O-lan lies dying all through the winter, and Wang Lung’s family finally realizes how much she had done for them. Nobody else seems to know how to cook and clean properly. Wang Lung’s father can’t understand why O-lan no longer helps him until Wang Lung brings him into her room and he sees that she’s ill. Wang Lung’s eldest daughter is the only one who keeps smiling, oblivious. The family has to remember to take care of her, and sometimes they forget. Once they leave her outside all night, and Wang Lung is angry until he realizes he needs to take care of her himself.
Finally, when it’s too late, Wang Lung and his family begin to appreciate the so-called women’s work that O-lan has always done without thanks. Though these aren’t considered skilled jobs, the family realizes that they aren’t as easy as they seemed. Meanwhile, the eldest daughter continues to smile in the face of tragedy, a reminder that life goes on no matter what horrors occur. She also exposes her family members’ self-centeredness.
Wang Lung pays no attention to the land while O-lan is dying. Ching takes care of everything, coming twice a day to ask after O-lan, but Wang Lung never has good news, so he tells Ching to stop asking. He usually sits by O-lan’s bed, burning charcoal to keep her warm. She always says it’s too expensive, and eventually he tells her he would sell all his land if it would heal her. She protests that she’ll die sooner or later, and the land will live on.
If the land is associated with life, Wang Lung becomes detached from the land as death approaches. He first offered to sell all his land to buy Lotus, so his willingness to do the same to save O-lan seems a sort of reconciliation with her. O-lan understands that her family’s enduring place on the land is the most important thing, even as the human world changes around them.
Wang Lung refuses to talk about O-lan’s death, but one day he goes to buy a coffin for her. The carpenter gives him a deal if he buys two, so he buys a second for his father. He tells O-lan what he’s done, and she’s glad.
In Wang Lung’s culture, people are comforted by seeing the coffin in which they’ll lie when they die. Even so, it might seem slightly callous to buy his father’s coffin just for a good deal.
Wang Lung sits by O-lan in silence, though sometimes she talks as though remembering her childhood, speaking to someone who abuses her as a slave. Wang Lung can’t stand her distress and holds her hand. He’s ashamed because even then, he doesn’t feel the same love for her that he does for Lotus, and he still finds her ugly. As a result, he’s particularly kind to her. He can’t feel happy with Lotus because of his worry for O-lan.
In her delirium, it becomes clear that O-lan’s past still haunts her, but Wang Lung has never found out the details of her life before she married him. Wang Lung feels the irrationality of love; though he knows rationally that he should love O-lan, his attraction to Lotus still wins out.
Sometimes O-lan becomes fully conscious, and one day she summons Cuckoo. She tells her that despite Cuckoo’s superiority in the House of Hwang, O-lan herself has been married and had sons, while Cuckoo remains a slave. Cuckoo is angry, but Wang Lung leads her away. O-lan forbids Cuckoo or Lotus from touching her possessions after she dies.
O-lan has cared just as much about overcoming her low origins as Wang Lung has. She feels that she has triumphed over her oppressors by succeeding in family life, which is seen as the pinnacle of female achievement. She stands up for her supremacy in Wang Lung’s house.
Just before the New Year, O-lan seems better. She has Wang Lung send for the girl who is engaged to their eldest son so that she can make the food for the festival. Liu agrees to let his daughter go since O-lan is dying, and she arrives at the house with a servant. Wang Lung gives her a room and is satisfied with her looks and behavior. She helps take care of O-lan.
Even when she’s too ill to do the preparations herself, O-lan still wants to see that her household properly celebrates the New Year. Significantly, it was at the New Year that she once brought her son to the Old Mistress to show off her ascendancy from her former slave position.
After a few days, O-lan says she wants to see her eldest son marry before she dies. Wang Lung doesn’t like to hear her talk about dying, but she sounds stronger in speaking her desire. He tells her he’ll send someone south to find their son and bring him home. He still hopes she’ll get better. He sends a man to tell his son that he must be married in three days. Wang Lung has Cuckoo arrange the wedding feast, telling her to make it as luxurious as in the House of Hwang. He invites everyone he knows and tells his uncle to invite anyone he wants, since he’s treated his uncle courteously ever since he found out he was part of the robber band.
Again, O-lan sees her children as her greatest achievement in life, and she wants to see her family continuing its line before she dies. Perhaps because she’s so selfless, she’s very aware of the world moving on inevitably into the future, even when she’s gone. Meanwhile, Wang Lung takes the wedding as a chance to show off his wealth, demonstrating his desire to replace the Hwang family with his request to essentially reproduce a Hwang wedding.
The night before the wedding, the eldest son comes home, looking like a man and wearing fine clothes. Wang Lung is proud of him and brings him to see O-lan. The son is sad at her state, but pretends to be cheerful. Lotus, Cuckoo, and Wang Lung’s uncle’s wife prepare the bride for her wedding day, performing rituals, doing her makeup, and dressing her.
