Buck’s characterization of O-lan demonstrates how important women’s labor can be to the financial success of her family. O-lan performs valuable domestic labor, and she increases Wang Lung’s wealth by helping him work in the field. For this reason, it is ironic that Wang Lung is disappointed in O-lan’s unbound feet. Women with bound feet have difficulty standing and walking and could never perform work such as O-lan’s. Wang Lung desires a woman with bound feet as a status symbol, but only through having a wife who could work is Wang Lung able to attain the riches a woman with bound feet was supposed to represent.
2. Why does O-lan smother the second infant daughter born to her and Wang Lung? To what extent does O-lan’s cultural and economic context lessen what might otherwise appear to be a horrible and unforgivable crime?
It might be tempting to condemn O-lan for smothering her infant, but it is necessary to consider her circumstances. She is already the mother of two sons and a daughter, and the family is living under the burden of a terrible famine; they are in danger of starving to death, and the newborn baby is likely to die a much more painful death by starvation, should she live. O-lan cannot count on having enough nourishment to nurse this baby; should she try to nurse the infant, she might die. Her three young children still depend heavily on her, and it is unlikely that they would survive if she died. Just as the threat of starvation drives Wang Lung’s neighbors to raid his home, the same threat drives O-lan to kill her own child.
3. Why does Wang Lung endure his uncle’s demands?
It might seem strange to Western readers that Wang Lung would endure his lazy, wasteful uncle’s exploitation. However, in traditional Chinese culture, respect for the elder generation is extremely important. Not only was Wang Lung raised with these values, but he recognizes that his society would look down on him were he to break with tradition. He must allow himself to be exploited by his uncle if he wants to maintain his reputation within his community.
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