Summary: Chapter 20

Wang Lung’s uncle returns, once more banking on his ability to exploit Wang Lung’s filial piety. Wang Lung’s uncle and the uncle’s wife and son move into Wang Lung’s house. His uncle’s wife, seeing Wang Lung’s new attention to his appearance, declares that Wang Lung hungers for another woman. She tells O-lan to accept that all men with the necessary wealth buy additional wives. Upon hearing this, Wang Lung is emboldened and asks his uncle’s wife to act as his agent and help him purchase Lotus. He tells his uncle’s wife that he will do anything to have Lotus for his own, including selling his land. Waiting to hear whether Lotus will come, Wang Lung is in agony. He lashes out at O-lan for not brushing her hair. She bursts into tears “as he had never seen her weep before, even when they starved, or at any other time.” She tells him that she has borne him sons. Wang Lung is suddenly ashamed because he knows he has no real grounds for complaint against O-lan.

He builds a separate court and fishpond, and he installs Lotus there with Cuckoo as her servant. Lotus is carried to the house on a chair; because of her bound feet, she is unable to walk long distances. Wang Lung is satisfied once she is there and has sex with her every night.

Summary: Chapter 21

Although O-lan ignores Lotus, she vents her unhappiness by speaking out against Cuckoo. She states that Cuckoo was cruel to her when they were both slaves in the House of Hwang, and Cuckoo was a higher-ranking slave than she. O-lan refuses to do anything for Cuckoo now since O-lan is the first wife in this household. She will not let Cuckoo work in the kitchen. When Wang Lung tries to force O-lan to be civil to Cuckoo, O-lan brings up the pearls that Wang Lung took from her to give to Lotus. Silenced, Wang Lung decides to build another kitchen for Lotus and Cuckoo to alleviate the hostility. Cuckoo spends extravagantly on delicate, expensive foods for her mistress. To Wang Lung’s dismay, his uncle’s wife befriends Cuckoo and Lotus. Wang Lung’s passion for Lotus begins to wane.

Wang Lung’s father, who is getting senile, sees Lotus one day and cries out that there is a “harlot” in the house. He does not accept any explanation for her presence and begins to annoy Lotus as a child would, spitting on her floor and throwing stones in her fishpond. One day, the twins take their sister to Lotus’s court. Upon seeing Lotus’s brightly colored clothing and jewelry, the girl tries to touch them. Lotus screams, bringing Wang Lung hurrying to her side. She rails against the “idiot” and insults his children. Angered by her words, Wang Lung does not visit Lotus for two days. When he goes to her again, she tries especially hard to please him. He forgives her, but he “never [loves her] again so wholly as he had loved her.”

One day, Wang Lung goes outside and sees that the fields are ready for plowing. He casts off his elegant clothes and cries out for his hoe and plow. Buck writes, “A voice cried out in him, a voice deeper than love cried out in him for his land.”

Summary: Chapter 22

Wang Lung throws himself into work. He loses his unhealthy obsession with Lotus, so she ceases to have the power to manipulate him easily. Wang Lung’s eldest son reads and writes well, and Wang Lung is very proud of him. Eventually, however, the eldest son becomes moody and irritable. When the son begins skipping school, Wang Lung beats him. Later, O-lan informs Wang Lung that she saw a similar moodiness in the young lords in the House of Hwang. Usually, the matter was solved by giving them a female slave. Wang Lung is surprised, but O-lan tells him that their son is not like them—since he is never forced to work, he has time to feel sorry for himself. Wang Lung is secretly pleased at the idea that his son is as spoiled as a lord and decides that it is time to find a wife for him.

Analysis: Chapters 20–22

Wang Lung’s sudden disregard for O-lan’s valuable contributions to his wealth can be understood to some extent in relation to patriarchal Chinese society. As a woman, O-lan is not considered an equal partner in their marriage but a valuable piece of property whose worth is measured by Wang Lung’s satisfaction with her. Probably because she too considers it a natural state of affairs for Wang Lung to desire a second woman, O-lan, despite her obvious pain at being supplanted by Lotus, continues to behave as the model Chinese wife.

However, O-lan begins to stand up for herself more and more. She points out that she has given her husband three healthy sons. Her implication, which he understands, is that she has been a model wife, that she has done the most important thing a wife can do in giving him sons, and that he has no legal complaint against her. When angered, O-lan reminds Wang Lung of his cruelty in taking her pearls from her.

But until the floods subside, Wang Lung shows little regard for O-lan’s, or anyone else’s, opinion. Throughout the previous chapters, Wang Lung demonstrated an intense sensitivity to the opinions of others, but now that he is idle and wealthy, his focus turns inward. He is no longer happy with the mere ownership of money; now he wishes to behave and look like a rich man. O-lan compares him to the dissolute and extravagant Old Master Hwang. She means it as an insult, but Wang Lung takes it as a compliment. He is also pleased when O-lan tells him that their son is just like a spoiled young lord.

Even at his worst, however, Wang Lung does not stray entirely from the moral values that defined his upbringing. As the reigning male in his household and a rich man, he is within his rights to take a concubine. Indeed, some or most people would consider taking a concubine the natural and proper course for a man in his position. However, Wang Lung, who grew up distrusting the values of the wealthy, is uneasy with his actions. For this reason, he is embarrassed when his father finds out about Lotus. Moreover, when his son reaches sexual maturity and begins to struggle with sexual longing, Wang Lung cannot bring himself to buy a female slave for him, a common and accepted practice for rich families. Instead, he resolves to find a wife for his son.

Wang Lung’s return to working the land after the floods subside brings about his moral and emotional renewal, as he begins to lose interest in Lotus and return to the simpler ethic of hard work that Buck connects to happiness and success throughout the book.