If Wang Lung had to plant his fields or if some crisis had occurred in the family, he might have forgotten the painting of the woman. But nothing happens, so he remains restless, avoiding O-lan’s stare. One evening he puts on his nicest coat and goes to the tea shop, which is busy and joyful. He hesitates at the door and might not have gone in, but then Cuckoo emerges from the shadows.
Wang Lung’s failure of will is blamed directly on his idleness; meaning, in other words, that he gives in to the temptation of sinful luxury only because he’s wealthy enough to not be worrying about more urgent matters. Cuckoo, as temptress, encounters him just at the crucial moment when he hesitates.
When Cuckoo recognizes Wang Lung, she dismisses him as just a farmer, which angers him. He wants to show that he’s wealthy enough to do whatever he wants, so he shows her a handful of silver and she asks which woman he wants. He requests the woman holding the lotus. Cuckoo leads him through the tea shop and up the stairs. He’s never climbed stairs in a house before. They walk down a hall, and Cuckoo calls out to the girls, then tells them that he only wants Lotus. One girl says Wang Lung smells like land and garlic, and he’s humiliated. Finally Cuckoo leads him into a room where a girl sits on a bed.
Wang Lung feels the need to prove himself wealthy not only in fact, but also in deed—he wants to act as the wealthy do. This means going against his own moral code, or perhaps changing his moral code to that of the wealthy. As he climbs the stairs, he metaphorically walks out of his old life and into a strange new one in which he holds himself above other people, on a higher floor of society.
If anyone had told Wang Lung that such small, dainty hands and feet existed, he wouldn’t have believed them. He sits awkwardly staring at the girl, who looks exactly like the picture, and he hardly believes she’s real. She touches his arm softly, and his arm seems to burn. He only trembles. Lotus laughs gently and calls him ignorant. Wang Lung takes her hand, asking her to teach him, and she does.
Wang Lung particularly notices Lotus’s feet since these are the feature of O-lan that most bothers him. He feels more than ever like an ignorant farmer, and his relationship with Lotus begins based on this power difference. In an almost fetishistic way, he pretends to surrender his power as a wealthy male to put her in charge of their sexual relations.
Though Wang Lung has suffered much in his life, he suffers more than ever due to Lotus. He goes to her every night, always beginning as a shy, ignorant farmer and then letting his passion overtake him. But he can never have her fully, which keeps him always wanting her. It’s not a healthy love as his desire for O-lan was; when Lotus forces him to leave each night, he never feels satisfied, and only wants her more. He hardly listens to what she says, but only watches her.
Buck distinguishes between the unthinking lust that Wang Lung used to feel for O-lan, which “properly” resulted in many children, and his obsessive passion for Lotus, which is labeled as unnatural and never produces children. His dissatisfaction stands for the insatiable desires of the rich, whom the novel sees as destined to destroy themselves.
Wang Lung begins to sleep outside rather than in his own bed. He snaps at anyone who speaks to him and ignores his family, living only for the nights. When Lotus laughs at his long hair, he cuts it off. O-lan is terrified by this, but he says Wang Lung doesn’t want to look old-fashioned. He would do anything for Lotus. In the past he rarely bathed, but now he bathes every day, worrying O-lan. He tries to smell nice, and never eats garlic.
Wang Lung’s love for Lotus becomes dangerous, in that he can’t think rationally when it comes to her requests and desires. He would go willingly to his own destruction for her. He entirely abandons everything that used to make him who he was in an attempt to conform to social norms of a higher class, hoping to impress her.
Wang Lung’s family doesn’t understand the change in him. He no longer lets O-lan make his clothes, but goes to a tailor, and he buys shoes like those the Old Lord wore. He keeps the clothes at the tea shop, because he’s embarrassed for his family to see them. He even buys a ring for himself. O-lan is bewildered and tells Wang Lung he reminds her of a lord from the great house. This makes him happy, and he’s kinder to her.
Wang Lung continues his transformation into one of the Hwangs, walking both literally and metaphorically in the shoes of the Old Lord. Though he’s satisfied with O-lan’s assessment of him, it must be noted that she had neither liking nor respect for the lords to whom she was a slave. Wang Lung treats her little better.
Wang Lung spends vast amounts of money not only to be with Lotus, but to buy her gifts. Whenever she expresses a desire for anything, he must buy it for her. O-lan sees him taking silver out of their hole in the wall but remains silent. She knows that he has some life separate from her, but not what it is. She’s feared him ever since he insulted her appearance. He’s always angry with her these days.
The Old Lord squandered his fortune on concubines, and Wang Lung already seems to be pouring his wealth in the same direction, blinded by his passion. O-lan’s silence is almost more painful than her anger would be, as even in her pain, she continues to act as the perfect wife according to society’s demands.
One day, Wang Lung finds O-lan washing his clothes and asks her what she’s done with the pearls she kept. He’s ashamed of himself but won’t admit it. She says she still has the pearls, and she hoped to make them into earrings for their younger daughter. Wang Lung replies that the girl’s skin isn’t light enough for pearls. He demands that she give him the pearls, and she does. He laughs when he sees them. O-lan continues washing his clothes, crying.
Wang Lung’s theft of the pearls feels like his worst and cruelest betrayal of O-lan, as he takes her only luxury from her to feed his own overflowing appetite for luxury. Furthermore, he denies her the right to beauty because he judges that she has no beauty herself. He shirks his duty to his broader family, such as his daughter, in favor of a manufactured connection to Lotus.