Pearl Buck’s novel, Sons continues the story of Wang Lung’s legacy into a second generation. Each of Wang Lung’s three sons follows a different path from the one that their father hoped they would. The oldest becomes a landlord, collecting money off the rents from his father’s vast land holdings. The second born becomes a merchant – a trader in commodities and a banker who amasses a fortune by shrewd saving and investment practices. The third leaves home to be a soldier and to obtain power and status by means of war. None of them see farming (the source of all their father’s wealth) as a life to aspire to.
The book begins to reveal the destinies of Wang Lung’s grandchildren as well – noting over and over the same pattern of generational divergence. Each son of Wang Lung pays lip service to his father’s desire for them and then departs from it when he gets the chance. And yet each son maintains an expectation of his own offspring that similarly fails to inspire. The entire fabric of the novel is an interlocking web of paternal expectation and filial betrayal. In case, the sons seem oblivious to the fact that the way that they felt constricted by their fathers’ values is how their sons feel about their values. Wang the Tiger (the warlord son) cannot understand when his son expresses a desire to be a farmer (precisely the career choice his own father had picked out for him and that he ran away from home to get away from). Wang the Landlord’s son hangs himself rather than go off to be a soldier with his uncle. Wang the Merchant’s son takes to the warlord career as a way to make money but prefers to live like his uncle, Wang the Landlord.
One suspects that Pearl Buck may be reacting to her own father in all of this, playing out through each character’s life trajectory the truth that while we can pass on genes to our children, we cannot pass on our core values. Acorns off of oak trees grow up to be oak trees bearing acorns but in human generations, oak trees have palm trees that father Christmas trees and sugar maples.
Question for Comment: What expectations did your parents have of you and what was your relationship with those expectations?