Wang Lung thinks he has everything he could want and can live in peace. But his eldest son always comes to ask him to buy things to make the family great and plan for the second son’s wedding. He wants Wang Lung to take over the outer courts of the house, where the common people have been living. He gets upset because Wang Lung raised him for social superiority, but Wang Lung won’t give him the resources for it. Finally Wang Lung tells his son to do what he wants, but not bother him about it.
Wang Lung just wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, spending his days in relaxation with other people taking care of the business of living. However, he still controls the family resources, which causes issues. The eldest son’s plans for the house would make it even more like the old House of Hwang, where commoners were firmly stuck outside the gates.
The eldest son buys beautiful furniture and decorations for the house. Whenever he goes through the outer courts, he disdains the common people, who privately make fun of him but show him respect in public. When their rents are raised and they have to move out, they know it’s the eldest son’s fault. They leave angrily, saying they’ll get their revenge on the rich soon.
The eldest son did experience poverty during the famine, but he was either too young to remember it or he simply refuses to acknowledge that he was once in the place of the commoners who live in the outer courts. Just as the poor people of the city rose against the rich, the eldest son unwisely induces rage that could cause the same outcome.
Wang Lung knows nothing of what goes on, as he stays in the inner courts, sleeping and eating. His eldest son has the outer courts rebuilt and made beautiful with his wife’s advice. The townspeople hear about this and begin calling Wang Lung an important man. Wang Lung gives his son whatever money he asks for without counting it.
Wang Lung wants to enjoy his wealth rather than worrying about its potential negative consequences. Meanwhile, the eldest son spends excessive amounts of money in a concerted effort to raise the family’s social standing.
One day Wang Lung’s second son comes to him and says that they’re spending too much money on needless luxuries. Wang Lung blames it all on the son’s wedding, but the second son says it’s really to satisfy the elder son’s pride. Wang Lung agrees to stop giving his elder son so much money. The second son wants to show him a list of expenses, but Wang Lung doesn’t want to be bothered.
Wang Lung’s second son acts as a necessary balance against the eldest, though their different approaches to wealth also cause conflicts between them. Wang Lung hardly takes anything seriously. He seems to think his wealth bottomless enough that he doesn’t need to worry about it running out.
Wang Lung tells his eldest son they’ve made enough improvements to the house, but his son insists they need to live somewhere fitting to their high status, and that people are calling them a great family. Wang Lung hasn’t heard this, but it pleases him. He says that even great families come from the land, but his son says they don’t stay there. Wang Lung insists he must stop spending so much. He wants to be left in peace.
Wang Lung and his eldest son are similar in their desire for social superiority and the approval of others. However, as the one who actually worked to make the family’s wealth, Wang Lung better understands what’s required to keep it. He still retains his reverence for the land as the source of his money, but his son brushes it off.
The eldest son persists, saying that Wang Lung’s youngest son should be sent to school. Wang Lung had planned for him to farm the land and doesn’t see the need for his education. The eldest son says his brother doesn’t want to farm, which Wang Lung has never even considered. He says one of his sons must farm the land, but the eldest son says people will speak ill of him if someone as wealthy as he makes his sons farm. He suggests Wang Lung let his youngest son go to a school in the south.
Wang Lung still doesn’t think like the head of a family that has long been wealthy would think. He feels that his sons must directly farm the land, even though he himself doesn’t anymore. As the eldest son points out, rich people don’t farm, they pay other people to farm for them. However, this disconnection from the source of wealth does make the wealthy more likely to squander their money.
Wang Lung sends for his youngest son. He sees that the boy is beautiful, but frowns frequently. His son confirms that he wants to go to school, and Wang Lung is bitter that this means none of his sons would work his land. The boy is silent, but when Wang Lung becomes angry, he confirms that he doesn’t want to work the land. Wang Lung feels that his sons are causing him too much trouble, and he sends the boy away. He thinks how much easier his daughters are. When he calms down, however, he tells his elder son to arrange for the youngest son’s education.
Wang Lung has never paid any attention to his youngest son, but he’s always assumed that the boy will do whatever he tells him. Now he finds that the boy has ambitions of his own. Ironically, Wang Lung once thought the birth of daughters an evil omen, but now he’s glad of them simply because their culture teaches them never to question what a man tells them to do. As usual, Wang Lung eventually gives in to what his family asks of him.
Wang Lung appoints his second son as steward over the land, which pleases him, as it will give him control over the money. The second son is very thrifty, even rationing out the food on his wedding day and giving the slaves the least pay he can. Cuckoo says a truly great family would be more generous, so the eldest son gives her more money to keep her quiet. He only invites a few friends to the second brother’s wedding because he’s ashamed of his brother and his lower-class bride.
Wang Lung makes a wise choice in giving his second son control of the land and money, since he’s less likely to throw it all away as the elder son might do. However, the second son also might go too far—if a wealthy family isn’t somewhat generous, people will begin to resent them, as the commoners already do. The eldest son again shows how much he cares about his social status.
None of the family seems quite at peace in the house. Sometimes Wang Lung wishes he were back in his plain house on his fields. The eldest son and the second son always argue about spending money and their social status. Wang Lung’s grandson is the only happy one, as he knows nothing of wealth and greatness. Wang Lung enjoys playing with him. The eldest son’s wife continues to have children, and Wang Lung is glad there’s plenty of food to feed them all. The second son’s wife gives birth to a daughter.
Wang Lung begins to realize that instead of bringing happiness, wealth causes almost as many troubles as poverty does, albeit of a less fatal sort. He grows tired of worrying about being rich and prefers the company of one who doesn’t care about social superiority. True to his origins, Wang Lung still thinks about whether his entire family can eat, while his sons think about how others perceive them.
After five years, Wang Lung’s uncle dies during a very cold winter. Wang Lung’s uncle and the uncle’s wife have long lain in bed smoking opium, which has left them weak and ill. Wang Lung brings two coffins to their room so that his uncle can be comforted by seeing where his body will rest. His uncle says Wang Lung is like a son to him, and his wife makes Wang Lung promise to find their son a wife if he comes home.
Wang Lung’s culture displays a comfort with death, as coffins act as a reassurance of a final resting place rather than as a gruesome reminder of mortality. Since opium is so expensive, it’s an upper-class cause of death. Wang Lung’s uncle exposes his own hypocrisy once more, calling Wang Lung his son after threatening to kill him years earlier.
When Wang Lung’s uncle dies, he buries him in the family burial plot and the family wears mourning clothes because it’s proper. Wang Lung gives his uncle’s wife a room in the house in town, and she smokes opium next to her coffin. Wang Lung can’t believe he used to fear this woman who now looks as weak as the Old Mistress used to look when the House of Hwang collapsed.
Though the family actually has no respect for the uncle, they have to pay him the respect of ceremony anyway. The uncle’s wife plays the role of the Old Mistress as Wang Lung’s family unconsciously reenacts the House of Hwang. The presence of her coffin next to her bed emphasizes the degree of her addiction, as she can’t deny the opium is killing her.