Though the city is filled with luxury, Wang Lung’s family has barely enough to survive. The working people of the city have no chance to enjoy themselves, but instead spend all their time creating the luxury in which the rich live. The older poor people remain silent, putting all of their energy into their work. Even in rest, their faces are twisted from the strain of their constant labor. They have no understanding of themselves; one man sees himself in a mirror and calls his reflection ugly without realizing it’s really himself.
Again Buck emphasizes the inequality of Chinese society, in which the rich live in excessive luxury and the poor have no chance to escape poverty. There’s no suggestion that a middle class exists. The story of the man looking in the mirror acts as a metaphor for many of the people’s nonexistent political consciousness; they are only aware of themselves as machines that do work.
The poor women make do with others’ leavings and stolen bits of cloth or food. They’re endlessly having children, who are only more mouths to feed. Wang Lung and his family become part of this class of people that permeates the city and surrounding countryside. When the boys of this class grow into adolescence, they become unhappy with their lot in life. When they start families, their anger becomes despair. From men in this state, Wang Lung finally learns what’s on the other side of the wall where his family lives.
The poor families generally seem to have no consideration of birth control, so their constantly enlarging numbers only keep them more entrenched in poverty. Buck describes the lower class as an entity unto itself, even if its members don’t recognize themselves as part of this group. Even before Buck reveals what’s on the other side of the wall, she implies that it may be the source of the lower class’s anger.
The first hints of spring are arriving, and Wang Lung can’t sleep, so he stands on the edge of the street where his father squats. The old man is holding onto a loop of cloth within which Wang Lung’s daughter is staggering around. Wang Lung watches and longs for his land. His father says he understands, having had to leave the fields four times in his life and know that they weren’t planted. Wang Lung points out that he always returned to the land, and he promises himself that they’ll go back this time, too.
Wang Lung seems to connect his sense of family with his land, which has come down to him through his family and has always nourished them. No matter how many times they’ve had to leave, they’ve always returned to the source of their life. Wang Lung’s father surely has expertise on how to survive a famine, having done it four times, yet his sense that he deserves to be taken care of means he never offers this wisdom.
Wang Lung returns to the hut and tells O-lan that if he had anything to sell, they would go back to the land. He wishes they could walk back, but knows they wouldn’t survive. O-lan says that he could sell their daughter. Wang Lung protests, but O-lan says that she herself was sold so that her parents could go home. If she could do as she liked, she would kill the girl before she’d sell her, but she’s willing to sell her for Wang Lung’s sake. Wang Lung says he’d never sell the girl. But now that she’s suggested it, the idea tempts him. The girl has grown, but doesn’t speak. She still smiles at Wang Lung, and this keeps him from being able to sell her.
O-lan displays her internalized misogyny here, meaning that she accepts her society’s awful treatment of women. Even her first-hand knowledge of the miserable life of a slave doesn’t prevent her from being willing to give her daughter the same fate. In fact, she seems to think death would be a better fate than slavery, but her sense of duty to her husband and her male children overrides her compassion for her daughter. Rather than rebelling against her own abuse, she accepts it as a matter of course.
Wang Lung cries out in despair that he can never earn enough to save any money. A man who lives in a neighboring hut appears and says that thousands of people in the city feel the same way. Wang Lung rarely sees this man, as he works at night pulling wagons. Sometimes they pass each other at dawn. Now the man says that the current state won’t last forever. He has sold two daughters, but remarks that some people prefer to kill daughters when they’re born. He predicts change coming, since the rich have become too rich. He says that behind the wall lies a wealthy house where even the slaves live in luxury.
This man offers a sort of Marxist political consciousness, essentially suggesting that the working-class is a group united in their problems, and that their misery is the fault of the rich. He even foresees a revolt against the rich. The homes on either side of the wall, one extremely opulent, the others simple mat huts, present in one location the broader problems of inequality that trouble the city.
That night, Wang Lung can’t sleep because he’s thinking so much about the difference between his life on this side of the wall and the decadent life he imagines on the other side. He again considers selling his daughter, since she’d probably have a better life in a rich house. However, he realizes that she wouldn’t fetch a high enough price to buy supplies once they reached home. He doesn’t think anything of the man’s prediction that something always happens when the rich become too rich.
Characteristically, Wang Lung focuses on his own desire to become wealthy, rather than on his neighbor’s prediction of class revolution. His desire to not be poor seems to constantly prevent him from developing a political consciousness as a working-class man. He even thinks that his daughter’s life would be better if she could live among luxuries, not considering how she’d be treated as a slave.