Summary and Analysis
With the eldest son gone, Wang Lung feels greatly relieved, as if "the house was purged of some surcharge of unrest." After the experience with the eldest son, Wang Lung resolves to quickly take the second son out of school and to apprentice him to a trade.
To the relief of Wang Lung, his second son is greatly different from the eldest. This difference will be clearer later in the novel, when the second son is very practical and mercenary, and the eldest, who is partly influenced by his wife, prefers opulence and extravagance.
Wang Lung arranges the apprenticeship of the second son to the grain merchant, the father of the eldest son's betrothed, and, while there, Wang Lung also talks of arranging a second bond of the families by betrothing his ten-year-old daughter to Liu's ten-year-old son. A final discussion must wait, however, for "it was not a thing that could be discussed face to face beyond this."
On returning home, Wang Lung thinks of the possible betrothal of his second daughter. He is pleased to reflect on his daughter's beauty and the fact that her mother had bound her feet "so that she moved about with graceful steps." But he is sad to find that the bindings are very painful and make her cry and lose sleep.
Most of all, he is moved by her confession that her mother told her not to cry at night, nor bother Wang Lung with her pain, for she must endure the pain of foot-binding or her husband some day will not love her, even as Wang Lung does not love O-lan. For the first time in years, with all of his children provided for, and a tie with the land established in his youngest son, Wang Lung begins to think of O-lan as the faithful servant which she has been to him.
His new regard for O-lan causes him to realize that the "fire in her vitals" is now causing her great pain. His new feeling for her moves him to force her to go to bed while he goes for a doctor.
The call by the doctor illustrates the custom of physicians in China — a tradition that carried on from the earliest dynasties; that is, a doctor is paid a set fee to keep a patient well. Loss of that patient is punishable by law; this liability holds until the patient is fully recovered. In this case, the doctor sees that there is no hope for O-lan, so rather than admitting that he does not have the ability to save her, and rather than speak of her death in front of O-lan and Wang Lung, the doctor sets a prohibitive fee. This fee, in effect, says, "the woman will die."
In the following chapter, we see the custom of coffin buying. Wang Lung buys the coffin for O-lan and tells her of it to show her that she will be provided for after her death. It is also interesting to note that Wang Lung does some "bargain shopping" at the coffin-maker's shop. Knowing that his father is soon to die, and informed that by buying two coffins he can get a discount off the price of two, Wang Lung buys two coffins.
The sickness of O-lan is greatly felt in the house: the house becomes messy, the old man misses O-lan in his senility, and Wang Lung now has to care for the "poor fool." And the whole time, he thinks of O-lan and what her loss means. He tells her that he would sell all of his land to save her life, but she is ready for death and points out that the land is more permanent than life, for she must die eventually, but the land will always be there after her.
Having seen her coffin, O-lan is more content to die because, in the Chinese custom, a person who can be buried in an expensive coffin is a more honorable person than one who is simply thrown into the ground without the benefit of a coffin. Thus, O-lan knows that she is dying as one who began as a slave, but has ended her life as the wife of a prominent man, and who has borne that man sons. As O-lan says to Cuckoo on her death bed: "Well, and you may have lived in the courts of the Old Lord, and you were accounted beautiful, but I have been a man's wife and I have borne him sons, and you are still a slave."
Due to her resentment of Cuckoo, O-lan will feel more comfort on her deathbed if she can see her son married and her daughter-in-law in charge of the household, particularly the kitchen, and also know that she will continue to live in the sons of her sons.
After the death of O-lan, Wang Lung goes to the geomancer — a person who is not necessarily a figure of any religion, but is mostly aligned to superstitions. Then he goes to priests of the Taoist temple, then to the Buddhist temple, thus indicating that Wang Lung's religion, if indeed it may be called a religion, is a mixture of several different beliefs. The final emphasis of the chapter, however, is that in this good earth is "buried the first good half of my life and more." This comment emphasizes again Wang Lung's close association with and reliance upon the "good earth."