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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.