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Written at the pinnacle of South Africa’s social and racial crisis, Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country traces the struggle of two families, black and white, through their shared suffering and the devotion to their beloved country that unites them in the end. Paton thoughtfully weaves his plot to show the diverse population’s differing viewpoints on many social issues, mostly through the eyes of the main characters. His unique sense of style manifests, however, through his use of intercalary chapters, chapters in the novel which in no way contribute to the storyline, but rather exemplify the terrible social situations in parts of South Africa unknown to the main characters and, therefore, the reader. The book is, in essence, politically allegorical. Paton offers the fictional story of a humble black priest and an enlightened white man’s final harmonization, through which a former wasteland returns to fertility, to reveal to the rest of South Africa that all hope for the future is not lost.
A description begins the novel: “there is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.” The author speaks of the beauty of Africa, but rapidly the tone changes into that of despair: “But the rich hills break down…for they grow red and bare; they cannot hold the rain and mist, and the streams are dry…” The symbolic redness of the earth signifies blood; a land formed in the bloodshed of war; a nation bleeding in anguish at the degradation of her people.
A simple country priest, Stephen Kumalo, lives this degradation; everywhere, his small village of Ndotsheni is dying. The traditional tribe is disintegrating, the chief a meaningless figurehead, and the real power replaced with the white man’s authority: Christianity. The village is made of “old men and old women, of mothers and children,” because the able-bodied youth are leaving. “The maize hardly reaches the height of a man…” Kumalo laments, always saying more than just words. Food becomes scarcer as the land grows sicker, and with no food in the rural areas, the native people leave their ancestral homes and travel to what they believe is opportunity: the great city of Johannesburg. It is there that utter moral corruption sets in, for those who go to Johannesburg “never come back.”
Stephen Kumalo experiences this knowledge first-hand, through his sister, Gertrude, who left to find her husband who also never returned from the city, and his own son, Absalom, who went looking for work and eventually just stopped writing. With the arrival of a mysterious letter speaking of Gertrude’s desperate need for help, Kumalo embarks upon a quest to Johannesburg hoping to discover the whereabouts and situation of his lost family.
A naive man, he is shocked by what he finds there, and how the city has betrayed the native people into depravity. Illegal alcohol, prostitution, thievery, and even murder abound among the natives in the writhing cesspool of Johannesburg. Yet even through this, Kumalo is able to find a friend in a fellow priest Msimangu, and together they begin to search for the remnants of the old man’s kin. Gertrude, to his dismay, has become no exception to this rule: she is a prostitute, selling her body for money, because she has no other means by which to support herself and her son. Upon discovery, however, she immediately repents her sinful ways, giving Kumalo hope that perhaps Absalom, too, will see the light when found. But his son is not found, not at least, until it is too late. Retracing Absalom’s steps, the elderly priest is confronted by the frightening truths of the city’s wretchedness: he searches through junkyard “Shanty Towns” where the unemployed live in pitiful houses made from scraps of tin, and through crowded rent-houses filled with prostitutes, thieves, and frightened people. Fear pervades throughout this first part of the novel; whites afraid of the blacks, blacks afraid of the whites, and blacks even afraid of each other. It is in desperate fear that Kumalo finally finds his son. Absalom, a former perpetrator of petty crimes, has finally committed the greatest sin of all: murder, ironically, the murder of a white man most committed to helping the impoverished blacks, Arthur Jarvis. The grief-stricken priest must find a lawyer for his son and prepare for the possibility of the death sentence if Absalom were to be convicted. The trial is filled with injustice, from minor representations of early apartheid, such as different seating areas for whites and blacks, to the actual results of the case: Absalom Kumalo is sentenced to death, even though the murder was unintentional, a robbery gone bad, and Absalom had fired “only out of fear.” At any other time period, murder without malice would have been confined to a sentence of manslaughter. The author makes it clear that most likely, the unfair sentence was due to the fact that with apartheid, a black man murdering a white man deserves none but the ultimate punishment.
But with death comes rebirth. Kumalo can only take some joy that his son’s girlfriend is with child, and eagerly wants to return to Ndotsheni with Kumalo, away from the perversions of the city. This unborn child, along with Gertrude’s son, gives the reader a first glimpse of hope in the younger generation; instead of leaving the village to go to the city and be corrupted, children from the city are returning to their homelands and back to morality.
Book II opens with a description similar to the opening of the novel describing Ndotsheni: “there is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills.” However, this is where the similarity ends. This description moves not from the hills into the barren valleys, but rather up “on the tops,” where “the grass is rich and matted,” and there is “one of the finest farms of (the) countryside.” It is called High Place, where the father of Arthur Jarvis, James, coincidentally lives, literally neighbors with the starving village of Ndotsheni.
James Jarvis plays an increasingly important role by the end of Books II and III, as his relationship with the Zulu pastor becomes closer, brought together by the mutual respect of having both, in one way or another, lost a son. Ironically, it is only through Arthur Jarvis’ death, that James Jarvis, upon perusal of his son’s manuscripts on native crime, begins to question his own views on “the native question.” The elder Jarvis, having never before taken his son very seriously, feels a quiet obligation to his son’s memory to understand what he believed in. He reads about Abraham Lincoln, the “great emancipator,” who freed the black slaves in America almost a century earlier. He also reads the many articles his son wrote, and about the activist organizations Arthur was a part of, and feelings of forgiveness begin to replace the hatred in his heart. Throughout the novel and with his son’s death, James Jarvis is faced with a crossroads: he could take the path of revenge and therefore destruction; or, the path of forgiveness, making something positive out of such a tragedy. Jarvis chooses forgiveness, and thus begins the restoration, in some small way, of South Africa.
In Johannesburg, Jarvis donates a large amount of money to his son’s favorite foundation, dedicated to helping the black population. Back in Ndotsheni, Jarvis realizes why infertility engulfs the land, that is, the Zulus do not have the agricultural knowledge to correctly farm, being a naturally nomadic people. He immediately hires a knowledgeable agricultural instructor, to teach the people how to farm. This is a first step towards restoring the tribe, as now with food and work in the fields, the youth can stay with their families. He promises a new church, reaffirming the role of religion and spirituality in the villager’s lives.
Near the end of the novel, Arthur Jarvis’ son, staying with his grandfather, comes to visit and “talk Zulu” with Stephen Kumalo. The boy, hearing that the children are sick because they have no milk to drink, rides away and milk is delivered the next day to the dying children, saving many lives. The boy represents the hope for the younger white generation. He is interested in Zulu culture, not destroying it, and actually cares about the welfare of the black children. He is clearly his father’s son.
The final scene of the novel symbolically illustrates fertility and rebirth returning to the land, through the different colors of Africa uniting together and achieving an ultimate good in the face of destruction. The titihoya, a rare bird who cries only in fertile areas, awakens and takes flight. Light and dark imagery contrast, with light representing knowledge and awakening: “Yes, it is dawn that has come, as it has come for a thousand centuries, never failing. Ndotsheni is still in darkness, but it will come there also.” The dawn also represents a dawn of a new age, impressing upon the reader that peace is possible with total love and forgiveness, but when, “why, that is a secret.”
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