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After O’lan steals the jewels, they function as a bad omen. They were stolen and therefore tainted with the crime of theft.
She confesses that she would like to keep two of the jewels, the pearls. She will not wear them, only look at them occasionally. He is astonished by this because it represents her inner life.
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.