Wang Lung does not want to marry his son to a village woman. However, he is not friendly with the rich men in town, so he cannot approach them. Lotus tells him about Liu, a grain merchant who visited her in the tea house and who has a daughter nearly of marriageable age. Soon after, Wang Lung learns that his uncle’s son took Wang Lung’s son to an old prostitute in town. Wang Lung is angry and goes to the prostitute to offer her twice her usual fee if she turns his son away instead of sleeping with him. He tells Cuckoo to begin marriage negotiations with Liu right away. Meanwhile, he furiously demands that his uncle and his uncle’s family leave. His uncle opens his coat and shows him a false red beard and a piece of red material, the symbols of a notorious band of robbers who rape women and burn men alive. His uncle dares Wang Lung to expel him.
Wang Lung realizes why only his home has been spared in the frequent raids over the years. If he evicts his uncle now, his house will be plundered. If he goes to the courts to report his uncle, he reasons, it is more likely that he will be beaten for disloyalty than that his uncle will be prosecuted. He allows his uncle to stay and gives silver to his uncle’s wife and son.
Cuckoo succeeds in arranging the betrothal. However, Liu’s daughter is only fourteen, and Liu wants to wait three years before the wedding. In the midst of these troubles, a plague of locusts descends, and Wang Lung must battle to save his crops.
Wang Lung refuses his oldest son’s request to go to a university in the south. For three years, O-lan’s belly has been swollen as if she is pregnant, although she is not. When asked how she is, she tells of pain in her stomach. However, she still works, because Wang Lung has never offered to buy her a servant. One day, O-lan goes to her husband’s room and tells him that their eldest son often visits Lotus alone. He does not believe her, and she advises him to come home unannounced one day, and see. Wang Lung discovers his son alone with Lotus one day. He beats both of them and immediately sends his son to the university in the south.
Wang Lung’s second son is a crafty, intelligent boy, so Wang Lung approaches Liu to ask if he will accept the boy as his apprentice. Liu gladly agrees, and they tentatively discuss the possibility of a marriage between Liu’s son and Wang Lung’s second daughter. When Wang Lung returns home, he is pleased to see that his daughter’s foot-binding is working. However, there are tears on her cheeks. She explains that the binding hurts and that she has not mentioned it because O-lan cautioned her not to weep aloud or Wang Lung might end the foot binding. She tells her father that O-lan said that if her feet are not bound, her husband will not love her, just as Wang Lung does not love O-lan. Wang Lung is stung with guilt at these words. He tells Cuckoo to finalize the betrothal of his second daughter, and he decides to train his third son as a farmer, but as he makes these decisions he is thinking about his wife.
Wang Lung is filled with remorse for his lack of concern for O-lan. He notices that her movements are painful and slow. He orders her to bed and hires a doctor. Under Chinese law, a doctor cannot promise to heal a patient if he cannot be sure of his success. Hence, the doctor names an exorbitant fee for healing O-lan as a means of gently telling Wang Lung that his wife cannot be saved. When Wang Lung goes to the kitchen “where O-lan had lived her life for the most part,” he cries.
Wang Lung’s misunderstanding of his eldest son is partly due to their vastly different upbringings. They are alike in some respects, especially in their ambition. However, having grown up with money, Wang Lung’s oldest son desires social prestige more than simple wealth. Whereas Wang Lung wanted his sons educated so that they would not be scorned by grain merchants, his son wants to go to a great university in the south so that he can see other places and learn from true scholars. Wang Lung and his son are both sensitive to the opinions of others; they are both obsessed with appearances. The son’s luxurious upbringing merely amplifies the traits that he shares with his father.
Because of his difficulties with his oldest son, Wang Lung resolves to try different approaches with his younger sons. He takes his second son out of school and makes him an apprentice to Liu. Wang Lung hopes that exposure to a practical trade will prevent the restlessness and desire for social prestige that plague his older son. Moreover, he wants his third son to be a farmer like himself, because his third son respects the earth’s healing power. He wants the entire family to stay close to the earth because he thinks that estrangement from the earth caused the Hwang family’s decline.
The words of Wang Lung’s daughter awaken Wang Lung to the guilt he bears for causing O-lan to suffer. He is also made uncomfortably (and perhaps somewhat unrealistically) aware of the suffering of women in his culture. Wang Lung realizes that bound feet cause pain. He also realizes that O-lan has been such a boon to him precisely because she did not have bound feet.
When Wang Lung discovers that his wife is dying, he is heartsick. Buck describes the kitchen as the place where O-lan spent her life to show the reader that for the first time, Wang Lung is beginning to understand his wife’s life and what she sacrificed.