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The Good Earth | Symbols


O-lan's Pearls

One of the few times Wang Lung shows true compassion for his wife O-lan is when he "gifts" her the pearls in Chapter 16. As a dutiful and faithful wife, O-lan has never asked much for herself. So when she requests this favor with "helpless wistfulness," he is amazed and moved. Thus the pearls become a symbol of Wang Lung's regard for her.

O-lan is not a showy person. Wang Lung never sees the pearls again—until he demands them back from her in Chapter 19. He condemns O-lan's skin as being "black as earth" and therefore not suited for pearls. This is a clear rejection of their humble life together and their shared "love." Instead he plans to give the pearls (and his love) to Lotus with her beautiful, fair skin. Most hurtful is perhaps Wang Lung's careless laugh when O-lan gives him the pearls. This shows how easily he can throw away all his faithful years with O-lan. She allows her tears to drop from her eyes and does not "put up her hand to wipe them away."

After O-lan is diagnosed with a fatal disease, Wang Lung spends much time with her trying to make up for his mistreatment. When she dies he wishes "he had not taken the two pearls from O-lan." It is impossible for him to "bear to see Lotus put them in her ears again." He realizes how wrong he was to betray O-lan.


Throughout The Good Earth the earth and things made of earth are symbols of humble virtue and hard work. Wang Lung's farmhouse is made of "great squares of earth dug from their own fields." When he builds additions to the house in his wealth, he continues to use earth as a foundation and building material. In contrast it is interesting to note the floor in the decadent House of Hwang is made of tile. When Wang Lung bows to Old Mistress Hwang, he knocks his head on it.

Wang Lung sees O-lan and his firstborn son on his land "brown as the soil" sitting "like figures made of earth." They are as much his treasures as the land is and bring him many rewards as the earth does. O-lan is dark-skinned and hardworking, and Wang Lung owes much of his success to her. She works faithfully beside him in the fields. When they work together, "there was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over."

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