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Cry The Beloved Country

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Cry, The Beloved Country is a novel by South African author Alan Paton. It was first published in New York in 1948 by Charles Scribner's Sons and in London by Jonathan Cape. Cry, the Beloved Country made a tremendous impact on the international community when it was first published in 1947 by showing, in human terms, the effects of apartheid on its victims. The evil consequences of the apartheid system in South Africa were widely understood as political phenomena in 1947. Yet Alan Paton evoked the dilemma of tribal people so movingly that no one who read his novel could fail to understand from an emotional point of view the terrible injustices built into the legal system — a system which held sway in South Africa until 1990. Though Cry, the Beloved Country stands alone as a compelling plot with memorable characters, it is a book which needs to be placed in historical context to achieve its full impact.

Alan Paton (1903-1983) was a white man of English descent, raised in Natal, a region of South Africa which is the "beloved country" of the title. South Africa as a whole can also be understood to be the "beloved country" for which its natives, both white and black, must "cry," or weep for in sorrow and guilt. Paton understood that racial injustice, in which the blacks, who made up seventy percent of the country's population, worked to enrich the white Afrikaaners. It was a crime which led all South Africans, and especially the black natives, to disastrous consequences.

South Africa's history is the history of European colonialism in Africa. The Dutch East India Company came to the region in 1652 and began to displace the Bantu-speaking black Africans who lived there. Dutch farmers (Boers) who came from the Netherlands to settle the South African interior engaged in a long series of wars with the Xhosa people. But they were displaced in turn when the British took over the region in 1814. The Boers then settled even farther inland in Natal, the Orange Free State, and the Transvaal. When diamonds and gold were discovered in these regions in the 1860s and 1880s, making them more attractive for business than for farming, the British attempted to take over the regions. This prompted the Boer War (1899-1902). The British won the war and established the Union of South Africa in 1910. South Africa gained its independence from Britain in 1931. When the Boers, now called Afrikaaners, assumed power from England, they imposed the most strict apartheid laws, isolating the black natives in "homelands" which deprived them of their civil rights, as well as their ability to achieve economic and social stability.

When Paton wrote Cry, the Beloved Country, it was not clear how South Africa would solve the increasing injustices between its black and white inhabitants. Paton achieved two purposes in his novel. He depicted these injustices by showing how white commercialism dismantled the tribal customs which had given the black natives their stability, and he proposed an alternative to apartheid that was moral and religious rather than political. Through the reconciliation of his black protagonist, Stephen Kumalo, with the white land owner, James Jarvis, Paton proposes that natural charity and justice will emerge when members of both races see each other as fully human (Minter, 1988).

Paton did not merely write novels to propose solutions. He became actively involved in implementing his vision by helping to found the Liberal Party in South Africa in 1953. With the worldwide prestige, income, and authority he gained from the success of Cry, the Beloved Country, Paton was able to join with others to fight the increasingly harsh laws that limited Bantu education, access to jobs, freedom of movement, and property rights. At the same time, however, the African National Congress (ANC), originally formed in 1912, initiated the mass movements against the white regime that led eventually to armed conflict and guerrilla warfare (Baker, 1957). For forty years the ANC led the fight for black rights, resulting in the National Conference in 1991 at which Nelson Mandela was elected president. Mandela became the leader of the Government of National Unity in South Africa, which seeks to exercise justice for all races. Though Paton's hope for nonviolent change for his "beloved country" died with the failure of the Liberal Party, he is still credited with bringing powerful force to early efforts to organize reform.

The novel opens in the village of Ixopo, where the black pastor, Stephen Kumalo, receives a letter from the priest Theophilus Msimangu in Johannesburg. Msimangu urges Kumalo to come to the city to help his sister, Gertrude, because she is "ill." Kumalo goes to Johannesburg to help Gertrude and to find his son, Absalom, who had gone to the city to look for Gertrude but never came home. When he gets to the city, Kumalo learns that Gertrude has taken up a life of prostitution, and is now drinking heavily. She agrees to return to the village with her young son.

