If O-lan shows us what’s considered ugly, then Lotus shows us what's considered beautiful—and frankly, it's not pretty, at least on the inside. Where O-lan is big, brown, and big-footed, Lotus is the opposite. O-lan is described as being like the earth, but Lotus is compared to flowers.
Here is how Wang Lung describes Lotus when he orders her for the first time: “That little one—that one with the pointed chin and the little small face, a face like a quince blossom for white and pink, and she holds a lotus bud in her hand" (19.15).
Pages and pages are dedicated to Lotus's beauty, so we'll just pick out the important parts. Number one: Lotus is pretty because she has small hands and bound feet. Number two: Lotus is pretty because she has round eyes. And last but not least: Lotus is pretty because she's helpless: "She swayed upon her little feet and to Wang Lung there was nothing so wonderful for beauty in the world as her pointed little feet and her curling helpless hands" (20.82).
A pretty good way to tell what a society thinks is pretty is to look at their rich women. Rich women can stay out of the sun because they don't have to work, so they'll often be pale like Lotus. Rich women are also probably healthy because they have enough food to eat, so their cheeks will be rosy. Since they don't have to work, or even walk, rich Chinese women could bind their feet, even though that would make anything but standing for a few moments painful. Does Lotus have all these things? Yep. Check, check, and check.
The problems start immediately after Wang Lung buys Lotus. Before she's even moved in, Wang Lung's aunt smells something rotten: “'She reeks of perfume and paint, that one,' she said, still laughing. 'Like a regular bad one she smells.' And then she said with a deeper malice, 'She is not so young as she looks, my nephew! I will dare to say this, that if she had not been on the edge of an age when men will cease soon to look at her, it is doubtful whether jade in her ears and gold on her fingers and even silk and satin would have tempted her to the house of a farmer, and even a well-to-do farmer'" (20.77).
Basically, Lotus needs someone to buy her soon, because she's getting too old to carry on with her profession. She's probably not moving in with Wang Lung because she loves him.
It doesn't end there. If birds of a feather flock together, then Lotus becoming besties with Wang Lung's aunt is a bad sign. She hates his kids, and Wang Lung's father calls her a harlot. She doesn't even really care about his well-being; she just wants to be amused. She also really only understands one thing, and that's, well, sex: “Now Lotus, for all she was ignorant in all ways except the one, in the way of men with women […]" (32.28). That’s the only life she knows, and the only thing she’s good at, so she's constantly flirting with other people, even Wang Lung's son. Boy, does that turn out well.
We're not sure that's what Wang Lung bargained for.
By the way, since names occur so rarely in The Good Earth, they are pretty important when they do appear. In Chinese culture, lotuses are super important. You probably guessed that they are a traditional symbol of beauty, but they are also a religious symbol.
Lotuses live in muddy, dirty water, but they float on top of all the muck in pristine beauty. They're a symbol of purity in an impure world. Considering what we just told you about Lotus, that's pretty ironic. We wouldn't be surprised if Buck was playing a joke on us, and what she really meant was that Lotus's face is pretty, but everything underneath is dirty and disgusting. What do you think?
Is it wrong that every time we think about Cuckoo, we imagine a witch? Come on, imagine this scene with a witch peeking out from behind the door: "‘Now that is a thing I have not heard for a long time,' she said sharply, and Wang Lung saw a handsome, shrewish, high-colored face looking out at him" (16.46). Totally fits, right?
Cuckoo is the lady (and rumored prostitute) who controlled the Old Lord during his last days, who ran the brothel that employed Lotus, and who became Lotus's servant when she moved into Wang Lung's house. If there is a job that will pay, Cuckoo will do it.
Let's talk about this woman's name for a moment. Cuckoos are birds that lay their eggs in other birds' nests so that they won't have to raise them themselves. Then, when the little orphan cuckoo birds are born, they push the other eggs out of the nest. Because of this weird behavior, cuckoos are associated with people who prey upon others and women who sleep with many (usually married) men. That sounds like our Cuckoo, all right.
Cuckoo has one major and constant trait: she's always scheming. Everyone (except Wang Lung) knows that she will do anything for money, and we mean anything. As Wang Lung's aunt puts it, “That one! […] From the beginning that one would do anything, even to making a mountain, if she could feel silver enough in her palm for it" (20.39).
She even tries to hit on Wang Lung. Do we even need to point out how gross that is?
Even when Cuckoo's not scheming, she just looks and sounds like she is. Her eyes are "narrow and bright as a snake's eyes, and her voice smooth as oil flowing from a vessel" (18.37). They glitter like a hawk's eyes or shine with malice (33.30, 33.34). She's even compared to a rat: “When there was a thing to be done, Cuckoo smelled the money in it as a rat smells tallow[…]" (23.18).
Cuckoo's scheming is pretty consistent, so the fact that Wang Lung keeps falling for her tricks over and over again just illustrates how naïve he is. How else could you keep doing business with this lady?
Even though Lotus and Cuckoo keep switching roles—one or the other them is always working for or employing the other one—in the end, they're just friends. Lotus gets old and fat, so Wang Lung doesn't come to see her anymore; after that, all Lotus and Cuckoo do is sit around and gossip together.
Here's a description of a typical day from the last chapter of the novel: "[Lotus] and Cuckoo sat together now after these many years as friends and no longer as mistress and servant, and they talked of this and that, and most of all the old days with men and they whispered together of things they would not speak aloud, and they ate and drank and slept, and woke to gossip again before eating and drinking" (34.28).
It's not really surprising that they become friends. What's a little more surprising is that this might also be the one true picture of friendship in the novel. Sure, Ching and Wang Lung have an epic bromance, but Ching never forgets that he's Wang Lung's servant. Lotus and Cuckoo get to be real friends (or so it seems) because in the end, social status isn't important to them. How is it that social status—and the pursuit of it—prevents or ruins every other relationship in the novel?