Cry, the Beloved Country is a novel of social protest—a protest against apartheid, the policy of racial segregation that existed in South Africa. When the Reverend Stephen Kumalo travels from his home in Ndotsheni to the capital city of Johannesburg to find his missing family members, he encounters a disintegration of tribal customs and family life. Kumalo learns quickly that the whites, through the policy of apartheid, have disrupted African values and social order. He notes that city life leads to a demoralized lifestyle of poverty and crime for the natives. Even the Reverend Theophilus Msimangu, a priest who offers his assistance to Kumalo, believes that this disintegration of social values cannot be mended. Msimangu does, however, envision hope for “when white men and black men . . . desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it.” The land, in this case, South Africa, is the center of this novel. As the land becomes divided and eroded, so, too, do the people who live on it. Because James Jarvis and Kumalo reach a shared responsibility for their actions and thoughts as they attempt to understand the loss of their sons, Alan Paton believes that the country of South Africa has hope for restoration of its values and order in its new generation, especially in the sons of Arthur Jarvis and Absalom Kumalo.
Cry, the Beloved Country is structured in three sections. To depict the land as the central focus of this novel, Paton opens chapter 1 with a poetic reverence for “the fairest valleys of Africa.” Here the connection between land and people becomes evident. Book 1 points to the erosion of the land as the people leave their native soil. This section focuses on the native soil of the blacks, Kumalo in particular. It is difficult to maintain the beauty and fertility of the land when the tribal natives head for the promises of the city. The land, then, stands desolate. This deterioration is further illustrated in the shantytowns dishearteningly discovered by Kumalo as he enters Johannesburg.
The opening lines are repeated in chapter 18, which begins book 2. The melodic description of the land is now in reference to the whites’ partition of South Africa, namely, James Jarvis. The land is not depleted, but well tended. The openness and vitality of the land offer a sheer contrast to the depiction contained in book 1. James Jarvis’s farm, the finest one of the countryside, “stands high above Ndotsheni.” Paton thus symbolically portrays the destructiveness and divisiveness of apartheid in the ownership of land.
The third section holds a twofold purpose. Chapter 30 brings to light the drought that covers the land of Ndotsheni. Saddened by the land’s deterioration, Kumalo knows he must find a way to restore its beauty and fertility. Subsequently, this is assisted by a brewing rainstorm and, most notably, by the generosity of James Jarvis, who hires an agricultural demonstrator to ready plans for tillage. Symbolically, Paton realizes Msimangu’s words of hope that only love “has power completely.” The reconstruction of the land becomes a joint venture between Kumalo and James Jarvis, between black and white. Taking responsibility for one’s actions has brought a new understanding and renewed principles for the good of all humanity.
Stylistically, Paton parallels character to character and action to action to dramatize the social ills of South Africa and its native people, while contrasting these vivid portraits to the lives of the white South Africans. As noted previously, the novel’s three sections structurally suggest the two different worlds of Africans and Europeans, then offer a solution and a hope in the third book in the coming together of the two fathers. The safe, calm village life of Kumalo and the farm life of Jarvis parallel the city life in Johannesburg, a city of evil, corruption, and moral inequities for both blacks and whites. The need for truth and justice is paralleled by Kumalo’s search for his son Absalom, whom he finds in prison, with Jarvis’s news of his son’s death. Each father must come to terms with a loss. Although paralleled, it is Jarvis who claims an affinity, “for there is something between” them. Ironically, it is Kumalo’s son who shoots and kills Arthur Jarvis. Paton allows this parallel to function in two ways: first, to reflect the suffering of each father; second, to show that both Absalom and Arthur fall victim to apartheid. Paralleling, then, is more than just a structural device, but rather a focus on the issue of race relations in South Africa.
Paton uses unique literary techniques to enhance the poignancy of his themes. He employs intercalary chapters to dramatize the historical setting of the novel. These intercalary chapters serve as Paton’s social criticism of the divisive political and social order in South Africa. Paton also uses dashes to indicate dialogue, allowing not only for the realistic portrayal of conversation, but also for the rapid dramatic actions among characters. This simple literary technique generates the movement of plot and points directly to the language. Diction remains simple, yet eloquent in its delivery by the various characters. Kumalo speaks in a mildly solemn language emphasizing his ecclesiastic background; the Reverend Msimangu often speaks in an oratory fashion to proclaim his views. John Kumalo uses the language of violence to demonstrate his anger over apartheid and his love for power as a black leader in Johannesburg. The tribal language brings the novel credence and revelation of a people rooted in tradition and honor.