Wang Lung has entirely forgiven—or forgotten—his jealousy over his son’s association with Lotus. None of the women who prepare the bride for her wedding are the type of hardworking woman whom Wang Lung wants his son’s wife to be, perhaps boding ill for the marriage.
When the bride comes before the guests, Wang Lung is glad to see her modesty. His sons enter, and he’s very proud of them. His father hasn’t understood what’s going on, but when he finally does, he laughs joyfully, making everyone else laugh too. Wang Lung watches his eldest son carefully and sees that he likes his bride, and Wang Lung is glad to have chosen well. The eldest son and his bride bow to Wang Lung and his father and go into O-lan’s room to bow to her. Her cheeks are red and Wang Lung takes this as a sign of health. She has them sit by her bed while they ritually drink wine and eat rice together, which officially marries them.
The bride isn’t supposed to enjoy her wedding day, but instead to show she’s a respectable type of woman who takes no liberties. This is a scene that marks the continuation of the family, as Wang Lung’s father rejoices to see his grandson married and the new couple pays respect to the generation above them. As O-lan dies—her red cheeks are not actually a sign of health—the couple prepares to carry on her line.
There is much feasting. People have come from far away, and Cuckoo has hired town cooks to prepare the food. Everyone has a wonderful time. O-lan has the doors left open so that she can hear and smell the feast, and Wang Lung repeatedly assures her that everything has been done properly. When the guests leave, she becomes tired.
O-lan cares deeply that the wedding should be conducted in a manner that fully honors the importance of the occasion and that makes the guests admire her family. The presence of cooks from town brings the family closer to reenacting a Hwang wedding.
O-lan tells her eldest son and his wife to take care of her family, and tells the woman that she owes nothing to Lotus. She falls asleep, and when she speaks again she’s not aware of those around her. She says that no matter how ugly she is, she did have a son. She worries that Lotus won’t take care of Wang Lung. Wang Lung sends everyone else out and sits by O-lan, despising himself for noticing her ugliness even now. She stares at him but doesn’t recognize him, and then she dies.
O-lan passes on her position in the household to her son’s wife. Her last words seem to get to the core of what consumes her most: that Wang Lung can’t stand her appearance, but she loves him anyway. Yet even at the very end, Wang Lung can’t appreciate her fully because he’s so obsessed with her outward appearance simply because she’s a woman.
Wang Lung doesn’t want to be near O-lan’s dead body, so he has his relatives prepare the body and put it in the coffin. He goes to a geomancer, someone who reads luck in the dirt, to decide on the best day for a burial, which ends up being three months away. He rents a space for the coffin in the temple in town until then. He wants to do everything properly, so he has mourning clothes made for his family. He can’t bear to sleep in the room where O-lan died, so he moves into Lotus’s court and gives the room to his eldest son and his wife.
Once O-lan is dead, the parts of her that Wang Lung did love are gone, and only her body, which he was never able to love, remains. As a result, he doesn’t want to deal with her body. He’s very concerned with burying O-lan in a socially proper and auspicious way that’s fitting to his status. Ironically, O-lan’s death only draws Wang Lung closer to Lotus, though O-lan would not like this result.
Before long, Wang Lung’s father dies in his sleep. The second daughter finds him in the morning and brings Wang Lung. Wang Lung prepares the body and puts it in the coffin himself. He decides to make a burial plot on his land and bury O-lan and his father there. Wang Lung, too, will be buried there in time. His father’s coffin sits in the middle room until the burial, and Wang Lung grieves but knows his father had a long life.
The death of Wang Lung’s father marks another shift in the generations and the coming of the future, as the past is buried (literally). As the land provides life, so it now accepts the bodies of those it has nourished and gives them a final place of peace in the earth that they have loved.
Before the day of the burial, priests come from the Taoist and Buddhist temples and chant all night. If they stop, Wang Lung pays them more. Ching has arranged the burial plot with plenty of room for future family burials. It shows that the family is established on this land, and will stay here in life and death. Wang Lung dresses the whole family in white robes and hires chairs to carry them to the burial, including Lotus and his uncle’s family. The eldest daughter laughs because she doesn’t understand what’s happening.
The funeral marks the opening of a burial plot that gives the family social status and connects them to their beloved land forever, no matter how the world might change around them. Wang Lung uses his wealth to provide plenty of pomp and circumstance, and everyone wears the proper color of mourning. The eldest daughter has perhaps the most appropriate response, as death and tragedy are not really comprehensible.
At the graves, Wang Lung does not cry, because he feels that nothing could have been done to prevent the deaths. After the burial, he walks home alone, wishing he had let O-lan keep her pearls, and he decides never to allow Lotus to wear them again. He feels that the first half of his life has been buried, and he cries a bit.
Wang Lung finally recognizes that he should have made more of an effort to provide O-lan with happiness and beauty as he himself sought personal pleasure. Confiscating the pearls from Lotus is an act of loyalty to O-lan, though it comes too late.