Kumalo embarks on the search for his son, first seeing his brother John, a carpenter who has become involved in the politics of South Africa. Kumalo and Msimangu follow Absalom's trail only to learn that Absalom has been in a reformatory and impregnated a young woman. Shortly thereafter, Kumalo learns that his son has been arrested for the murder of Arthur Jarvis, a white fighter for racial justice and son of Kumalo's neighbour James Jarvis.

Jarvis learns of his son's death and comes with his family to Johannesburg. Jarvis and his son had been distant, and now the father begins to know his son through his writings. Through reading his son's essays, Jarvis decides to take up his son's work on behalf of South Africa's blacks. Absalom is sentenced to death for the murder of Arthur Jarvis. Before his father returns to Ixopo, Absalom marries the girl he has impregnated, and she joins Kumalo's family. Kumalo returns to his village with his daughter-in-law and nephew, finding that Gertrude ran away on the night before their departure.

Back in Ixopo, Kumalo makes a futile visit to the tribe's chief in order to discuss changes that must be made to help the barren village. Help arrives, however, when Jarvis becomes involved in the work. He arranges to have a dam built and hires an agricultural demonstrator to implement new farming methods. The novel ends on the night of Absalom's execution, which finds Kumalo praying on a mountainside as dawn breaks over the valley. The book ends with a tone of rejuvenation and hope for the country.

Cry, the Beloved Country is organized around two searches. The first is a physical search by Stephen Kumalo for his son, Absalom. The second is an intellectual and emotional search on the part of James Jarvis for the spirit of his son, Arthur, as gleaned from the murdered man's writings. Both these searches can be understood as part of an inner journey that leads to a new spiritual awareness in both Stephen Kumalo and James Jarvis. In that sense the outer events of the searches are metaphors for the growth of each man's mind and heart, both of which are essential if the country is to be regenerated and social justice achieved. Jarvis learns that he must break out of his old, complacent ways of thinking and help his black neighbors. Kumalo learns to be steadfast in the face of tragedy, and to continue to pray and seek divine sustenance. He also learns that he must take a more active role in helping his village.

The society depicted in Cry, the Beloved Country, is an unjust one, divided on racial lines. The white people, made up of Afrikaner and English-speakers, have taken the most profitable farmland from the blacks. Blacks are therefore forced to leave their tribal villages, where there is no work, and go to the city. In cities like Johannesburg, white businesses depend heavily on black labor, for which they pay little. Social breakdown follows, because the blacks have been taken away from the traditional social structures that lent stability to their lives. This would include such things as observation of laws and customs, and respect for elders. Left rudderless, working for subsistence wages, and enduring poor living conditions, it is not surprising that crime rates among blacks are on the rise.

Msimangu explains this situation to Kumalo. He says that the white man has "broken the tribe." He believes this is why the young people break the law, and he adds, of the white man, "But it has not suited him to build something in the place of what is broken" (chapter 5).

Arthur Jarvis reaches exactly the same conclusion. He wrote in one of his manuscripts, "The old tribal system was a moral system. Natives today produce criminals and prostitutes and drunkards not because it is their nature to do so, but because their simple system of order and tradition and convention has been destroyed. It was destroyed by the impact of our own civilisation. Our civilisation has therefore an inescapable duty to set up another system of order and tradition and convention" (Chapter 20).

This is the tragedy that has afflicted the country: the exploitation of blacks by whites and the consequent loss of an entire way of life. This social breakdown is illustrated in the fates of Gertrude Kumalo and Absalom Kumalo. Gertrude went to Johannesburg to look for her husband, who had been recruited to work in the mines, but had never come back even after his time there was over. This is a frequent experience of the relatives of those who go to Johannesburg. Their family members go to the big city but they never return, and they do not write. It is as if whole families have been lost, sucked into the anonymous life of the city.

"It is fear that rules this land," say Msimangu (chapter 5), and fear is a recurring theme in the novel. It afflicts Kumalo, for example, as soon as he goes to Johannesburg and starts searching for his son. He fears what he may discover about the way his son has been living. "Here in my heart there is nothing but fear. Fear, fear, fear," he says when he hears that a white man has been killed (chapter 11). He fears that Absalom may be the culprit.