In 1946, Paton began writing Cry, the Beloved Country. Less than four months later, he finished it. Born in South Africa, Paton knew firsthand the tragedy that marked his homeland. He noted that although the story is not true, it is a social record of the truth. Cry, the Beloved Country is a classic work of world literature, not only for bringing to light a destructive political system but also for depicting the humanity among people that can be lost in the struggle for justice and power. Cry, the Beloved Country is a cry for one’s land, a cry for justice, a cry for understanding, and, certainly, a cry for hope. Indeed, this novel speaks for all lost generations who seek direction in a dark world.
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1. How does today's South Africa differ from the country depicted in 1948? How did the changes happen?
South Africa today is almost unrecognizable from the country depicted in Cry, the Beloved Country. Huge political and social changes have taken place since 1946, the year in which the novel is set. But things got considerably worse before they got better. In 1948, when the novel was first published, the Nationalist Party came to power and created the system of strict racial segregation known as apartheid. Blacks were barred from many occupations, and wages for blacks were well below what whites earned. Blacks were not allowed to vote or run for office. During the 1950s, the government created separate bantustans, or homelands, for some groups of black people.
Protests against apartheid grew during the 1960s, and the South African government cracked down on black activists. Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress, was imprisoned for life in 1962. In 1974, South Africa was expelled from the United Nations. It became an international pariah and many countries imposed economic sanctions on it. In 1976, protesting students in the black township of Soweto, near Johannesburg, were fired on by police. Many died, and in the near anarchy that followed, over a thousand people died, and 13,000 were arrested. Opposition to apartheid continued to grow, despite repression by the government. During the late 1980s, with South Africa internationally isolated, it finally became clear to the ruling Nationalist Party that it could not continue its racist policies. In 1990, Prime Minister, F. W. de Klerk, removed the ban on the African National Congress and freed Nelson Mandela from prison. In 1994, multi-party elections were held. It was the first time in South Africa that blacks had been allowed to vote. The African National Congress emerged as the ruling party, and Mandela became President.
Today, South Africa is a multiracial society in which whites and blacks are treated equally under the law. The economy is thriving. Although social problems remain, as they do in any country, South Africa has witnessed the dawn that Paton envisaged at the end of the novel, one that would release the people from the "fear of bondage and the bondage of fear."
2. What are the different ways in which John Kumalo and Msimangu address the problem of racial injustice?
The basic difference between Kumalo and Msimangu is between a political and a spiritual approach to the problem. John Kumalo has rejected the church. The church speaks with fine words, he says, and condemns unjust laws, but it has been doing this for fifty years, and things get worse, not better. He has turned to political activism rather than religion, and has made a name for himself by his powerful speeches calling for higher wages for the black mineworkers, who create all the wealth that the white people enjoy. The political approach utilizes the tool of workers' strikes to force a more equitable society.
Msimangu shares John Kumalo's awareness of racial injustice, but his attitude to it is different. He is a Christian priest, and therefore, he say, he cannot hate the white man. He is also suspicious of those black people who seek power, because he believes that power corrupts them. They may be well motivated to begin with, but they become selfish, and use power for their own ends. His approach is a radical, spiritual one: "But there is only one thing that has power completely, and that is love. Because when a man loves, he seeks no power, and therefore he has power."
The different approaches are demonstrated vividly in the public speeches of the two men. In chapter 13, Msimangu gives an inspiring sermon at Ezenzelini, in which he emphasizes spiritual upliftment, not political action. He preaches about inheriting the spiritual kingdom after death, not in establishing that kingdom through justice on earth. This is why some consider him a friend, or at least not a threat, to the South African government. By contrast, in chapter 26, Kumalo gives a speech to a big crowd, calling for a miners' strike. Unlike Msimangu, he is perceived as a threat to the government, and they will arrest him if he offers them any provocation.
Of the two approaches, the novel suggests that Msimangu's is the more likely to succeed. The strike for which Kumalo calls seems to have little effect, but Part III of the novel, which emphasizes the cooperation between white and black people in the revitalizing of Ndotsheni, seems to fulfill Msimangu's words in chapter 7: "I see only one hope for our country, and that is when white men and black men, desiring neither power nor money, but desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it."
