The next day, the family closes the door behind them, the boys carrying bowls and chopsticks, and they leave. Wang Lung carries the girl until he has to give her to O-lan so that he can carry his father on his back. They pass the temple with its oblivious gods. The wind is frigid, and Wang Lung encourages his sons with talk of food in the south. They reach the gate to the city, where deep mud hinders them. Wang Lung has to carry his father and his children through, and he’s left almost without strength.
This scene presents the ultimate picture of familial unity. The boys carry the bowls that symbolize their hope for food in the near future, while Wang Lung and O-lan use what little strength they have left to help their daughter and Wang Lung’s father. It’s so difficult for them just to reach the town that it seems they have little hope of going farther.
They pass the gate to the House of Hwang. It’s locked, and a few people lie outside. Wang Lung hears one say that the rich are eating while they starve, and another says he wants to burn the house down. Wang Lung says nothing.
Though all the evidence points to the cruelty of the rich, Wang Lung doesn’t seem to hate them the way the other starving people do, perhaps because he already envisions himself as a rich man.
The family emerges on the other side of the town as it gets dark, and they find a crowd of people moving south. Wang Lung asks where everyone is going, and someone tells him they’re going to ride the “firewagon” south. Wang Lung has heard of this machine that expels fire and water, and has often intended to go see it, but never has. He asks O-lan if she thinks they should go on the firewagon. While they stop to wonder, Wang Lung’s father and sons sink to the ground. His daughter looks almost dead, and O-lan says they’re all likely to die that night.
The popular name for the train shows that it’s still a rather new addition to the countryside. In fact, it’s just one of the changes that often go on around Wang Lung almost without him noticing. In this case, the train results from the Industrial Revolution and foreign influence in China. Wang Lung is almost as unchangeable as the land, which remains for eons no matter what goes on in the human world.
Wang Lung realizes that they can’t survive another day of walking, so he says they’ll take the firewagon. That very moment a huge noise and fiery eyes come out of the darkness. The family is pushed forward in the ensuing terror of the crowd, but they manage to stick together and end up in a compartment. The firewagon takes them away.
The frightening, modern machine that takes the family away from their land foreshadows the unfamiliar institutions that they’ll encounter in the city, where everything is more closely connected to broader movements of modernity in the country and the world.