Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | MonkeyNotes
Wang and his family leave their stripped house. They are skin and bones, and the children's bellies are swollen from malnutrition. They take only the clothes they wear, except that O-lan gives each of her small sons a bowl and chopsticks, a promise of food to come. Wang carries his frail little girl until he sees his father stumbling and about to fall. He then gives the child to O-lan and takes his father on his back. They pass the Great House, its gates shut tight and a few famished people huddled there.
Outside the town, Wang and his family join the flood of refugees. They are heading for the "firewagon," the railroad train. When the train comes the crowd pushes them along, clinging together, into the railroad car.
The desperate journey continues. Wang pays the fare for the hundred mile trip south with his two pieces of silver, and buys a little food with some of the change. A man in the train, who has been through this before, advises Wang to save a few coppers for mats to build a shelter. There are public kitchens where the poor can buy cooked rice, as much as one can eat for a penny. They must get the rest of their food by begging. Wang will not beg. Well, then he can wear himself out taxiing the rich in a two-wheeled, hand-pulled riksha.
They reach the city, and all turns out as the man on the train said. O-lan, ever resourceful, remembers from her childhood how to make a hut against a wall where others have built theirs. They eat their rice at the soup kitchen, then go back to their shelter and fall into exhausted sleep.
The next morning Wang looks to O-lan to say what should be done. Again, she remembers. She leads the little boys and the old man out to the street where they will hold out their bowls and call to passersby. When the little boys consider it a game, she spanks them soundly until, with tear-streaked faces, they are fit to beg.
Wang Lung rents a riksha and learns that he must bargain with a customer for a fare. At the day's end he has only one penny left above the riksha rental. The old man sits by the roadside, dozing and forgetting to beg. But O-lan and the little boys have begged enough to buy the family's rice in the morning. Do you think Wang's refusal to beg is realistic?
After the horror of the starving village, the change of scene is welcome. With Wang and his family you have your first glimpse of a teeming city. Here food is plentiful and people of means provide something for the poor. The policeman at the food kitchen answers Wang's questions: the rich do this to win people's good opinion or acquire merit in heaven. But some must do it out of a good heart? To this Wang gets no answer.
Wang's old father is both amusing and touching, good-humored, determined to survive, certain that his son and grandsons will care for him. But what do you think of O-lan's impressive performance under stress? She has now taken charge of the family's welfare, and even Wang Lung looks to her for guidance. You might consider whether the family would have survived to this point without her firmness of will and her calm, practical approach to each situation, however strange or shocking. Note also how the second son's character is forecast, as he refuses to give up the money he got by begging. He sleeps with it clutched in his hand and pays for his rice himself the next day.
This first day in the city reveals the ironic fate of the working poor. Wang Lung's hands are blistered as he drops with exhaustion, yet O-lan has taken in more money by begging than he has with his grueling toil.