Alan Paton Essay - Critical Essays

Alan Paton Long Fiction Analysis

Paton’s novels are much admired for their lyrical language, their closeness to the land, and their heartfelt moral purpose. Although some readers feel that Paton falters in his attempt to integrate native and English elements into an archaic prose, most readers enjoy the lyrical quality of his style. His ear for the rhythms and nuances of spoken South African English is as sensitive as writer Mark Twain’s ear for Americanisms. As a result of that linguistic giftedness, readers hear in his writing an impressive chorus of voices: the clamoring voices of South Africa, the sonorous voice of the Old Testament, the still, sad voice of humanity, and, integrating all of these, the earnestly reforming voice of Alan Paton.

Paton’s second literary virtue is the realism of his fiction. Precise awareness of his South African home pervades every page, and thenarrative is illuminated by Paton’s honesty of perspective. Paton sees with a clear eye the complex urban degeneracies of Johannesburg and the tragedies of modern life. He is perhaps at his best viewing the simple natural glories of the Natal countryside. The plot of Too Late the Phalarope, for instance, hinges on his hero’s awareness of the phalarope, a little-known bird of his homeland, a creature Pieter and his father understand better than the outland expert who writes the definitive book on Natal birds. Critic Edward Callan compares Paton’s sensitivity to the natural life of South Africa to poet Robert Frost’s keen awareness of the landscape of New England.

For most readers the most profound power of Alan Paton’s fiction is generated by his moral earnestness. Some have worried that the directness of his moral purpose verges on melodrama, even propaganda. Consensus assessment of Paton’s fiction, however, is that his insistence on the value of individual human dignity and worth “plumbs deep into human suffering and punishment” without “moralizing ormaudlin sentimentality.” Fierce passion for reform without the downside of preaching is a rare literary achievement. Paton wrote Cry, the Beloved Country after reading American author John Steinbeck’s classic novel of social protest, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). It may be, as critic F. Charles Rooney has suggested, that Paton captures in his writing “all Steinbeck’s heart, plus soul.”

Cry, the Beloved Country

Paton’s first novel is also his best. Written from his personal experience with issues of freedom in his native South Africa, it is a lament for conditions that imprison the human spirit, a cry for freedom. Old Stephen Kumalo, pastor of the church in his Zulu village, ventures into sophisticated Johannesburg in search of his sister Gertrude, his brother John, and his son Absalom. He finds there a parable of the erosion of tribal society under the storm of white culture. He discovers Absalom in jail, the confessed murderer of a gentle and generous white man. In ironic confirmation of the relatedness of all humanity, the murdered man turns out to be the son of the plantation owner in Kumalo’s home valley. Kumalo’s sister, unable to find the husband who has deserted her, has become a prostitute. Kumalo’s brother John has sold out totally to urban temptations of materialistic politics.

Kumalo also finds amid the corruptions of Johannesburg, however, the generosity of fellow priest Msimangu, whose Christian compassion reaches so far as to cause him to worry even about whites, “that one day when they turn to loving, they will find we are turned to hating.” Kumalo finds along with the sin in this modern Sodom the determined social restructurings of the reformatory teacher, a man strikingly reminiscent of Paton himself. The weary old Zulu returns home to the father of the man his son has killed to tell him he is sorry, and they share across the abyss of race their mutual grief.

Kumalo’s quest for his family ends in the worst of disasters....

(The entire section is 1628 words.)