But the fear in South Africa affects more than certain individuals. It is everywhere. It seems to pervade the entire atmosphere. The white community lives in fear because of rising black crime, which the whites do not understand and do not know how to stop. The whites are also afraid to look honestly at the injustice that turns black people to crime, since this would involve them in a re-examination of their most basic beliefs about race and society, and this they will not do. So the fear goes on. The whites fear a black miners' strike because the entire economy of the country depends on the mines. Knowing they are in a minority, outnumbered many times by the blacks, the whites are terrified that a miners' strike may spread to include all industries, and they conjure up a nightmarish picture of what might happen if that should occur.

The final lines of the novel once more emphasize fear, as the narrator looks forward to a time in the future when South Africa will be emancipated "from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear."

Although Cry, the Beloved Country is a novel that records extreme social injustice and often reveals a sense of hopelessness about the depth of the problem, it also envisages the possibility of reconciliation between the races and the rebuilding of black communities. Even within the darker sections of the novel, there are usually some bright spots in which people exhibit human kindness to one another, regardless of race. An example is the white man who goes out of his way to give rides to the black people who are walking because of the bus boycott. Another example is the whites who work at Ezenzeleni, helping blind black people. A third example is the young white man who works at the reformatory to which Absalom is sent. He tries everything he knows to set Absalom on a more productive path in life.

The major example is of course James Jarvis. The fact that Jarvis, who had never shown any interest in helping Ndotsheni, even though his farm overlooks the impoverished valley, can undergo a change of heart is a sign that such things are possible. The hope for the future lies in the fact that the races are capable of cooperation, if individuals decide to overcome the false barriers that have been set up between them. The novel suggests that societal change will only come when there is a change within mens’ hearts, but it holds out the hope that such change can and will happen.

Corruption is one of the most prevailing themes in Cry The Beloved Country, as well as in today’s world. In this story the author pictures many different characters in order to represent this wide spread illness of society, John Kumalo, Gertrude, Abasalom, just to name a few. Johannesburg itself is the summary of all that is wrong with cities of today. There is corruption and poverty. Crime runs rampant, and law-abiding citizens are forced to survive as they can.

One of the most typical products of corruption in Cry The Beloved Country is John Kumalo. He has a woman living with him that he hasn’t married; he has no problems with hiring a lawyer that will lie, effectively condemning his nephew to death. His one good trait is that he uses his political power to help further the cause of the African natives, and even this is tarnished by the fact that he only wants to further his own ambitions. He doesn’t have the heart necessary for a revolutionary leader and that will be his downfall. If he was willing to go to prison and make sacrifices for what he believed in or wanted he would have much more power than he has now.

Abasalom is a good example of corruption that doesn’t come from the heart. Unlike John, Abasalom does not want to be corrupt, and he is not proud of what he has done. When he killed Arthur he was horrified, and when the police found him he didn’t deny what he had done, but confessed. Abasalom was corrupted by Johannesburg and by his "friends", and was a victim of circumstance.

Allan Paton presents Johannesburg as a nest of corruption in the book. As a matter of fact all the other corruption mentioned in the story is stemming from Johannesburg: John, Gertrude, Abasalom, crime, prostitution, racism, segregation. Johannesburg isn’t only corrupt in itself; it corrupts all most all that it touches. This city is very much a downscaled version of anyone of numerous major cities in the world today. It is a sad day when a man of the cloth cannot go unmolested through the streets. The city is overcrowded and everyone is so poor that they must stoop to rob priests just to feed themselves.

A good example of what this city does to a person is Gertrude, the most pathetic character in the book. She has been chewed up and spit out by a city that has no room for good black people. She went off in search of her husband and ended up by herself with "many husband’s" as Msimangu said. Gertrude must also sell illegal liquor and has gone to prison. Her child runs around ragged and dirty in the streets, with no education and no supervision or name. Gertrude is like Abasalom in that she is not corrupt at heart, but it was Johannesburg that turned her. At the end of the book she chooses to remain in Johannesburg instead of going to her home, with her child. She did this because she wanted her child to have a good life, but knew that she couldn’t go back when she was that corrupted.

