One day Wang Lung’s eldest son tells him that his teacher has no more to teach him, and he wants to go to the city to the south to attend a more advanced school. Wang Lung is tired from the fields and refuses to allow him to go, but his son insists that he’ll go. Wang Lung compares his son’s refined appearance to his own rough one, and thinks he looks like his son’s servant, which angers him. He tells his son to go work in the fields for once. He forgets all his pride in his son’s learning.
At this stage of his life, Wang Lung goes back and forth between being proud of his family’s ascent of the social ladder and clinging to the honor of hard work on the land that brought him all his success. While he’s proud of his son’s education and refinement, he also doesn’t like the idea of his son being better than he is.
That night, when Wang Lung visits Lotus, she says that his eldest son wants to leave and go south. He snaps that his son shouldn’t have been speaking to her, but she says that Cuckoo told her. Wang Lung still refuses to let his son go. For days afterwards, the boy doesn’t complain, but won’t go to school. Wang Lung lets him stay home and read in his room, thinking that his son didn’t really mean what he said, and he’ll be married soon enough.
Wang Lung jealously guards Lotus from interaction with any men other than himself. He also never takes the time to really try to understand his children, instead imposing his own desires on them. The boy becomes idle, which always seems to cause trouble in this book that values hard work.
Wang Lung soon forgets about his son’s problems as he gains back through work the money he spent on Lotus. He’s still happy to own her, even though she’s not terribly young and she never gets pregnant. She becomes more beautiful as she gets plumper.
Even now that Wang Lung is no longer obsessed with Lotus, she still brings him pleasure. In this society, fatness is a symbol of wealth, as only the wealthy have enough food and idle time to gain weight.
Wang Lung is almost entirely content, but one night O-lan comes to him. She’s become thinner and says her organs are burning. She’s looked pregnant for three years, but never given birth. She does her work quietly and Wang Lung hardly notices her. She avoids Lotus entirely. Wang Lung never thinks to hire help for her, even though he hires plenty of labor to help him in the fields. This evening, O-lan announces that she has something to say. Wang Lung thinks of how ugly she is.
While Lotus has grown plump from rich food, O-lan has grown plump out of illness, which is representative of their places in Wang Lung’s heart. Wang Lung still never considers that O-lan might want a better life, perhaps because he only sees her as an ugly workhorse. Lotus gets all the benefits of his wealth, while O-lan gets none.
O-lan tells Wang Lung that their eldest son goes into Lotus’s court when he’s not there. Wang Lung hardly believes her, so she tells him to come home when their son doesn’t expect him. He thinks that she’s jealous of Lotus, and he doesn’t worry about what she’s said. But that night, Lotus doesn’t want him to lie with her, and he realizes that she’s acted in a similar way for a while. He thinks of what O-lan has told him and leaves in a huff. He tries to sleep on two chairs but ends up taking a walk outside. He begins to suspect that his son has been spending time with Lotus, after all.
Wang Lung is very insecure in his relationships with his family members, as all the tensions among them make them likely to act out against each other. O-lan has never lied to him, so it seems ridiculous that he doubts her. However, he also thinks he’s so entitled to Lotus’s bed that he interprets any unwillingness on her part to sleep with him as a personal affront that must have something sinister behind it.
When dawn comes, Wang Lung eats and then goes into the fields. After a while he shouts that he’s going to his land by the moat and will be gone a long time. However, he stops at the temple and realizes that now that he’s prosperous, he pays the gods no attention. He can’t decide whether to go home, but he thinks of Lotus refusing to sleep with him and resents her ungrateful attitude. He sneaks back to his house and hears his son’s voice in Lotus’s court.
Wang Lung wants to fool his son into thinking that he won’t be home for a while. When he was poorer, he would give offerings to the gods when he was well off and curse them when he suffered. Now, however, he feels that he’s the master of his own destiny, which can be a dangerous way of thinking.
Wang Lung grows more angry and jealous than he’s ever been in his life. He strips a piece of bamboo and bursts into the court. Lotus and the eldest son don’t see him at first, and he watches them talking and laughing. Cuckoo sees him and shrieks, and he begins to beat his son viciously with the bamboo. Lotus tries to stop him, so he beats her too. He suddenly becomes weak and sends his son to his room.
O-lan is proved right once again, though Wang Lung never acknowledges it. He infers quite a bit from simply hearing his son talking to Lotus—from the extent of his anger, he seems to think that his son has been sleeping with her. His extreme jealousy shows how unsure he is of Lotus’s love.
Once Wang Lung’s anger cools, he goes into Lotus’s room, where she lies crying. He accuses her of trying to seduce his eldest son, but she says he only came because he was lonely, and they never slept together. She tries to make him feel bad for whipping her, saying he’s the only man who matters to her. Wang Lung can’t help loving her, and he realizes he doesn’t want to know what happened between her and his son. He tells his son to leave for the south the next day. Wang Lung passes O-lan, but she says nothing. Then he returns to his fields, weary.
It’s impossible to know whether Lotus tells the truth about her relations with Wang Lung’s son. Wang Lung’s passion for Lotus makes him softer with her than he is with O-lan, who may be less beautiful, but who better deserves his kindness. To get his son away from Lotus, Wang Lung gives him what he asked for all along rather than actually punishing him, which is a sort of reconciliation.