Now that the gods have turned against Wang Lung, nothing goes well. The sky is always clear, and no rain comes. Despite Wang Lung’s work, the fields become dry, and the wheat dies. He constantly brings the rice buckets of water, but finally the pond goes dry and O-lan says the well water must be used for drinking. Wang Lung replies that if the plants die, they’ll all starve. Their lives depend on the land.
As a farmer, Wang Lung’s livelihood depends on the whims of nature even more than on his own hard work. Wang Lung is very aware of how closely his family depends on nature’s favor and on the land. They might as well be the plants, dying as the land dries up.
The land Wang Lung bought from the House of Hwang is the only field that bears crops, because it’s near the moat. Wang Lung sells the grain as soon as he harvests it, and he decides to buy more land as he had planned, despite everything. He’s heard that the House of Hwang is struggling more than ever, and the Old Mistress wants the agent to sell land so she can have opium. The Old Lord has taken another concubine, as he desires younger women the older he gets. He can’t understand the idea of not having enough money. The young lords follow their parents’ example, blaming the agent for the lack of money, and he’s become quite distressed.
Wang Lung makes a risky decision by buying land when he has cash rather than storing up food. This decision demonstrates the strength of his desire to own more land and build up his wealth. If land represents life in this novel, he decides land will give life more than food will. The Hwangs understand neither the value of land nor of money, so they’re willing to give up anything to satisfy their desires, showing that wealth becomes dangerous when a person no longer works hard for it.
The fields of the House of Hwang haven’t borne harvests either, so the agent is desperately in need of Wang Lung’s silver. They make the deal quickly. Wang Lung feels satisfied to have this fertile land, particularly since it belonged to a great house. He doesn’t even tell O-lan that he bought it.
Wang Lung values the land more because of the social climbing that it represents—owning the land of a great house means he’s closer to being the head of a great family. However, his secrecy about the purchase shows that he knows it may have been unwise at this time.
Months pass without rain. Men stand around in the village discussing whether the clouds might hold rain, but the wind always blows the clouds away. Wang Lung harvests small amounts of beans and corn, making sure nothing is wasted. O-lan tells him to save the corn cobs, because when she was a child they ate them in years of famine. Everyone falls silent with fear when she says this. Only the girl is unafraid, because she drinks from her mother’s breast. O-lan tells her to eat while she can. Then O-lan becomes pregnant again, her milk dries up, and the baby constantly cries with hunger.
Though O-lan never really illuminates her past, she does make offhand comments that suggest suffering and tragedy in her life before her marriage to Wang Lung. However, her previous experience of famine also helps her family, as she has a certain expertise. While O-lan’s milk earlier flowed in such abundance that she could feed not only her son, but also the land, now she dries up along with the land.
Throughout that fall, no one asks anyone else how they find food, but only thinks of themselves. Wang Lung has taken care of his ox as long as possible, letting it graze with the oldest son on its back to keep it from being stolen until he felt even this precaution might not protect it from the village men. When the food runs very low, Wang Lung’s father says they must eat the ox. Wang Lung protests, because he feels deeply connected to this beast that helps him in the fields. His father insists that they’ll die if the ox doesn’t. Wang Lung puts it off as long as possible, but the children are hungry, and finally he consents to the ox’s death, but he can’t kill it himself.
Wang Lung’s ox feels almost like family to him, as it is part of his connection to the land. Without it, he can’t work effectively in the fields, and he knows that eventually he’ll be able to grow crops again, and he’ll need the ox in order to make his livelihood. The fact that both man and beast labor on the land creates a certain intimacy in Wang Lung’s mind. However, he’s finally forced to see that he has to choose between the ox and his children.
Wang Lung lies in bed with a quilt around his head so he can’t hear O-lan kill the ox. He finally comes out when she’s cooked the meat, but he can’t eat it. O-lan tells him that the ox was old, and they’ll get a better one. Finally he eats. Before long they’ve eaten every part of the ox, and only the skin is left, stretched to dry.
Wang Lung demonstrates his compassionate character as he struggles so much to let go of the ox. Even his extreme hunger doesn’t compromise his emotion. O-lan, on the other hand, proves her practical, unsentimental nature. Their reactions counter conventional gender expectations.
The villagers think that Wang Lung is hiding money and food. His uncle comes asking for help, and Wang Lung has to give him a small amount of beans and corn. When the uncle returns for more, Wang Lung sends him away, and the uncle spreads rumors that Wang Lung has plenty to eat but won’t give him anything. The villagers become more and more desperate as the winter gets colder, and finally the uncle’s words cause a group of men to come to Wang Lung’s house.
Wang Lung’s early caution about letting people know of his good fortune seems more and more prudent as time goes on. Now that people know he was relatively wealthy before the famine, they think he must still be. His uncle further proves his cruelty as he uses his position as family to take advantage of Wang Lung even as Wang Lung’s family starves.
The men throw Wang Lung’s family out of the house and tear everything up to find his food. They’re disappointed when they only find a tiny amount, so they begin to take his furniture. O-lan speaks to them, saying that her family has no more than theirs. They’re all starving, and they’ll all have to eat grass and bark. She points out that she’s pregnant, and the men leave, ashamed. One man, a neighbor named Ching, wants to apologize, but he can’t bear to return the beans he’s stolen, so he just leaves.
The men turn into a mob due to their overpowering hunger. O-lan shows herself to have a cool head in an emergency, and she acts bravely and wisely, though Wang Lung doesn’t acknowledge it. Her words indicate again that she knows from experience how the famine will progress, but she faces the future without visible fear. Ching’s guiltiness about his theft will later serve to the family’s advantage.
Wang Lung stands outside and feels frightened that he has nothing with which to feed his family. But then he’s calmed by the thought that no matter what, no one can take his land away. The men would have stolen silver, but he still has his land.