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Finally, after being absent and ignored for the greater part of the book, O-lan receives some recognition. Indeed, these chapters find Wang Lung reflecting on all of the members of his family. Between his hard-work in the fields and his dissapation with Lotus, Wang Lung has hardly had any time to know his own flesh and blood. The enormity of his neglect is the theme of this portion of the novel.
It takes his daughter's simple comment, in which she reveals that O-lan knows how little Wang Lung loves and appreciates her, to snap him out of his solipsistic obsession with status and beauty. He realizes that his neglect has left O-lan, to whom he owes everything, on the verge of death, and though he tries, he can do nothing to save her. His money and status and land cannot buy her life back.
Compounded with the death of Wang Lung's father, O-lan's death takes away the person in Wang Lung's household who is most thematically connected with the earth. Wang Lung seems to understand this connection intuitively when he states that he would give up his land to keep O-lan alive. She is his land in several important ways -- she provided the financial means and the work ethic necessary to accrue property and, on another level, she produced three sons and three daughters herself. O-lan, like the fields, has been ignored, neglected and taken-for-granted, yet she has been steady and strong and bountiful and Wang Lung finally realizes how much he owes her.
At the same time, Wang Lung does not feel that he was wrong to buy Lotus. As a man, such a purchase was warranted. However, he deeply regrets showing his wife disrespect during his long infatuation with the beautiful concubine. He should have honored her hard work and motherhood rather than ignore her. Especially painful is the memory of the pearls that she had asked for. This was O-lan's only significant request in the whole book, and that Wang Lung disregarded it is especially damning. He can no longer look upon Lotus and her pearls without recalling the happiness that he snuffed out of O-lan.
Yet Buck paints O-lan as more than a symbol of the earth and a foil for her husband. She has the richest inner-life of any character in the novel, a fact that grows evident in her harrowing nightmares before dying. O-lan has internalized the insults of her "betters" -- she knows that she is not beautiful and the thought that such a factor, which she has no control over, so affected her relationship with Wang Lung. At the same time, O-lan is fiercely proud of the things she has been able to control: her work-ethic and her uncomplaining motherhood. These factors, which seem on the surface to be more evidence of her submission to Wang Lung's dominion, are revealed to be sources of strength, agency and individualism for O-lan.
O-lan has done more than anyone else in the book to exhibit the giving qualities of the earth: constancy, fortitude, patience and self-reliance. And now she, like Wang Lung's father, has been given over to the earth. She will become a part of the earth again, which is only fitting, even as it means that Wang Lung has grown farther from the earth than ever.