Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
In traditional Chinese culture, small feet were considered an attractive female trait. The custom of binding young girls’ feet to ensure that their feet would remain small was practiced for almost a thousand years, from the tenth century to the Communist takeover of mainland China in 1949. Foot-binding was usually begun when a girl was between the ages of five and seven. Her mother would fold all her toes except her big toe beneath her foot, then tightly wrap a thick bandage at least several feet in length around the foot, so tightly that it actually prevented the bones from growing and eventually caused the foot to fold in half. The ideal product of foot-binding was known as a lotus foot, a foot that, on a grown woman, was not more than three inches long.
Foot-binding was extremely painful, and the pain lasted throughout a woman’s life—though the pain lessened as she grew older because her foot was essentially dead. Today, the process would be considered nothing short of torture: apart from the crushing pain of retarded bone growth, the process caused the nails of the four folded toes to grow into the soles of the feet. It also caused an extremely bad odor as various parts of the foot died. Foot-binding made it nearly impossible for a woman to walk for any substantial length, and even a short walk was excruciatingly painful.
Despite the brutality of this practice, it was widespread throughout China, and by 1900 only the poorest and most wretched girls did not have their feet bound. Bound feet were considered so much more attractive than unbound feet that, without bound feet, it was very difficult for a girl to find a husband. Throughout The Good Earth, Buck uses foot-binding as a symbol for the moral depravity of wealth, which would subject young girls to torture simply to make them more attractive to men. Attraction to foot-binding also serves as a symbol of Wang Lung’s longing for wealth and status. He is initially disappointed to discover that O-lan’s feet are not bound, even though her unbound feet enable her to work in the fields with him, which dramatically increases his family’s fortune. Nevertheless, though she was an outspoken advocate against the practice, Buck takes a very objective, neutral tone toward foot-binding in The Good Earth, drawing attention to the cultural tendencies that might make a woman choose to do such a thing to her daughter. When O-lan binds her own daughter’s feet, for instance, she is motivated by Wang Lung’s rejection of her, by his criticism of her “large” unbound feet, and by her desire for her daughter to have a happy marriage with a husband who loves her.
The House of Hwang is a symbol of wealth, extravagance, decadence, and downfall throughout the novel, a constant reminder of wealth’s corrosive effect on morality and long-term success. As the site of the Old Mistress’s opium addiction, the Old Master’s whoring, and the young lords’ abuse of slaves, the house is a palpable sign of disconnection from the land and of narcissistic self-absorption. When Wang Lung buys the House of Hwang after O-lan’s death, the transaction is a grim symbol of his own family’s fall from grace, represented by his children’s decision to sell his land and live in splendor in the Hwangs’ house.
The pearls, which O-lan steals in the revolt in Chapter 14 and which Wang Lung allows O-lan to keep, are an important symbol of the love and respect Wang Lung affords his wife. Though O-lan does not say so, it is clear that she treasures the pearls as proof of her husband’s regard for her. When Wang Lung takes the pearls away from her and gives them to the prostitute Lotus, it is as though he is taking away his love and respect. O-lan is inwardly devastated, and the incident symbolizes the extent to which wealth and idleness have corrupted the once admirable Wang Lung.