Wang Lung feels that he has to do something to prevent his family from dying. He’s angry at the gods, and shakes his fists at the sky. One day he goes to the temple of the earth and spits on the figure of the god. The temple is unkempt now, but the figures show no emotion.
In Wang Lung’s culture, the gods often act as manifestations of nature. Just as the sky remains unresponsively dry, so the figures of the gods have deserted Wang Lung in his hour of need.
The family rarely gets up, sleeping to forget their hunger. People are eating bark and grass, and there are no animals to be found. The children’s stomachs are bloated with hunger. The daughter hasn’t learned to sit up, and she never cries, but only stares out of a hollow face. In normal circumstances, Wang Lung would have ignored her, but now he dotes on her, calling her a “poor fool.” When she smiles at him, he cries, and sometimes he sits at the door holding her. His father gets food even before the children, because Wang Lung knows it’s his responsibility to take care of him. Wang Lung’s father remains cheerful, saying that in worse times, he saw people eating children. Wang Lung is horrified.
The land is in the throes of a severe famine, and people must resort to desperate measures. Whereas Wang Lung would normally care little for a female child, his pity for her, her inability to understand their situation, and her smiles in the face of his desperation bond him to her. Characteristically, however, he feels more sentiment for this helpless girl than for his brave, resourceful wife. Wang Lung’s duty to protect his father wins out over his duty to protect his children, showing the strength of respect for elders.
One day, Wang Lung’s neighbor Ching comes to the house and wonders what’s left to eat now that all the animals, the grass, and the bark have been eaten. Wang Lung looks at his daughter and sees a faint smile that breaks his heart. Ching says that the villagers, including Wang Lung’s uncle and his uncle’s wife, are eating human flesh. Wang Lung becomes afraid and says that his family will go south. Ching says he doesn’t mind dying, but Wang Lung has to take care of his family. Wang Lung joyfully tells O-lan that they’ll leave, and she approves, saying that she’ll give birth soon, and they can leave the next day. Wang Lung pities her, for she looks awful.
Wang Lung’s daughter consistently smiles and laughs in even the most desperate moments, simply because she’s unaware of everything around her, suggesting that this might be a more peaceful state of being. Wang Lung’s uncle and his wife prove themselves to be about as barbaric as possible; furthermore, their consumption of human flesh foreshadows their later consumption of Wang Lung’s wealth—they essentially take for themselves whatever they can get their hands on.
Wang Lung begs Ching to give him any food he has left, and he’ll forgive Ching for stealing from him. Ching is ashamed, and says that it was all Wang Lung’s uncle’s fault. He only has a handful of beans, but he’ll give some to Wang Lung. He brings back some moldy beans, which Wang Lung gives to O-lan, who knows she’ll die giving birth if she doesn’t eat. Wang Lung chews a few of the beans and feeds them to his daughter, which satisfies his own hunger.
Ching demonstrates the essential goodness that Wang Lung will come to highly value in him. This goodness also speaks to the evil influence of the uncle, if the uncle can turn bad even someone as good as Ching. Wang Lung loves his daughter so much that he feels almost as though her body is his—feeding her makes him feel as though he’s eaten.
That night, Wang Lung sits in the main room while O-lan gives birth alone, as she wishes. He doesn’t care whether it’s a boy or a girl, since he only thinks of the baby as another mouth to feed. Just as he hopes the baby will be born dead, he hears it cry, but only once. He goes to the door and asks whether O-lan is all right. She tells him to come in, and he finds the baby dead on the floor. It was a girl. O-lan looks awful, and Wang Lung pities her for having to starve not only for herself, but also for this child.
The famine has changed Wang Lung’s priorities. He no longer cares about wealth or social status, but only about his family’s survival. At this point, children are almost a curse, whereas Wang Lung used to dream of a house full of children. As always, O-lan struggles alone, perhaps a metaphor for her entire life and marriage.
