The Good Earth

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The Pearls Symbol Analysis

The Pearls Symbol Icon

When Wang Lung discovers the handful of jewels that O-lan has stolen from the great house in the city, she asks to keep two pearls, and he lets her. However, he later takes them from her and has them made into earrings for Lotus. Though O-lan has few aspirations to greatness, the fact that she treasures the pearls so much shows that she has plenty of thoughts and feelings that Wang Lung doesn’t perceive. He thinks of her as a very simple, hard-working woman, and he never considers that she might want a better life than she has. Furthermore, her desire for the pearls shows that she appreciates beauty, even though Wang Lung thinks she’s ugly and sometimes wishes she would try to make herself more beautiful. Later, the pearls act as an agent of Wang Lung’s casual cruelty, as he takes this treasured possession from his wife and gives them to Lotus, who represents his desertion of his wife.

The Pearls Quotes in The Good Earth

The The Good Earth quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Pearls. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Rich vs. Poor Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Washington Square Press edition of The Good Earth published in 2004.
Chapter 16 Quotes

“If I could have two,” she went on humbly, “only two small ones—two small white pearls even...”

“Pearls!” he repeated, agape... Then Wang Lung... looked for an instant into the heart of this dull and faithful creature, who had labored all her life at some task at which she won no reward and who in the great house had seen others wearing jewels which she never even felt in her hand once.

Related Characters: Wang Lung (speaker), O-lan (speaker)
Related Symbols: The House of Hwang, The Pearls
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

Once the family returns to their land, Wang Lung discovers that O-lan has been hiding a packet of jewels that she stole from the great house in the city when the mob broke in. Wang Lung insists they must sell the jewels, but O-lan asks if she might keep two pearls.

This passage shows how rarely Wang Lung truly sees O-lan as a person, simply because she’s a woman, and a silent, uncomplaining one at that. O-lan has had very little happiness in her life, having been sold as a slave at an early age, treated badly in the House of Hwang, and then living as Wang Lung’s servant as much as his wife. However, this doesn’t mean that she doesn’t appreciate beauty just as much as anyone else, or have her own inner mysteries and desires. This moment makes Wang Lung see that O-lan is more complicated than he thought, and when he allows her to keep the pearls (that really belong to her anyway, since she obtained them) it bonds them together in their quest for a better life.

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The Pearls Symbol Timeline in The Good Earth

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Pearls appears in The Good Earth. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 16
Rich vs. Poor Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
The Oppression of Women Theme Icon
Connection to the Earth Theme Icon
...notices that O-lan seems to want something. She asks whether she might keep two white pearls, not to wear, but just to hold sometimes. He’s astonished, and she doesn’t seem to... (full context)
Chapter 17
The Oppression of Women Theme Icon
Connection to the Earth Theme Icon
Social Status Theme Icon
...and a girl. He’s joyful and jokes that this was why she kept the two pearls. (full context)
Chapter 18
Rich vs. Poor Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
The Oppression of Women Theme Icon
Social Status Theme Icon
...pretty and would have kept them for herself. He wonders if she still has the pearls between her breasts, but he doesn’t like to think of it, because her breasts are... (full context)
Chapter 19
Family Theme Icon
The Oppression of Women Theme Icon
...Wang Lung finds O-lan washing his clothes and asks her what she’s done with the pearls she kept. He’s ashamed of himself but won’t admit it. She says she still has... (full context)
Chapter 21
Rich vs. Poor Theme Icon
The Oppression of Women Theme Icon
...to slaves. When he angers and shakes her, she accuses him of giving Lotus her pearls. This makes him ashamed, and he tells Cuckoo that he’ll build another kitchen for her... (full context)
Chapter 26
Family Theme Icon
...deaths. After the burial, he walks home alone, wishing he had let O-lan keep her pearls, and he decides never to allow Lotus to wear them again. He feels that the... (full context)