The Good Earth: Novel Summary: Chapter 20-22
Wang Lung's uncle suddenly returns. Seeing how wealthy Wang Lung has become, he declares that he will move in with him, along with his wife and son. Wang Lung is aghast, but can do nothing about it, since family courtesy demands that he show hospitality to his relatives.
Wang Lung's uncle's wife soon guesses that Wang Lung has a mistress in town, and she tells O-lan. But the uncle's wife speaks as if such an occurrence is quite normal, and it seems she expects Wang Lung to move his mistress into his house. Wang Lung overhears her words, and decides to do exactly that. Then he can have Lotus exclusively for himself, rather than having to share her with other men. The uncle's wife, who is experienced in such matters, agrees to negotiate with Lotus the terms of the move.
Wang Lung has another court, with three additional, nicely furnished rooms, built to accommodate Lotus.
A month passes before Wang Lung hears from his uncle's wife that the deal has been made. Lotus has agreed to come in exchange for jade earrings, a ring of jade and a ring of gold, two suits of satin clothes, two suits of silk clothes, a dozen pairs of shoes, and two silken quilts for her bed. She also wants Cuckoo as a servant.
Lotus arrives at the end of summer, riding in a sedan chair. Wang Lung spends days and nights with her, leaving O-lan to sleep on her own. Lotus idles her time away in luxury.
After Lotus's arrival, there is discord in the house, not between Lotus and O-lan, as Wang Lung might have expected, but between O-lan and Cuckoo. Cuckoo wants to be friendly, but O-lan resents the presence of the former slave in the House of Hwang in her house. They were at one time both slaves in that house, and Cuckoo did not treat O-lan well. O-lan refuses to cooperate with Cuckoo and makes life difficult for her regarding household chores. Wang Lung solves the problem by building another kitchen so that the two women never come into contact with each other.
Wang Lung thinks he has created peace in the house, but he is irritated by Cuckoo's extravagant spending habits, when she buys food for Lotus, and also by the fact that his uncle's wife and Lotus become friends. He is also disturbed by the petulance Lotus displays, and his love for her cools a little. To add to his troubles, his father notices Lotus for the first time and cries out that there is a harlot in the house. Nor does Lotus like Wang Lung's children, and he is forced to ban them from her courts. One day, the children disobey, and Lotus explodes in anger. Wang Lung is angry with her in return, and although the quarrel is patched up, he finds that he loves her not so wholly as before.
After summer has gone, the flood recedes, and Wang Lung is excited at the prospect of getting out and working on his land again. Working hard in the fields cures him of his infatuation with Lotus. He feels free of her for the first time since he met her, and tries to catch up on the tasks at the farm that he has been neglecting. He still sees Lotus, for the pleasure she gives him, but he is no longer emotionally attached to her.
Wang Lung's eldest son now helps him at the grain market by his ability to read and write. Wang Lung realizes it is time for him to find a suitable wife for his son. He does not want him married to a common girl, and he makes inquiries among the prosperous men of the town who have daughters of marriageable age. But several months pass and he is unable to find a suitable match. Meanwhile, his son has grown moody and petulant, and complains about having to go to school. On one occasion, the boy plays truant, and when Wang Lung finds out, he beats him with a bamboo stick.
These chapters reveal more about the status of women in the society depicted in the novel. Lotus is in a sense a parasite. She survives only by making herself pleasing to men. Cuckoo likewise can survive only by attaching herself to a protector. Formerly this was the Old Lord at the House of Hwang. Now she becomes a servant to Lotus, but of course it is Wang Lung who provides the wherewithal for this arrangement to work. Women in this society either work and bear children, like O-lan, the former slave, or they make themselves pretty but otherwise useless, like the vain and child-like but cunning Lotus, who "reeks of perfume and paint" according to the malicious remark of Wang Lung's uncle's wife.
This lack of status for women is reflected in Wang Lung's treatment of O-lan. He has never regarded her as his equal, and in these chapters he behaves with some cruelty toward her that she does not deserve. She is a level-headed woman who not only works hard and long raising his children and maintaining his household, but also gives him good advice, as when she tells him that he must endure his uncle's presence with good grace, since it cannot be avoided. She makes no protest when Lotus arrives, but he cannot bear to sleep with her any more.
In fairness to Wang Lung, he feels ashamed of his neglect of O-lan, especially when she finally brings herself to rebuke him for giving her two pearls to Lotus. Wang Lung's behavior in bringing Lotus into his house is not in itself outrageous. It would be acceptable behavior for a wealthy man in the society depicted in the novel. Wang Lung himself feels uneasy about it. Having grown up poor, he is not accustomed to behaving in the way that a rich man would automatically. He has to justify it to himself by saying that other men take in concubines, and there are other men who behave worse than he does.
The perils of prosperity are seen in these chapters not so much in Wang Lung as in his eldest son, who is moody and rebellious. Echoing what she said to Wang Lung in an earlier chapter (and which he foolishly took as a compliment), O-lan says her son reminds her of the way the young lords in the House of Hwang used to behave. It is not really the boy's fault, since he has not had to spend long hours working on the land, as Wang Lung had to do as a boy. Instead, he has spent many idle hours in the house, which have not been good for his character development. Once again, the message is that closeness to the land is necessary for human happiness and well-being.