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O-lan lies sick for months. Only now that she is bedridden does the family realize how important she was to the household. Wang Lung stays at her bedside during her long illness and is kind to her. Sometimes, in her fever, O-Lan speaks as if she is a terrified slave at the Hwangs, or calls out for her parents. O-lan asks that her son’s betrothed come and tend her. She does, and O-lan and Wang Lung are pleased with the girl’s good behavior. O-lan makes a final request: she wants to see her son married before dying. Liu agrees, although this will mean his daughter will marry a year earlier than planned. When his son returns from the south, Wang Lung is pleased to see that he has grown into a man. During the elaborate wedding ceremony, the young man appears happy with his father’s choice of a bride. O-lan is too weak to attend the ceremony, but she lies in bed listening. Soon after the wedding, O-lan dies. Her last words are a fevered insistence that “beauty will not bear a man sons,” and that even if she is ugly, she has borne sons for her husband.
Soon after her death, Wang Lung’s father passes away. O-lan and Wang Lung’s father are buried during one funeral ceremony. As Wang Lung walks away after the ceremony, he has one thought: that he cannot bear to see Lotus wear the two pearls he took from O-lan.
After a flood brings a terrible famine, Wang Lung carefully monitors household expenses. Although he treats his uncle’s family like honored guests, they complain about his miserly ways. Wang Lung’s oldest son becomes angry, seeing the way his uncle’s family takes advantage of his father. He also feels he must guard his wife from his cousin’s roving eye. Wang Lung explains that he cannot refuse his uncle’s demands because his uncle is a member of a notorious band of robbers. His son suggests that they drown the entire family. When Wang Lung refuses, his son suggests that he buy opium for them; opium is very expensive, but if the uncle and cousin become addicted to it, keeping them supplied with opium will be less costly than paying for their current expenses. Wang Lung is reluctant to try this plan until his uncle’s son tries to molest his younger daughter. He sends the girl to live with her future husband’s family because he fears he cannot protect her virginity. Afterward, he purchases six ounces of opium for his uncle’s family in an effort to make them addicted.
With the knowledge that O-lan’s death is imminent, Wang Lung must again confront his cruel treatment of her. He gives her comfort by letting her know that she will be respectably buried and mourned. O-lan has always taken pride in knowing that she rose from her position as a lowly, ugly kitchen slave to become the mother of a rich man’s three sons. On her deathbed, she relishes pointing out this rise to Cuckoo. Her dying insistence that her great achievement in life is being the mother of sons demonstrates that O-lan continues to be the ideal wife and mother.
Although Wang Lung has treated his wife without the great respect she deserves, he is kind to her as she is dying. He still does not feel he loves her, however, even though he wants to and feels guilty that he does not. He sits by her bedside, and “[w]hen he took this stiff dying hand he did not love it, and even his pity was spoiled with repulsion towards it.” Buck portrays his lack of love for her not as a moral failure, but as something he cannot help. Because Wang Lung is saddened and ashamed of his own failure to love his wife, he does not seem cruel.
Although Wang Lung has good reason to try to subdue his evil uncle, his decision to trick his uncle and his uncle’s wife into becoming opium addicts is another sign of the Wangs’ increasing similarity to the Hwang family. Wang Lung originally was horrified to find that the Old Mistress was an addict, because he considered opium addiction an expensive, wasteful, and decadent habit. For all his reverence of family, however, Wang Lung is willing to turn his relatives into opium addicts.
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