The story begins on the wedding day of farmer Wang Lung and follows his simple, often one-sided view of the Chinese culture, times, and his connection with the land. The land is a recurring theme throughout the novel, seemingly nurtured by the apparent protagonists, rejected and ruined by the antagonists. The author uses the House of Hwang, a nearby house of nobles, to contrast and predict their rise and fall. As the House of Hwang meets its slow and desperate end, Wang Lung rises.
However, as the weather turns disastrous for farming, Wang Lung's family has to flee to the city to scrape out a meager living. Upon returning home, the family fares better. Wang Lung eventually becomes a prosperous man, his rise contrasting with the downfall of the Hwang family, who lose their connection to the land. At the end of the novel, when Wang Lung is an old man, he overhears his sons plotting to sell some of the land, thus showing the end of the cycle of wealth and downfall.