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A Theme of Fear in Cry, The Beloved Country

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“Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear.” 

Fear is a widespread theme in Cry, the Beloved Country. The novel is centered around the idea of how fear affects us. It shows the fear we feel when our world, our moral sense, and our way of life start to disappear. Paton utilizes fear as a way to express many of the political, economic, and social issues that occur in South Africa during the time in which this book takes place.

Fear embodies itself in many of the characters in the novel as well. Stephen Kumalo, who journeys to Johannesburg to find his sister and son is used by Paton to express the fear of the natives. “Deep down the fear for his son. Deep down the fear of a man who lives in a world not made for him, whose own world is slipping away, dying, being destroyed, beyond any recall.” He fears for his son, who after burglarizing a man’s house and kills the man in an accidental shooting is tried murder. He fears for his village, which is plagued by poverty and drought. His son, who is another character Paton uses to express fear, reveals a different perspective. When he is tried, he admits that the accidental shooting was committed out of pure fear. “The accused looks down again at the floor. Then he answers in a low voice, I was afraid, I was afraid. I never meant to shoot him.” Absalom’s being easily influenced is because of his fear of the world. The murder of a man was not out of evil intention but out of fear of the conditions in South Africa. When Absalom is sentenced, the judge acknowledges that the acts were done because of the social condition in South Africa. However, he still sentenced Absalom to death because of the law created by a “defective society.” In Chapter 28, as the judge puts it, “His learned Counsel pleads that he should not suffer the extreme penalty, argues that he is shocked and overwhelmed and stricken by this act, commends him for his truthful and straightforward confession, draws attention to his youth and to the disastrous effect of a great and wicked city on the character of a simple tribal boy. He has dealt profoundly with the disaster that has overwhelmed our native tribal society, … But even if it be true that we have, out of fear and selfishness and thoughtlessness, wrought a destruction that we have done little to repair, even if it be true that we should be ashamed of it and do something more courageous and forthright than we are doing, there is nevertheless a law, and it is one of the monumental achievements of this defective society that it has made a law, and has set judges to administer it, … But a judge may not trifle with the Law because the society is defective … I am only pointing out that a Judge cannot, must not, dare not allow the existing defects of society to influence him to do anything but administer the law.” 

Fear is not only demonstrated through the black natives, but through the white natives as well. Fear is the major motive behind the restrictive and harsh laws created by the whites. At the start of Chapter 12, the author writes, “Have no doubt it is fear in the land. For what can men do when so many have grown lawless? Who can enjoy the lovely land, who can enjoy the seventy years, and the sun that pours down on the earth, when there is fear in the heart? Who can walk quietly in the shadow of the jacarandas, when their beauty is grown to danger? Who can lie peacefully abed, while the darkness holds some secret? What lovers can lie sweetly under the stars, when menace grows with the measure of their seclusion?” This section explains the reason behind the white’s tight constraint over the land. The black people have grown lawless and have become alienated from the world. The fear of the black people motivates the white natives to keep a sharp grip on the black natives. The irony is that the reason the white people are afraid of the black natives is that they depend on them through labor and money. The black people grow lawless, while the white people try and keep them under control. However, the reason why the black natives have become lawless is the tight control over them. Their culture was destroyed and there is nothing to replace or compensate for that. As Misimangu puts it, “I see only hope for our country, and that is when white men and black men desiring neither power nor money, but desiring only for the good of their country, come together to work for it.” Fear has made a huge impact on the people of South Africa, and Msimangu sees that the only way to conquer the fear, is to love. However, there is a paradox, as the people are too afraid to love. “There is a man sleeping in the grass. … And over him is gathering the greatest storm of all his days … bringing death and destruction. People hurry home past him to places safe from danger. And whether they do not see him there in the grass, or whether they fear to halt even a moment, but they do not wake him, they let him be.” The storm represents the state of the land. And the state of the land brings death and destruction. The only way to survive the storm is to love and help each other. But “People hurry home past him to places safe from danger. … Whether they fear to halt … they let him be.”

A well as manifesting itself in the people of South Africa, fear also presents itself in the landscape. Paton introduces the theme of fear at the beginning of the book. He gives a peaceful and calm description of the green hills around Ntodenshi. “The grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. It holds the rain and the mist, and they seep into the ground, feeding the streams in every kloof. It is well-tended, and not too many cattle feed upon it; not too many fires burn it, laying bare the soil.” However, after this passage, Paton gives a very different description of the land below the green hills. “But the rich green hills break down. They fall to the valley below, and falling, change their nature. For they grow red and bare; they cannot hold the rain and mist, and the streams are dry in the kloofs. Too many cattle feed upon the grass, and too many fires have burned it. … The titihoya does not cry here any more. The great red hills stand desolate, and the earth has torn away like flesh. The lightning flashes over them, the clouds pour down upon them, the dead streams come to life, full of the red blood of the earth. Down in the valleys women scratch the soil that is lest, and the maize hardly reaches the height of a man. They are valleys of old men and old women, of mothers and children. The men are away, the young men and girls are away. The soil cannot keep them any more.” This passage gives a vivid description of the land and its being “torn away like flesh.” It illustrates the problems and effects segregation has had on the land and the people. The segregation has torn apart the native culture, and has left nothing for the natives, but only destruction in its wake. Thus, “The soil cannot keep them any more.” 

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