This book very graphically describes all the filth of corruption; it is everywhere, from the small village to the large town. This reflects our society today. In our congressional offices, in our schools, in our courts and everywhere else there is corruption. We must not let this go on; we must seek and white out this blot on the beauty of our civilization. In Cry the beginnings of this are shown. A white man is helping a black community; in turn these people will not turn to crime in order to survive.

The tone of the novel, set from the first paragraph, is like a parable told of a distant place of beauty. Yet within that idyllic setting something is going horribly wrong. By the end of the second paragraph, the tone has changed to show that nature's lush greenness is actually fragile and interdependent with humans. "Destroy it and man is destroyed." Cry, the Beloved County is first and foremost the story of a land exploited and left to suffer by a people running after gold. Paton's story contains hope that a balance can be regained by raising awareness about the state of things so that the "natives" will have hope and men like Jarvis will make concessions so as to help them help themselves. It is a hope that the children will not care so much for ownership of the land or things, but for the beauty of the land and for each other.

From the start of Stephen Kumalo's journey to retrieve his family from Johannesburg, there is the unsettling presence of the land. Some critics have said that the land itself is a character in the novel whose pit of illness is the city. First, the land is described as lovely grass and hills, but then attention is drawn to the jarring effect of the road cutting through them. Next, as Kumalo journeys towards the city, the scars of industry are more pervasive as are the burdens on his people. Finally, the city is all noise and pollution and people. Africa is a sick person needing rescue from all those who depend upon it. Like Gertrude, the ill sister Stephen searches for, Africa is calling for someone to rejuvenate it. However, though Jarvis begins by sending an expert, Mr. Letsitsi, the reader can only hope that the land will have more success than Gertrude.

Clearly, the land's health or illness is isomorphic, that is having similar appearance, to the healthy state of the tribe and the nation. The land is the only concern of the tribal leader since most of his people have left for the city. The land is a common conversational topic amongst black and white farmers who are concerned at the growing length of time between rains. There is something very wrong in Africa, and people feel it. The land is ill and society seems to be out of order with itself. Unfortunately, the people decide to worsen things by increasing the burden on the majority of its population — the non-whites — and by doing little to restore the vitality of the withering beauty of the land.

The greatest theme of Cry, the Beloved Country is the Christian reconciliation of the races in the face of almost unforgivable sin. How can the black natives ever forgive white people for stealing their country and its resources while destroying their culture? On the other hand, how can white people ever come to face the enormity of their crimes, especially when the initial crimes were not committed by those who are living now? How can white South Africans not regard the land as their own when they and their ancestors have lived on it since 1652? Before a peaceful solution can be found, a race war might break out. As the character Msimangu says about the white people, "I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving they will find that we are turned to hating."

This theme is expressed in three subthemes that can be described as "memory," "breaking the tribes," and "secrets." It is the memory of Ixopo that gives Kumalo strength while he is in the alien and evil city, because the hills and valleys of the "beloved country" represent the order and stability of the tribe. Likewise, it is the memory of his son Arthur that compels James Jarvis to overcome his prejudice and loathing in order to achieve understanding of his radical racial views and to carry on his son's work for racial justice (Fuller, 1958).

The breaking of the tribes is a disaster brought on by several forces, including the relentless drought that forced agricultural people into the cities, as well as the exploitation of those people by the white mine owners. In Book I the reader can see the devastation in every character which is brought about by the breakdown of tribal customs. In Book II it is clear that the white "tribe" has thrived on the destruction of the black tribes, who have provided the white people with their maids, laborers, and mine workers. Paton suggests that a new tribe must rise out of this cycle of destruction and exploitation: a tribe based upon mutual respect between black and white. How this respect is to develop is a "secret" — one of the mysteries of life that will only be clear when it manifests itself in leaps of faith and acts of generosity.

