once trembled as a rough, uncouth peasant.

These first two chapters immediately establish the social concept that a woman is an inferior person to a man. At this time, women were bought and sold as slaves, and Wang Lung does buy O-lan from the House of Hwang. The woman has to walk six paces behind the man, and she does not speak unless spoken to. Furthermore, Wang Lung's father pretends not even to notice her when they arrive home for the first time. Wang Lung is pleased that he will no longer have to do certain chores to manage his household. This sense of superiority extends to Wang Lung's being embarrassed because he does not know whether or not he satisfied O-lan: "He was ashamed of his own curiosity and of his interest in her. She was, after all, only a woman."

Initially, Wang Lung's greatest disappointment with O-lan is that her feet were not bound. In the Chinese culture, small feet (achieved through painful binding: see the section on foot-binding) were considered a mark of elegance and beauty. Women who had their feet bound could not walk long distances nor even stand for longer than a few minutes. Thus, if O-lan's feet had been bound, she would never have been able to work in the fields and help Wang Lung become a prosperous farmer. It is ironic that because of O-lan's hard work, Wang Lung can later afford to buy Lotus Flower as his concubine, and we should remember that Lotus Flower has to be carried to Wang Lung's house because her bound feet are too delicate to make the journey.

When Wang Lung and O-lan burn incense before the god and goddess of earth, we witness, as it were, their marriage ceremony. The rings and earrings accepted earlier are part of the ritual, but the marriage is only real when it is consummated that night. O-lan cannot even appear before the male guests until she has become his wife in the most physical sense.

Perhaps one of the greatest values of this novel is its attempt to present for the Western reader a clear view of the Chinese culture — a culture that is vastly different from Western civilization. Pearl Buck captures this culture with complete objectivity. Her style is simple and straightforward, and her presentation of characters is also simple and straightforward. We thus have the impression that we are receiving an accurate, journalistic account of the life of a representative Chinese farmer.