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The city has plentiful food and money, but these things are distributed unequally. This contrasts strikingly with the country life that Wang Lung left behind, in which a man eats what his soil and troubles bear. The city also corrupts the poor, who must steal to access to the resources of the rich. Soon Wang Lung's sons become petty thieves. This distresses their father, but does not worry their mother, for she sees it as another form of survival and adaptation. One day the younger son steals a slab of meat from the butcher, and Wang Lung is incensed. He tries to throw the meat away, but O-lan thinks otherwise. Nevertheless, that night he gives his son a sound beating, and dreams of returning to his land, where his sons will not be thieves.
The poor are vital to the city -- they make the food and pull the rickshaws and unload the goods -- but they live like shadows, unacknowledged by those who benefit from their presence. Thus talk of revolt grows. Wang Lung listens to some young revolutionaries and learns that on the other side of the wall that hedges in their refugee area, a Great House stands in all its finery.
Again, Wang Lung longs to return to his simple farmer's life, but he lacks the money to finance their return. He speaks with O-lan, and she suggests that they sell their daughter. O-lan herself was sold so that her parents could return to their land. Wang Lung refuses initially; he has grown attached to his daughter and admires her struggle to survive the famine that nearly killed them all. However, as his desire for the land grows, his resolution to keep his daughter in the family wavers.
Chapter 12 shows just how different life is in the city in contrast to the country. The difference even compromises Wang Lung's identity itself. He feels foreign in his own country, outside of its politics and its society. Only after coming face to face with an other more "other" than himself -- an American -- does he feel that he can belong.
The contrast between the "haves" and the "have-nots" is sharp in the city, which increases anger and resentment among the poor. This toxic atmosphere, along with the generally corrupting influence of the city on his son's ethics (when they turn to crime), increases Wang Lung's romanticization of the farm. He yearns to go back, so quick to forget the troubles that he has just survived there.
Notice that Wang Lung's disillusionment with the city is often described in terms of language. Of course this is literal on one level -- Wang Lung does not "speak the same language" as those in the south; he cannot understand their dialects and they cannot understand his. On another level, this clash of "languages" is more figurative. Wang Lung does not understand the talk of revolution among the poor. The cryptic forebodings of an uprising to come merely frighten him and fill him with a longing for the simple life he knows and trusts. The mob is stirring, and Wang Lung is not among them.
We see clearly too the commodification of women in this chapter. We learn that O-lan was sold so that her parents could return to their land, and it appears that now the only way Wang Lung and his family might return to their land is by selling their daughter. O-lan is far from eager to do this; she would rather kill the girl than place her in the slavery under which she herself lived for years. But she will do it for Wang Lung, something that attests to her loyalty and commitment for the family. She is much more willing than Wang Lung to sacrifice her scruples and preferences for the family. O-lan has lived a life of sacrifice. Wang Lung, in contrast, wishes to return to comfort and moral clarity in the country (whether real or imagined, one can only guess). He is clearly weaker and more sentimental than O-lan, despite the reputation of his gender.