Wang Lung brings the child out and wraps it in a mat. Its head flops around and he sees two bruises on its neck. He brings it to an old cemetery and lays it against a grave. A starving dog immediately appears, and though Wang Lung hits it with a rock, the dog won’t budge. Wang Lung leaves in complete despair.
It becomes clear that O-lan killed her own child, which is probably most merciful, though she likely wouldn’t have done this if it were a boy. Wang Lung’s tragedy reaches a new low, as he can’t even protect his dead child.
The next morning, Wang Lung realizes that his family is far too weak to travel. Besides, they might not find any food in the south. It’s better to die in their own home. He stares out over the dry, barren fields. Even if he had money, there would be no food to purchase. He can’t even get angry at the rumor that rich men are hoarding food. He no longer feels hungry. He has been feeding his children soil from the fields mixed in water, which has a little nutrition and slightly satisfies their hunger. He’s glad to hear O-lan slowly eating the few beans left.
Wang Lung feels desperately helpless, hardly fighting for life anymore, but only for a good death. No matter how desperate he gets, however, he rarely feels anger against the rich, perhaps because his aspiration to be one of them blinds him to their faults. Though the land always gives the family life, it does so most literally here, as they eat the dirt itself, not even what grows in the dirt.
As Wang Lung thinks of death, he sees men, including his uncle, coming towards the house. His uncle remarks that Wang Lung’s family is doing well. Wang Lung becomes angry when he sees that his uncle isn’t starving. His uncle retorts that his own wife is nothing but bones and three of their children have died. He insists that he has only thought of Wang Lung and his father. He’s borrowed food from the men who are with him with a promise to help them buy land. The men have come to buy Wang Lung’s land.
Wang Lung’s uncle tries to create a different reality, saying that Wang Lung’s family is well when they’re starving and making his own family pitiable when he himself looks fine. The uncle always uses Wang Lung’s responsibility to his family against him, but the uncle hurts his relatives for personal gain—now he’s feeding himself by trying to strip Wang Lung of his very life, the land.
Wang Lung doesn’t acknowledge the men, but sees that they’re men from town who look well fed. He hates them for eating when his own children are starving. He refuses to sell his land. His second son crawls to the door, too weak to walk. Wang Lung’s uncle asks if that’s the same fat boy he saw in the summer, and Wang Lung begins to weep.
Wang Lung finally feels righteous anger against those who thrive while his family withers. His pride won’t let him sell his most prized possession at all, much less to people as awful as these. The appearance of his son creates a powerful contrast with the well-fed men.
Finally Wang Lung asks how much the men will give him, thinking he must feed his children. A one-eyed man says they’ll give him a great price, a hundred pence per acre. Wang Lung says this is one-twentieth of what it’s worth, but another man points out that he’s starving. Wang Lung sees that the men are sure he’ll sell to save his family, and he becomes terribly angry. He screams that he’ll never sell the land. Instead he’ll feed the earth to the children and bury them in it. Then his anger leaves, and he stands weeping. The men only smile.
The men try to force Wang Lung to choose between his land and his family, the two things that he values above all else. This is practically an impossible choice, particularly since he has nowhere to live and no way to make a living without his land. He chooses the land, seeming to think that it will protect his family both in life and death. His love for his land and his love for his family are really inseparable.
O-lan comes to the door. She says calmly that they won’t sell the land, because they’ll need it when they get home from the south, but they’ll sell everything in the house besides the farm tools. The one-eyed man says they’ll give two pieces of silver for all of it. It’s a bad price, but O-lan accepts, and he gives her the silver. The men take everything from the house. When they go to take the bed from under Wang Lung’s father, the uncle stands outside to avoid seeing his brother. When they leave, O-lan says they must leave while they have the money, and Wang Lung agrees. He takes comfort in the fact that he still has his land.
O-lan again demonstrates her bravery and composure under pressure, even when Wang Lung is on the brink of completely falling apart. Her calmness is more convincing than Wang Lung’s hysteria, and the men believe that she means what she says as they didn’t with Wang Lung. On some level, the uncle knows that what he’s done is despicable, but that doesn’t make him change his ways.