Man, Wang Lung and O-lan sure are proud parents. They love this kid. They think he's totally the best: "As for our son, there was not even a child among the concubines of the Old Master himself to compare to him in beauty and in dress" (5.30).
This dude's a quiet kid who—unlike his little brother—doesn't like stealing. He's so perfect that when Wang Lung tells him that he has to go to school, his angelic response goes like this: “The lad flushed a high dark red and his eyes shone. ‘My father,' he said, 'so have I wished for these last two years that I might do, but I did not dare to ask it'"(17.30). Yeah, not exactly our response when we started kindergarten.
Because Wang Lung is such a great dad and doesn't notice his children until they cause problems, we don't really know much about the oldest son until he's all grown up. He's kind of the polar opposite of his dad in lots of ways. He's got soft skin, he wears fancy clothes, and he's an intellectual (24.15). How’d that come out of Wang Lung and O-lan?
We also miss several years of the first son's life when he's sent off to the South but the plot stays on the farm (har har). He's sent away pretty much because he's too lady-crazy to stay around. So the parental units get him engaged and tell him to go to the big city until it's time for him to be married. By the time he comes back, he's not a country boy anymore. He's also picked up a couple of—how shall we say it?—particularities…
One thing motivates the first son, and that's being correct: "[He] feared any who accused him of behavior that was not correct, as though he were common and ignorant […] "(28.32). This dude wants to say the right thing, do the right thing, and he wants other people's respect for it. It's not enough for him that he's rich; he also has to act rich.
What does acting rich mean to the first brother? Aside from being polite and saying the right thing, it means buying lots of stuff, of course. “And so it might have been if it had not been for that eldest son of his who was never content with what was going on well enough but must be looking aside for more" (30.2). The more fancy stuff you have, the richer you seem, right?
The first son is the one who makes the family move into to the House of Hwang, and he's the one who fills it with expensive knickknacks. It seems that, just as his dad has been trying to run away from his farmer roots, the oldest son is trying to run away from his roots as a farmer's son.
This also messes up the first's son relationship with his younger brother. Little brother is in charge of finances, so older brother gets mad when a limit is placed his allowance. He also doesn't like the fact that the younger brother always knows exactly how much money there is, whereas he has to "go and ask his father for this and that like a child" (32.24). You'd think that the younger brother had stolen his piggy bank or something.
The surprise is that the older brother is just like his father. It might be difficult to notice until later on in the novel, but the older brother has always been connected to the earth, just like his dad. For example, his adolescence just happens to coincide with springtime.
Not only that, but he shares his dad's tendency toward strong emotions. He's melancholic, for one thing: “There was no correction that could be made of the lad at all, for if his father said to him with anything beyond coaxing, 'Now eat of the good meat and rice,' the lad turned stubborn and melancholy, and if Wang Lung was angry at all, he burst into tears and fled from the room" (22.32).
He’s also stubborn, ambitious, and girl crazy.
That last part is the part that causes him the most trouble. When the first son goes through puberty, it's like a nuclear bomb has been set off. He wants girls, and he wants any girl he can get. So he goes to a prostitute... and even sleeps with his own father's second wife. Nasty.
Once he gets married, he settles down, but that passion of his rears its head again when Wang Lung sleeps with Pear Blossom. He admires his dad for it and is actually jealous of him. It's no surprise that a few years later, the first son has his own second wife (34.86). Like father, like son.
The first son's wife is basically the wife that Wang Lung would have chosen if his father hadn't picked O-lan instead. She's pretty, she's quiet, and, most importantly, her feet are bound.
At first, it seems like everything is going great with the new couple: “Wang Lung did not speak with the maiden, since it was not fitting, but he inclined his head gravely when she bowed, and he was pleased with her, for she knew her duty and she moved about the house quietly with her eyes downcast. Moreover, she was a goodly maid, fair enough but not too fair so as to be vain over it. She was careful and correct in all her behavior, and she went into O-lan's room and tended her, and this eased Wang Lung of his pain for his wife, because now there was a woman about her bed, and O-lan was very content" (26.33).
What more could you want from a daughter-in-law? On top of everything else, she even takes care of O-lan on her deathbed.
But soon enough, we learn that O-lan 2.0 has some faults. For one, she might break easily. She has a really hard time giving birth and nearly scares everyone to death when she does. O-lan made it look like a walk in the park. Another fault? She's a little too perfect.
If the first son is Mr. Perfect, then let's face it: his women is Little Miss Prim. She is prim, she is proper, and she is obsessed with how everything is not as awesome as it was at her father's house. Hold us back. She's constantly described as "correct" (26.53). Being "correct" can be a good thing, but if that's the first thing people say about you, it's probably a sign you should loosen up a bit.
The first person to notice that the first son's wife isn't all she's cracked up to be is the second brother, who says: “Well, and wed I will then, for it is a good thing and better than spending money on a jade when the need comes, and it is right for a man to have sons. But do not get me a wife from a house in town, such as my brother has, for she will talk forever of what was in her father's house and make me spend money and it will be an anger to me" (28.54).
It would be different if she were just annoying her husband, but the first daughter-in-law causes even more trouble by getting in a feud with the second daughter-in-law.
Here's how it all goes down:
"‘Well, and it is a proper dainty bit you have, my cousin, a town lady and her feet as small as lotus buds!' And to the wife of the second son he said, 'Well, here is a good stout red radish from the country—a piece of sturdy red meat!' This he said because the woman was fat and ruddy and thick in the bone, but still not uncomely. And whereas the wife of the eldest son shrank away when he looked at her and hid her face behind her sleeve, this one laughed out, good humored and robust as she was, and she answered pertly, ‘Well, and some men like a taste of hot radish, or a bite of red meat'" (31.39).
We'd just like to say that being called red meat is not exactly a compliment. So after this moment, the first and second daughters-in-law are enemies. The first daughter-in-law is jealous and also upset that the second daughter-in-law is not as proper as she is. When the wives fight, the husbands fight even more. So this lady is partially responsible for all the unrest in Wang Lung's house. Both of them quite different from O-lan, who did nothing but create and maintain peace.
It seems as if Wang Lung's children are distillations of his and O-lan's personalities. The first son is Wang Lung's desire for respect mixed with his moxie. If you read Wang Lung's "Character Analysis," you'll see that even though these are the traits that help him become successful, they are also the things that get him in trouble. What saves him every time is his connection to the earth.
And that's the big problem here. The first son has no connection to the earth anymore. He's a scholar, and he doesn't know what it means to be a farmer. Through him and his wife, we get to see what might have happened to Wang Lung if he had totally forgotten his roots. It's not a pretty picture.