You know how they say that behind every great man, there's a great woman? Well if Wang Lung is a great man, then O-lan is an even greater woman. She's running the show here, folks. O-lan is the reason Wang Lung becomes rich in the first place, and she's the one who makes all the hard decisions. What's more: she does it all in silence.
O-lan's most defining characteristic is her silence. She doesn't talk, she just does things. Wang Lung describes her like this: "[S]he never talked, this woman, except for the brief necessities of life. Wang Lung, watching her move steadily and slowly about the rooms on her big feet, watching secretly the stolid, square face, the unexpressed, half-fearful look of her eyes, made nothing of her" (2.16).
Just like that description says, people ignore O-lan because she's silent. They take her for granted. She must know it, but doesn't seem to mind; she just keeps on doing her thing in the background.
The thing is, O-lan's silence makes the words that she does say even more important than anything anyone else says. Think about it: since she normally doesn't talk, it's got to be a big deal to get her to open her mouth. So throughout the novel, we get these flashes of speech from O-lan that blow Wang Lung (and us) away.
Here's the first time it happens: “When I return to that house it will be with my son in my arms. I shall have a red coat on him and red-flowered trousers and on his head a hat with a small gilded Buddha sewn on the front and on his feet tiger-faced shoes. And I will wear new shoes and a new coat of black sateen and I will go into the kitchen where I spent my days and I will go into the great hall where the Old One sits with her opium, and I will show myself and my son to all of them" (3.10).
Well, snap. O-lan, we didn't know you were thinking about all of that. Wang Lung didn't, either, so he’s pretty shocked by how much he’s underestimated his wife. This won’t be the last time.
What else does O-lan accomplish with her carefully selected speech? Well, she stops people from trying to buy Wang Lung's land, she stops robbers, she stops her daughter from getting sold, and she steals the jewels that make the family rich. See? Important stuff.
Another time O-lan speaks, it's shocking for a different reason. It's because we see her not as just a hard-working wife but as someone with feelings who has probably never been cared for in her life. It comes when Wang Lung finds the jewels that she stole: "'I wish I could keep two for myself,' [O-lan] said with such helpless wistfulness, as of one expecting nothing, that he was moved as he might be by one of his children longing for a toy or for a sweet" (16.17). If you aren’t choking up after that, you obviously need some LOLCATS to soften your heart.
After all those years, all O-lan wanted in return for her hard work were two little pearls. If you check out these pearls in our "Symbols" section, you'll see that Wang Lung is so ungrateful that he can't even give her that for very long.
O-lan has had a hard life. Until she married Wang Lung, she was a slave in the House of Hwang. Not only that, but she had to beg in the streets as a child. When that didn't work, her parents sold her into slavery. So, yeah, O-lan could use a break.
As the novel unfolds, we learn more about what's it like to be a slave in the House of Hwang. Here's what happens when Wang Lung wants to sell his first daughter: “'I was sold,' [O-lan] answered very slowly. 'I was sold to a great house so that my parents could return to their home'" (13.21).
When Wang Lung asks O-lan what it was like, she doesn't sugarcoat it: "‘I was beaten with a leather thong which had been halter for one of the mules, and it hung upon the kitchen wall. […] Aye, beaten or carried to a man's bed, as the whim was, and not to one man's only but to any that might desire her that night […]'" (14.79).
With rape and beatings a part of everyday life, we can see why O-lan is scarred by her experience in the House of Hwang. Wang Lung doesn’t beat or rape her, but he isn’t exactly a caring or nurturing husband, either.
It's not until Wang Lung buys Lotus that O-lan's past comes back to haunt her. For the first time we see her get angry and cry. That's because Lotus brings Cuckoo into O-lan's house: "But it seemed that O-lan, when she saw Cuckoo, grew angry with a deep and sullen anger that Wang Lung had never seen and did not know was in her" (21.7).
It seems that Cuckoo used to boss O-lan around when they lived in House of Hwang together. Now the tables have turned, and O-lan lets Cuckoo know it when she is about to die: “'Well, and you may have lived in the courts of the Old Lord, and you were accounted beautiful, but I have been a man's wife and I have borne him sons, and you are still a slave'" (26.23).
Boom! And whatcha gonna do, Cuckoo? Nothing, because she's not going to fight with a dying woman.
Even though we know that being a slave means living a harsh life, it's not until O-lan is about to die that we really understand what this was like for her. When she is barely conscious, O-lan talks as if she is back in the House of Hwang: "'I will bring the meats to the door only—and well I know I am ugly and cannot appear before the great lord—' And again she said, panting, 'Do not beat me—I will never eat of the dish again—' And she said over and over, 'My father—my mother—my father—my mother—' and again and again, 'Well I know I am ugly and cannot be loved—'" (26.20).
That's basically the saddest thing ever. O-lan has been mistreated so much that the only thing she can say about herself is that she's ugly and can't be loved—pretty much exactly the things that Wang Lung ends up telling her, though he does learn (too late) how precious she actually was.
O-lan's experience of slavery is not depicted with rose-colored glasses, and that's important. Buck's realistic style constantly reminds us (since it was intended for a Western audience) that slavery is real, and that it stinks. We identify with O-lan because she seems like a good person, so we can't ignore the pain that she has gone through. Not only that, but Buck's depiction of O-lan makes her more than a victim. In many ways she is one of the most human characters in the novel.