3. Does Absalom Kumalo receive a fair trial?
Although Cry, the Beloved Country is a novel about injustice, Absalom Kumalo appears on the face of it to receive a fair trial. Since he admitted that he killed Arthur Jarvis, the issue is not one of guilt or innocence but of intent, since he claims that he did not intend to kill.
Absalom receives an adequate defense, by a distinguished lawyer, and the case is considered in detail by the judge, who carefully evaluates all the evidence. Because it cannot be established beyond doubt that the other two accused men were at the scene of the crime, they are acquitted, which suggests that this is not a trial in which innocent people are railroaded. In fact, it suggests the opposite, since it is clear that the other two accused were in fact guilty.
The argument that condemns Kumalo is that he entered the house with a weapon, the use of which might result in the death of a man who interfered with the burglary. According to the judge, South African law says that an intention to kill may be inferred from such circumstances. Therefore Absalom is guilty of murder.
The question of fairness really revolves around the extent to which an individual can excuse his actions and blame them on a corrupt society. This is in part the defense used by Absalom's lawyer, Mr. Carmichael. He argues that black crime happens because tribal society has been destroyed, and that white society bears some responsibility for the destruction. In that sense, the whole social system is unjust, and the lawyer argues that should be considered in evaluating the case against Absalom.
However, the judge rules that such matters are irrelevant. He must simply abide by the law, and not pass comment on society.
Viewed in narrow terms, then, the trial would seem to be fair, but seen in the larger context of the injustices inherent in South African society, that conclusion seems less easy to uphold.
4. How would you describe the character of Stephen Kumalo, and how does he grow during the course of the novel?
Stephen Kumalo is a humble, kind man who for many years has pursued his calling as a parson in Ndotsheni. He appears to have traveled little, and has small knowledge of the wider world. This changes when he is summoned to Johannesburg to attend to his sister, during which time he also takes the opportunity to search for his son. Through this search, he learns more about the injustices that are inflicted on the black people in Johannesburg and the depths to which life can sink.
Kumalo is not a man of great education or force of intellect or personality, and he has no solution to the troubled situation he finds himself in other than to try to bring his family back home with him. In this respect, he has an unshakeable sense of duty. As a religious man, he is also motivated by deep faith and a sense of moral responsibility. He inspires respect and affection in others. He is not perfect, however, and is not beyond telling a small lie to the other passengers on the train to Johannesburg, implying that he has been to the great city many times, when in fact this is his first trip. On several occasions he is tempted into saying hurtful things, once to Absalom's girlfriend, and then to his brother John. On each occasion, however, he feels remorse afterwards.
Kumalo endures great sorrow and grief as a result of what happens in Johannesburg, but he does grow as a person during the course of the novel. When he returns to Ndotsheni, he takes it upon himself to try to improve the lot of his fellow villagers, consulting with the chief and the school headmaster about how to accomplish this goal. He also remembers to pray, and his prayers are answered when James Jarvis starts to help the village. By keeping faith with his religious calling, Kumalo has become the instrument through which healing and restoration come to Ndotsheni.
5. What role does Arthur Jarvis's son play in the novel?
Arthur Jarvis's son, the small boy who comes to visit Stephen Kumalo in Ndotsheni, acts as an agent of reconciliation. He is a symbol of hope for the future. Knowing nothing of racial prejudice, he treats Kumalo with respect and behaves in a completely natural manner towards him, and his childish curiosity awakens the old man's affection.
The boy is also a herald of good events. Immediately after each of his visits to Kumalo, something completely unexpected happens. On the first occasion, it is the delivery of milk for the small children. On the second occasion, it is the arrival of Letsitsi, who is going to teach the people how to farm.
There is a hint that the boy is a messenger of the divine, an angel perhaps. Angels are often described as bright, and the boy is described several times in exactly this way. On his second visit, for example, "He sat down at the table and looked round with a pleasure inside him, so that a man felt it was something bright that had come into the house" (chapter 33). When the boy tells Kumalo he will return to Johannesburg when his grandfather comes back, Kumalo says, "When you go, something bright will go out of Ndotsheni."
Seen in this light, it is significant that the boy makes his first appearance almost immediately after Kumalo prays for a miracle that will help his village. The innocent young white boy is an agent, sent by God, to set that miracle in motion.