As Kumalo tries to come to terms with the execution of his son for the murder of Jarvis' son — a crime which the reader understands to be the product of the breaking of the tribe — he turns away from what appear to be irreconcilable mysteries: the persistence of happiness under such conditions and the resilience of people who have suffered beyond endurance. When he fears he will lose his faith, Father Vincent tells him not to dwell on injustice: "And do not pray for yourself, and do not pray to understand the ways of God. For they are secret. Who knows what life is, for life is a secret." This theme is taken up at the end of the book, which ends on this note: "But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret." Though it is a mystery why some people dominate and sin against others, it is also a mystery why there is forgiveness, reconciliation, and reform. Paton tries to show the progress of such sin and forgiveness in the Jarvis and Kumalo families as a model for the entire nation. Because the characters are so fully realized, their stories become models of suffering and reconciliation for all times and places.

Cry, the Beloved Country is truly unique because it does not follow in a literary tradition, nor does it launch a tradition. Later South African authors who have gained the world stage, such as Nadine Gordimer, Athol Fugard, and Andre Brink, have been writing in an environment of open hostility between blacks and whites. It is significant that in the novel the symbol of a hopeful future is situated in a white child. Though Paton appropriates the voice of a black minister, Stephen Kumalo, to tell most of his story, Paton himself is white. His lifetime of living among the Zulu gave him the authority to adopt Kumalo's voice accurately in terms of its particular sound and expression. In 1947, before the multicultural movement in literary theory, such an appropriation of voice would not be questioned, especially when it is done as well as Paton does it. Today, however, the critical reader must always be aware that the black voice is subject to the agenda of the white author.

For instance, one can speculate that the mind of the white man intrudes into his black characters at certain points when the black characters notice the generosity of white drivers during the bus strike, when they accept the decisions of white authority figures like Father Vincent without question, and when they seek for reconciliation with white characters such as James Jarvis. When compared to black African authors such as Chinua Achebe, the reader can see that Paton wishes to highlight those attributes upon which racial reconciliation can be built rather than simply to paint the terrible destructiveness of racial injustice. Thus, Paton's symbol for the next generation, the white child who reflects his father's respect for the Zulu, is a distinctly white perception of peace. One can speculate that a black writer on the same subject would see the hope of South Africa in a black child, one who might grow up in a country in which Africans had reclaimed their land from white intruders, and who might turn to tribal belief systems for their values rather than the transplanted Christian values which predominate in Paton's novel. There is no sense of irony in Paton's narration, for instance, that the broken tribes are broken, in part, by the imposition of a non-native religion.

Reading Cry, the Beloved Country is like reading a certain type of poetry, in that every word has significance and beauty. It is not a novel to be skimmed or read rapidly, even though it is fairly short. It is a book to be savored for its truthfulness, its carefulness, and its importance.

Works Cited

Baker, Sheridan, "Paton's Beloved Country and the Morality of Geography," in College

English, Vol. 19, November, 1957, pp. 56-61.

Bruell, Edwin, "Keen Scalpel on Racial Ills," in English Journal, Vol. 53, December,

1964, pp. 658-61.

Callan, Edward, Cry, The Beloved Country: A Novel of South Africa, Twayne, 1991.

Fuller, Edmund, Man in Modern Fiction: Some Minority Opinions on Contemporary

American Writing, Random House, 1958, p. 40.

Gailey, Harry A., "Sheridan Baker's 'Paton's Beloved Country,'" in College English, Vol.

20, December 1958, pp. 143-44.

Gardiner, Harold C., In All Conscience: Reflections on Books and Culture, Hanover

House, 1959, pp. 108-12.

Graham Hough, "Doomed," in London Review of Books, December 3-16, 1981, pp. 16-


Matlaw, Myron, review of Cry, the Beloved Country in Arcadia, Vol. 10, No. 3, 1975.

Minter, William, "Moderate to a Fault?" in New York Times Book Review, November 20,

1988, p. 36.

Tucker, Martin, Africa in Modern Literature: A Survey of Contemporary Writing in

English, Ungar, 1967.