Just as Wang Lung is the universal farmer, O-lan is the universal woman. We get to understand the position of women position in China during the early 1900s through her. There are a couple of things that are most important about a woman in turn-of-the-century China, and O-lan ends up on the wrong side of one of them. Women are supposed to be beautiful. Well, O-lan is ugly. Actually, she's the only character in the novel who is described as ugly. On top of that, her feet are not bound, which makes her even uglier.
(By the way, there is a whole analysis of foot binding in our "Symbols" section, head on over.)
Even on her wedding day, people can't stop talking about how ugly O-lan is. Get a load of this: “She is not beautiful but that you do not need. Only men of leisure have the need for beautiful women to divert them […] So far as I know she is virgin. She has not beauty enough to tempt my sons and grandsons even if she had not been in the kitchen" (1.132).
At first, it's enough for Wang Lung that O-lan's not disfigured. This is what he thinks when he first meets her: "He saw that it was true there was not beauty of any kind in her face—a brown, common, patient face. But there were no pock-marks on her dark skin, nor was her lip split […] He turned away with secret exultation. Well, he had his woman!" (1.138). But Wang Lung's satisfaction doesn't last, and soon he is just like everyone else, calling O-lan ugly.
You see, there are pretty women, and there are ugly women. Pretty woman have bound feet and fair skin like Lotus. Ugly women have big feet and brown skin like O-lan. Pretty women get all the attention. No one pays attention to ugly women.
Now, O-lan does have one advantage over the pretty women: she has given birth to sons.
When Wang Lung wants to get angry at O-lan for being ugly, she tells him that she is the mother of his children (20.54). This is the one thing that's more important than being pretty, and O-lan knows it. Even though it might be easy to dismiss her as a weak woman, she knows that no one can harm her, since she did her duty, and she uses that fact to keep herself safe.
So to recap: the (supposedly) most important thing that a woman can do is bear sons, and the second most important thing she can do is be beautiful. Oh, and there's one more thing...
Notice how the word slave is interchangeable with the word woman in this novel? You probably know this already because you're super smart, but back in the day, boys were way more important than girls in Chinese society. (Actually, that's true in lots of societies, but we're talking about China now.) Why, you may ask? Because girls leave the family, and you have to give them a dowry in order for them to get married. They are expensive. Boys carry on the family name, and they get money to get married from the bride's family. In other words, you get more bang for your buck with a boy.
So what happens to these unwanted girls? They become slaves. We guess that's how they make up for the money their family has to spend on them. O-lan was a slave in the House of Hwang, but she continues to be a slave even after she gets married. She cooks her own wedding dinner, for goodness's sake. Where does she begin her first night as a married woman? Right: sleeping next to the ox. We'd like to see all of this on the next episode of Bridezillas.
O-lan's life is all about work. Even the ox gets more rest than she does. And how does Wang Lung feel about her? Well: “At night he knew the soft firmness of her body. But in the day her clothes, her plain blue cotton coat and trousers, covered all that he knew, and she was like a faithful, speechless serving maid, who is only a serving maid and nothing more" (2.16). Romantic. That’s how every man should feel, right?
We'll be honest. O-lan does these things because she's used to it, not because Wang Lung makes her. On the other hand, he doesn't try to make her life easier. “Wang Lung never thought to say, 'Well, and why do you not with the silver I have to spare, hire a servant or buy a slave?'" (24.31). Besides being a workaholic, O-lan's extremely self-sacrificing. Even when everyone is starving and she needs a tiny bit of food to survive, she doesn't want to eat. It’s only because she knows she’ll die and leave her family motherless that she does eventually eat.
So O-lan's got two of the three most important things for a woman. She's got the sons, and she's got the labor; she's just missing the beauty. And that's enough to make her unimportant to Wang Lung, and to everyone else. We're guessing that kind of fate is not unusual.
Things change a little when O-lan is dying. Wang Lung suddenly notices her. Everyone notices her, or at least her absence. "All through the long months of winter she lay dying and upon her bed, and for the first time Wang Lung and his children knew what she had been in the house, and how she made comfort for them all and they had not known it" (26.1).
Even at the end, she's the same old O-lan, worrying about everyone else. Typical mom. Even on her last day she asks, "And has everyone wine? And is the sweet rice dish in the middle of the feast very hot and have they put full measure of lard and sugar into it and the eight fruits?" (26. 64). But it is not until after she dies that Wang Lung really feels how special she was.
Take this, for example. When Wang Lung's daughter-in-law is giving birth to his grandson, everyone is running around like chickens with their heads cut off, and Wang Lung remembers how O-lan gave birth quietly, and alone. Wang Lung had totally taken that for granted, but he doesn't realize it until he's able compare O-lan to someone else in similar circumstances. This new lady is nothing like O-lan. She can’t compare.
Wang Lung even feels a moment of sadness when he realizes this: "And he remembered as one remembers a dream long past how O-lan rested from her work a little while and fed the child richly and the white rich milk ran out of her breast and spilled upon the ground […] Then his son came in smiling and important and he said loudly, ‘The man child is born, my father, and now we must find a woman to nurse him with her breasts, for I will not have my wife's beauty spoiled with the nursing and her strength sapped with it. None of the women of position in the town do so.' And Wang Lung said sadly, although why he was sad he did not know, ‘Well, and if it must be so, let it be so, if she cannot nurse her own child'" (29.50).
Even though he's a bit slow on the uptake, Wang Lung does seem to realize, on some level, that O-lan was his good fortune. It was O-lan who made him rich, and after her death, everything starts falling apart. If the earth is the most important thing to Wang Lung, then O-lan must be the second most important. Not too shabby.