Both the Edwardses and the Jongas place pressure on their sons to have lucrative, prestigious jobs. Both also expect their sons to play active, professional roles in American society—an ambition that may have been less pronounced if Clark Edwards’s and Jende Jonga’s eldest children were girls instead of boys. Vince Edwards and Liomi Jonga become mirrors onto which their parents project their own ideas about what makes a man successful. Mbue uses Vince and Liomi’s experiences to illustrate how children are sometimes crushed under the force of their parents’ expectations, which can deprive them of the ability to learn who they are and define success on their own terms.
Though Liomi is still too young to know what he wants out of life, Neni Jonga tells her son that she expects him to grow up to be a doctor or a lawyer. These expectations cause her to put too much pressure on Liomi, which affects his ability to have a normal childhood in New York. For example, when Neni hears from Liomi’s teacher that he socializes too actively with a boy named Billy during class time, she becomes angry, believing that Liomi is wasting his opportunity to acquire an education. It doesn’t matter to her that part of going to school is learning how to develop social relationships. She regards his laughter as “noise” and his friendliness as “nonsense.” His development of a social life, which is also key to success, is regarded as a deterrent to his academic success, which is the only kind of achievement that Neni recognizes for someone her son’s age. In this regard, Neni is unknowingly depriving Liomi of the opportunity to form social networks outside of his family and to develop a personality.
Eschewing the importance of socializing, Neni emphasizes to Liomi that school means “everything” for people “like [them].” In this instance, she’s imposing her own fears about being unable to enroll in pharmacy school. Neni perceives education as the only escape from the stagnancy that characterized her life in Cameroon. She believes that, if her son can transcend that stagnancy, he can become “a lawyer like Uncle Winston,” “a doctor like Dr. Tobias,” or a “big man on Wall Street like Mr. Edwards.” These men have set the examples for success and wealth that she expects her son to attain, though Neni is unaware of or disregards other factors—for example, Clark Edwards’s middle-class background and Winston’s enlistment in the U.S. Army—that contributed to their success.
Vince Edwards provides the template for the path that Neni would like Liomi to follow. He attended the prestigious Dalton School, obtained a degree from New York University, then enrolled as a student at Columbia School of Law. His parents expected that he would enter the corporate arena, like his father Clark. When Vince diverts from the path that his parents have set for him, Clark, particularly, registers strong disapproval. Like Neni, he measures success in money and status, while his son measures it in terms of the good that he can do in the world.
When Vince turns down an internship at the international law firm, Skadden, in favor of spending a month on a reservation in Arizona, Clark Edwards makes no pretense of hiding his distaste for the decision. He tells his son that he’s not sure what his thinking is, as though the idea of turning down the internship makes no logical sense. He also describes Vince’s wish to try out an alternative lifestyle in Arizona as “[sitting] around.” Clark describes it as the stagnancy that Neni fears and that Clark perceives as failure. Clark’s reaction also trivializes Vince’s desires without first trying to understand them. He views Vince’s choice as a “major [decision]” that can adversely impact Vince’s life, due to it falling outside of the traditional narrative of American success.
The Edwardses are further frustrated by Vince’s decision to leave law school to go to India. While Cindy Edwards rightly perceives Vince’s decision as a manifestation of his unhappiness with the example that his parents have set for him, Clark merely thinks that his son is being “an idiot” and “[throwing] away a perfectly good life.” The irony in Clark’s statement comes from the fact that he’s making it whilst angrily arguing with his wife, who is desperate for his attention, and immersing himself in a job that makes him lots of money but brings him little personal fulfillment. He is, therefore, proving his son’s point about the futility of orienting one’s life goals around social preeminence and the attainment of wealth.
In the end, Clark realizes that his son is right to pursue something beyond money and social prestige, neither of which brought Vince’s parents any personal fulfillment or emotional security. Clark even grows to admire Vince for having the courage to set his own path instead of orienting his life goals around his father’s ideas of success. Ironically, it is Vince who ends up setting an example for his father. Clark later chooses to reorient his life around family and sound financial values by taking on a new job as a lobbyist for credit unions. Though Neni never exactly relinquishes her belief in the importance of education as a pathway to success, she realizes that her singular focus on education blinded her to the complexity of achievement in the United States. As a result of watching the Edwards family unravel, she sees that becoming a doctor, lawyer, or investment banker will not protect her son from pain or hardship.
Parental Expectations vs. Personal Ambitions ThemeTracker
Parental Expectations vs. Personal Ambitions Quotes in Behold the Dreamers
“At his age, all I wanted was the life that I have right now. This exact life, this was what I wanted.”
“It is a good life, sir. A very good life.”
“Sometimes. But I can understand why Vince doesn’t want it. Because these days I don’t want it, either. All this shit going on at Lehman, all this stuff we would never have done twenty years ago because we stood for something more, and now really dirty shit is becoming the norm. All over the Street. But try to show good sense, talk of consequences, have a far-long-term outlook, and they look at you as if you've lost your marbles […]”
“And I know Vince has got a point, but the problem is not some system. It is us. Each of us. We've got to fix ourselves before we can fix a whole damn country […]”