While Wang Lung grew up with a sense of physically belonging to the land, producing what he needed to survive, his boys come of age in a big city, surrounded by extravagance and begging for a portion of what others have. They crave the cakes they've never tasted, not the pride of a hard day's labor or a bountiful harvest. From their parents toil and tenacity, Elder son and his younger brother will reap the benefits of a life their family never dreamed, but they will lack the moral fiber the land has rooted in their father's heart to guide them.
Toddling on the Earth
While the boys are toddlers, there is a powerful connection between the family, the earth and the gods. After their first son is born, O-lan works alongside Wang Lung in the fields, stopping when necessary to nurse her baby or simply allowing her overabundant breast milk to soak into the soil. Wang Lung lights incense at the temple and his harvest is good. Wang Lung does not welcome or celebrate his second son's birth in the same way, but he still counts himself as fortunate and his harvests are good again. By the time his daughter is born the following year, he is too busy dealing with his uncle and working in the fields to even stop and look at her. As Wang Lung becomes more successful, his appreciation of his family and veneration of his gods waver. And then the gods turn their back on Wang Lung.
The drought and famine that that follow force Wang Lung's family to move rob the growing boys of their earlier connection to something larger than themselves. No longer sun-baked from playing in the fields, the bustling city in Kiangsu becomes their playground. Though there is little doubt in Wang Lung's mind that his children will be farmers, he does little to plant those seeds of tradition in his sons' heads. Caught up in his own desire to feel the earth under his feet again, Wang Lung fails to realize that this world, in a shack against a great wall with stones as pillows, is all his sons know as home. The land means nothing to them.
The School of Hard Knocks
O-lan, however, lives in the here and now and quickly teaches the boys the art of begging to survive in the real world. The eldest son "was more timid than the younger and more ashamed of what he did," but the younger son "grew more adept at petty thieving than at begging." (p. 110) In a telling moment when Wang Lung discovers his second son has stolen pork for dinner, he throws the pork on the ground and declares no one will eat it. O-lan, in her stolid fashion, cleans the pork off, saying, "Meat is meat," and feeds the family with the stolen pork. Wang Lung's son has a fierce sense of pride and ownership, boasting, "I took it, it is mine." (p. 111) Angry and afraid that his sons are turning into little thieves, Wang Lung compromises his own values and takes a rich man's gold during the riots in order to return to the land with his family in tact.
Back in Anhwei, Wang Lung throws himself into rebuilding his fields, tending the gods' temple and practicing a reverence for the earth his sons have never seen. While Wang Lung is content to spend all day in the fields, sleeping in the furrowed earth when he is tired, "he bade his two sons sharply each morning to come into the fields with him… If they could accomplish no great labor, at least they'd know the heat of the sun on their bodies and the weariness of walking back and forth along the furrows." (p. 158) It is possible the boys saw this as punishment, since their father never nurtured their love for the land like he coaxes crops from the soil, but their stint at "hard labor" is short.