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In many ways the strongest and most memorable character
in The Good Earth, O-lan exemplifies the situation
of women in traditional China and the sacrifices they had to make
in order to adhere to cultural notions of feminine respectability.
O-lan spends her life working for an endeavor for which she never
sees a reward: she gives all her effort and applies all her considerable
capability to improving Wang Lung’s position, and she receives neither
loyalty nor passion from him in return. He is annoyed when she becomes pregnant
with her second child, fearing that her condition will keep her
from working in the fields, and later he has no qualms about cruelly
insulting her unbound feet and taking her treasured pearls to give
to his concubine. O-lan spends much of the novel in the position
of victim, but she gains a great deal of dignity in the reader’s eyes
by stolidly and uncomplainingly enduring her husband’s behavior.
It is O-lan who makes many of the hardest decisions in the novel—smothering
her infant daughter to spare food for the family, for instance—and
she bears these hard decisions with admirable fortitude.
Because O-lan is so reticent, silence being a quality
that is highly valued in wives in Wang Lung’s culture, Buck uses
means other than speech to indicate the extent of O-lan’s inner
pain. For instance, on her wedding night, O-lan unconsciously flinches
away from Wang Lung, which suggests that she has been abused as
a slave in the House of Hwang. O-lan never complains about Wang
Lung’s cruelty in insulting her feet—but she does immediately begin
binding her daughter’s feet, warning her daughter not to complain
of the pain for fear of angering Wang Lung. We see the extent of
O-lan’s bravery when she makes no complaint for years and years
about the grave illness that swells her belly. O-lan represents
the dignity and courage of the marginalized wife.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Good Earth!