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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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Good Earth!