Cry, the Beloved Country: a Contemplation of Conflict

Cry, the Beloved Country: a Contemplation of Conflict

An essay by Jacqueline Bush

for Prof. Amanda Cockburn’s Global Englishes: Postcolonial Literature class

Cry, the Beloved Country: a Contemplation of Conflict

            Alan Paton’s novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, reflects the social inequities of pre-Apartheid South Africa and calls on its people to enact change for a better country. The novel traces the journey of Stephen Kumalo, a black reverend from the village of Ndotsheni, as he sets out to reunite his family and rebuild his tribe. Along this journey, Kumalo discovers the desperation of his people and gets a taste of the overwhelming fear that permeates the country and lies at the heart of South Africa’s struggle. In a parallel narrative, Paton follows James Jarvis, father of recently killed social activist Arthur Jarvis, as he endeavours to understand his son’s work. Kumalo and Jarvis, although divided by race, are united in their suffering at the hands of social inequity; Paton uses these narratives as a microscope to examine the tensions and problems facing all South African people, regardless of race.

Throughout the novel, Paton uses the setting to establish racial division and shine light upon a devastating generational gap. He opens the novel with a lyrical description of the South African country side, of the white man’s lush land, of the hills that “are lovely beyond any singing of it” (33). He paints a picture of a land that is “holy” and “well-tended”, and asserts the symbiosis between man and nature: “Destroy it and man is destroyed” (33).  In stark contrast, he goes on to describe the barren and fruitless land of the native villagers, where “too many cattle feed upon the grass, and too many fires have burned it” (33-34). He states that man and the land are one, and depicts the landscape with violent imagery to allude to the violence enacted upon the native people; where the soil is overworked and impoverished, so too are the men and women (34). The disparity of wealth between the two racial groups is made apparent in the juxtaposition of these two landscapes. Paton goes on to reason that this disparity is the cause of their broken tradition: “The men are away, the young men and the girls are away. The soil cannot keep them any more” (34). The mines are later used as another representation of the anguish caused by racial inequality. The white mine owners profit hugely from black men’s labour, while black families are broken up and the land is scarred by the industry (46). Kumalo is awed by the magnitude of the mines that he passes on his way to Johannesburg (46). The vastness of the mines suggests that the gain of the white people off the backs of the black people is overwhelming the natural South African scenery. The mines epitomize the disintegration of the tribe, as the workers are separated from their families, which also acts as a catalyst for Kumalo’s journey: Kumalo’s sister, Gertrude, set out for Johannesburg to find her husband who had never returned from the mines (36), and Kumalo’s son, Absalom, went to Johannesburg to locate his aunt (36). Stephen Kumalo is then left to journey to Johannesburg to retrieve them, the pieces of his fractured family (40). Paton uses the contrast between Ndotsheni and Johannesburg to further highlight the problems of a broken tradition, of a seemingly irreparable generation gap. Ndotsheni is a place of values and community, as is exemplified by a little girl’s visit to Kumalo’s home at the beginning of chapter 2 (35). Kumalo offers the child a meal from his own humble provisions, for he knows that she is poor and hungry (35). This sense of brotherhood is again demonstrated upon Kumalo’s homecoming in Book III (255). Kumalo is welcomed home with open arms by the villagers, who had missed him greatly (255). By contrast, Johannesburg is a place of anonymity, of moral corruption and desperation, a place without social services or support for black people. It is the setting of the new generation, the generation that the land of Ndotsheni could not keep. It is in Johannesburg that Kumalo is robbed of a pound (48), and both Gertrude and Absalom are driven to crime in order to survive (61, 97). Johannesburg embodies native crime, the beginning and end to the white men’s cyclical fear, which is symptomatic of a much greater disease. The contrasting values of these two towns, Ndotsheni and Johannesburg, serve to emphasize the moral breakdown of South Africa. Against the backdrop that is the South African landscape, Paton illustrates the plight of the disenfranchised native youth, and creates a cast of characters who must struggle through this conflict.

