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Perhaps the most memorable character in the novel,O-lan is representative of the woman of traditional China.
In Chapter 1,
- When she is purchased by Wang Lung, whose father has cautioned him not to buy a slave "too young, and above all, not a pretty one" because they need a woman who will work, and a pretty woman will want pretty clothes to "go with her face."
- After he goes to the house of Hwang to buy his woman, Wang Lung sees "with an instant's disappointment that her feet were not bound," an inhumane practice which stunted the growth of women's feet to make them appear dainty.
- O-lan was sold when she was ten in a year of famine; now she is twenty.
- The Ancient Mistress tells O-lan, "Take her and use her well." To O-lan she says, "Obey him and bear him sons and yet more sons."
- When Wang Lung looks at her he notices that she has small, dull black eyes that "are filled with some sadness that was not clearly expressed."
- As they prepare to leave, Wang Lung points to his basket and box. Without saying anything, O-lan bends to pick them up, but she staggers as she tries to rise. Still she says nothing. Wang Lung takes the heavy box from her.
- On their trek to Wang Lung's house, O-lan must walk behind him. After he gives her a couple of peaches, she surreptitiously eats them, but when he glances back at her, she stops chewing and covers the peach with her hand.
- As they approach the door of the house, Wang Lung's father turns away and ignores her. Secretly, he is pleased when his son invites guests, but he does not let on before his new daughter-in-law "lest she be set from the first in the way of extravagance."
In Chapter 2,
- On the morning following there marriage, O-lan waits on her husband, and she is afraid of displeasing him; O'lan is pleased at this.
- O-lan works steadily, mending and cooking and gathering fertilizer from the roads where donkey and horses have left their droppings. "Day after day she did one thing after another....But she never talked...except for the brief necessities." And, later he feels "no lack in such conversing."
- Even though Wang Lung wonders about what O-lan has experienced in the "hundred courts," he is ashamed of his own curiosity. "She was, after all, only a woman."
- When she leaves the field to give birth, O-lan only asks her husband to bring her a reed so she can cut the umbilical cord. Hearing the baby's cry, Wang Lung asks, "Is it a man?" Then, she returns to the fields.
In Chapter 5,
- O-lan's lowly position does not improve, although Wang Lung is respectful of her in his mind and at times proud.
- When he is afraid that he has become too proud of his male child, Wang Lung says to the heavens aloud, "What a pity our child is a female whom no one could want...."
- And, that O-lan is repressed is yet evident at the end of this chapter when Wang Lung purchases some Hwang land, for although she smiles, this smile "never lightened the dullness of her narrow black eyes."
In Chapter 9,
- As they starve, O-lan kills the baby girl that she has, knowing she would only be a burden.
In Chapter 14,
- Though starving, Wang Lung refuses to sell his daughter after learning O-lan was beaten every day and slaves were raped by Hwang sons.
Later, the reader learns that Wang Lung takes from O-lan her treasured pearls and shows her no respect by bringing Lotus into the house. She quietly endures all, even the terrible pain in her belly which kills her. Years later, Wang Lung thinks of her only in "heaviness of memory."
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