With Wang Lung's eldest son gone there is tranquility in the home. Wang Lung's horrible experience with the son inspires him finally to take a look at the rest of his children.
Wang Lung's second son is very different from his elder brother, who is tall and big-boned like his mother. The younger is slight, yellow-skinned and crafty. He reminds Wang Lung of his own father, so he decides that his younger son would be a good grain merchant and arranges to have him apprenticed with Liu. Liu and Wang Lung get along very well: they respect one another as hard workers who have grown prosperous by their labor. Unofficially, they decide that Wang Lung's youngest daughter will be married to Liu's younger son.
One day Wang Lung notices that his youngest daughter, a pretty girl whose feet have been bound, has been crying. When prodded she responds that her feet are bound very tightly every night by O-lan and it pains her. O-lan has told her that she should never let Wang Lung hear her cry. The daughter says that Wang Lung is "too kind and weak for pain" and would remove the bindings, "and then my husband would not love me as you do not love her" (249). The insight of this comment floors Wang Lung.
Soon the plans for his daughter's betrothal are set. Wang Lung decides to keep his youngest son in the fields because, according to him, having two sons that can read is plenty. Now that things are settled in his family life Wang Lung thinks about O-lan for the first time since he married her.
Wang Lung finally realizes how dismissive he has been of O-lan and how sickly she has become. He orders O-lan to bed and has his daughters take up her chores. He also fetches a doctor, who informs Wang Lung that O-lan is dying. The doctor is greedy and attempts to exact an incredible fee to cure O-lan, but Wang Lung and O-lan both can see that any treatment would be in vain. Wang Lung goes into the kitchen, O-lan's previous domain, and weeps.
O-lan dies slowly. As she stays in bed, Wang Lung realizes how crucial she had always been. Her absence creates confusion in the house for Wang Lung's father and children, who try to help but can't replace O-lan. Wang Lung stays by his wife's side while Ching oversees the harvests. He doesn't even visit Lotus, as thoughts of O-lan make it impossible for him to enjoy his time with her. At one point, seeing O-lan's suffering, Wang Lung says that if he could heal her he would give all his land. At this O-lan smiles and says that she must die, but the land will remain. Resigned to her fate, Wang Lung goes to buy O-lan a coffin. The shopkeeper talks him into buying two for a discount price, one for his father as well. O-lan is happy to hear that her husband has taken the time to prepare for her death.
As she dies, O-lan has nightmares. She speaks of her horrible time in the Great House. Wang Lung hears her with a complicated mix of pity and disgust -- she is a gruesome sight, and yet the mother of his children. One day O-lan requests that Cuckoo be brought to her room, and tells of how the Old Lord always considered Cuckoo beautiful and herself ugly. However, she says, O-lan, is now a successful man's wife and the mother of three sons, whereas Cuckoo is still a slave. Her insult enrages Cuckoo, but Wang Lung calms her by saying that O-lan is ill.
O-lan asks that her daughter-in-law, Liu's daughter, be brought to the house so that she can know her before she dies. The young woman appears obedient and correct in all she does, which pleases Wang Lung. Then O-lan asks that her eldest son come home to be married, after which she will die in peace. The son arrives and Cuckoo makes all the arrangements for the wedding feast. Upon seeing his son, now a man, Wang Lung forgets his past conflict and his heart swells with pride.
The day of the wedding, Wang Lung's aunt, Cuckoo and Lotus prepare the young maid for the ceremony. Wang Lung sees that his son is pleased with his choice of bride. They are wed and O-lan is happy. She tells her daughter-in-law that she must take care of her new husband, father and grandfather, and that she has no duty to anyone else in the house. Then, she falls into a fitful sleep and speaks again of her ugliness and her loyalty before dying.
Wang Lung cannot bear to be near O-lan's dead body, so his aunt prepares the body for burial. Soon after, Wang Lung's father also dies, so the two are buried together with much ado on a good piece of land that Wang Lung has picked out for a family plot. After the burial Wang Lung wishes that he had never taken the two pearls away from O-lan and cannot bear to see Lotus wear them. He says: "There in that land of mine is buried the first good half of my life and more. It is as though half of me were buried thee, and now it is a different life in my house" (269).
Finally, after being absent and ignored for the greater part of the book, O-lan receives some recognition. Indeed, these chapters find Wang Lung reflecting on all of the members of his family. Between his hard-work in the fields and his dissapation with Lotus, Wang Lung has hardly had any time to know his own flesh and blood. The enormity of his neglect is the theme of this portion of the novel.
It takes his daughter's simple comment, in which she reveals that O-lan knows how little Wang Lung loves and appreciates her, to snap him out of his solipsistic obsession with status and beauty. He realizes that his neglect has left O-lan, to whom he owes everything, on the verge of death, and though he tries, he can do nothing to save her. His money and status and land cannot buy her life back.
Compounded with the death of Wang Lung's father, O-lan's death takes away the person in Wang Lung's household who is most thematically connected with the earth. Wang Lung seems to understand this connection intuitively when he states that he would give up his land to keep O-lan alive. She is his land in several important ways -- she provided the financial means and the work ethic necessary to accrue property and, on another level, she produced three sons and three daughters herself. O-lan, like the fields, has been ignored, neglected and taken-for-granted, yet she has been steady and strong and bountiful and Wang Lung finally realizes how much he owes her.
At the same time, Wang Lung does not feel that he was wrong to buy Lotus. As a man, such a purchase was warranted. However, he deeply regrets showing his wife disrespect during his long infatuation with the beautiful concubine. He should have honored her hard work and motherhood rather than ignore her. Especially painful is the memory of the pearls that she had asked for. This was O-lan's only significant request in the whole book, and that Wang Lung disregarded it is especially damning. He can no longer look upon Lotus and her pearls without recalling the happiness that he snuffed out of O-lan.
Yet Buck paints O-lan as more than a symbol of the earth and a foil for her husband. She has the richest inner-life of any character in the novel, a fact that grows evident in her harrowing nightmares before dying. O-lan has internalized the insults of her "betters" -- she knows that she is not beautiful and the thought that such a factor, which she has no control over, so affected her relationship with Wang Lung. At the same time, O-lan is fiercely proud of the things she has been able to control: her work-ethic and her uncomplaining motherhood. These factors, which seem on the surface to be more evidence of her submission to Wang Lung's dominion, are revealed to be sources of strength, agency and individualism for O-lan.
O-lan has done more than anyone else in the book to exhibit the giving qualities of the earth: constancy, fortitude, patience and self-reliance. And now she, like Wang Lung's father, has been given over to the earth. She will become a part of the earth again, which is only fitting, even as it means that Wang Lung has grown farther from the earth than ever.