Paton’s use of characterization not only advances the plot, but also develops a comprehensive look at those people facing racial tension and social injustice. Reverend Msimangu, Kumalo’s friend and guide, bears a clear message of love and fellowship, advocating true racial harmony based on respect rather than resentment. He understands the dangers of political and economic greed, and he fears that, by the time the white people “are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating” (71). By this Reverend Msimangu means that, rather than mutually seeking the betterment of South Africa, black people may topple the white government with vengeance rather than forgiveness in their hearts. As a foil to Msimangu, John Kumalo, Stephen’s brother, embodies the greed and materialism that Msimangu fears. John’s hunger for power stems from a place of selfishness, as opposed to Msimangu’s dream of peace and equality for the good of the people. John’s selfish and materialistic nature is demonstrated in his unwillingness to truly devote himself to his rebellion: he has the power to lead the country into war, but “he goes so far, no further” (222). John could not bear to be a martyr for his cause, for “There is no applause in prison” (220). On the other hand, Arthur Jarvis, while living, was a white political activist fighting for native rights with both the heart of Msimangu but the influence of John Kumalo. In a moment of panic during a robbery of Jarvis’ house, Absalom shoots and kills Jarvis (133). However, the voice of Arthur Jarvis is very clear despite the fact that he is never a live character. Through his writings, Paton develops Jarvis’ character into a symbol of justice and harmony. He was aware of the disparities of South Africa and strove to try to fix them. Paton uses Jarvis to allude to Abraham Lincoln, drawing Jarvis’ message out of the realm of the fictitious and into historical examples of political change in favour of racial harmony. Paton also uses Jarvis as an example of a white man striving for unity and peace, while displaying the delicate nuances of South Africa’s conflict; while acting on fear, Absalom kills Jarvis, a man fighting to gain rights for people like Absalom so that he would not have to rob houses in the first place (187-88). This drastic social inequality results in the suffering of two broken families.

The worlds of Arthur Jarvis and Absalom Kumalo are very different, but the journeys their fathers take are very similar. This is highlighted in the very structure of the novel. Book I follows the path of Stephen Kumalo as he searches for his son, and is focused on the South African reality of the black population. In chapter 9 of Book I, Paton chooses to break from the Kumalo narrative and instead use a fractured dialogue to show the living conditions of other black communities such as Shanty Town (83).  This departure from Kumalo’s suffering to focus on another woman’s fear of losing her child brings universality to Kumalo’s situation – he is not the only man facing the hardships of a disintegrating family unit, but one of many victims of racial inequities pulling families apart (90-91). Later, Book II examines James Jarvis as he discovers the work his son had done prior to his death. Consequentially, he finds a new perspective on South Africa’s politics as he comes to understand his son’s writing. Jarvis is greatly moved by what he reads and takes the message to heart, grasping not only that change is necessary, but that he has the power to effectuate such change. Paton uses Book II to show that ideas can be changed and that a movement for equality is possible. Book II also serves to demonstrate the white South African reality, as is emphasized with a break from the Jarvis narrative to allow an Englishman’s take on the discovery of new gold (200-01). The Englishman’s commentary shows the rich white man’s unexamined perspective on social equality (200-01). To balance the uplifting Jarvis narrative, Paton uses the monologue of a typical European-minded man to demonstrate just what an equality movement has to overcome. Kumalo and Jarvis each suffer the great loss of a son they did not really know at the hand of social injustice. Book III allows these narratives to intersect, and Jarvis and Kumalo bond with one another, taking the first steps toward social justice and righting the wrongs they both have suffered. Jarvis, abiding by his son’s beliefs, helps the villagers of Ndotsheni to restore their land and repair their church, thereby lessening the racial divide and bridging the generational gap that plagues the land (285, 296). In turn, Kumalo repays his son’s sins by offering Jarvis kindness and comfort in times of need (291-92). Book III introduces Jarvis’ son, who is an emblem of hope for the future of South Africa; having been raised by Arthur Jarvis, he has been taught respect and equality all his life. He represents the next generation of South Africans, the generation that will have to heal previous injustices. Book III concludes the novel on a hopeful note, predicting a long and painful struggle that will culminate in a unified and just South Africa.

The narratives that Paton uses to construct this novel are at once tragic and inspiring. While they depict the hardships of both the black and white people of pre-Apartheid South Africa, they offer insight into a slowly shifting mentality that will one day restore peace to the people and the land. The parallel journeys of Kumalo and Jarvis illuminate the tensions building in South Africa, but not without a ray of hope. In the final passage of Cry, the Beloved Country, Paton’s narrative voice returns to a physical description of the landscape, very reminiscent of the opening chapter of the novel. This final passage speaks of a light falling over the land, the light of justice and equality for all. Although many areas remain in darkness, “the light will come there also” and all will be well in South Africa (312).


Work Cited

Paton, Alan. Cry, the Beloved Country. New York, NY: Scribner, 2003. Print.

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