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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