The title of Cry, the Beloved Country echoes throughout the book. It first appears as a lament after the senseless murder of Arthur Jarvis, a courageous young white South African, a dedicated, enlightened fighter for justice for African blacks. His death forms an irony central to Paton’s argument, an irony best stated by the Reverend Msimangu, who fears that when the whites finally turn to “loving,” blacks will already have turned irreconcilably to “hating.” Jarvis was shot by a frightened Zulu youth (one of three would-be robbers) while writing an impassioned treatise arguing that the white South African’s destruction of the tribal system and its failure to offer anything positive in its place was the reason that black youths resorted to crime. The dead man’s moving, sympathetic analyses of white-black relationships gone awry, read posthumously by his father to understand the stranger who was his son, provides clear intellectual statements of what Paton suggests dramatically through sad, lyric passages bemoaning the black experience. In a dramatic rendering of the black African heart, Paton uses multiple voices: “Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom gone,” cry for the dead and bereaved, but most of all “Cry, the beloved country” for the violence, death, separation, and suffering “not yet at an end.” The “cry” continues through descriptions of the injustices and daily humiliations of apartheid, the senseless cries and the anguish deeply felt.
The cry encapsulates the fears of a rural people who have lost a traditional way of life and who move among strangers in a disorienting urban wasteland, its rules and customs not their own. Paton effectively communicates general fear and despair through individual fear and despair—the brother whose sister turns prostitute, the father whose wayward son missteps, the mother whose infant dies from starvation and disease. His lines, “Cry . . . for the unborn . . . inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply,” verbalize another poignant thematic concern: the contrast between a land of poetic beauty “lovely beyond any singing of it” and the ugliness of the overgrazed, scorched, eroded valleys of the black reserves, where the titihoya cries no more and the red hills stand desolate, their “red blood” streaming away. Paton draws parallels between earth and humankind, with the ravaged soil no longer able to support the men and women who stream into the cities on a tide of blood.
Despite shifting perspectives and a dramatic rendering of multiple and dissonant voices, the novel centers on the Reverend Stephen Kumalo, a simple, devout rural Zulu clergyman from Ndotsheni, and his disturbing contact with Johannesburg, the boomtown where all roads lead. His eyes record the breakdown of community and values, the disintegration of a people. The story begins with Kumalo receiving a disturbing letter from a fellow clergyman, Msimangu, urging him to come to Johannesburg to assist his “sick” sister, Gertrude. The trip is costly, but Kumalo decides to make the sacrifice and perhaps, at the same time, find news of his son and of his brother, both of whom disappeared into the shantytowns of Johannesburg long before.
Kumalo’s first quest ends quickly, and, with the help of his new friend Msimangu, Kumalo rescues his sister and her daughter from the squalor and shame of prostitution and alcohol. His second quest, for his son, proves far more difficult. During it, he rescues from potential disaster his son’s girlfriend, pregnant with his grandchild. He also finds his missing brother, a self-important man who has rejected his roots and whose stirring oratory gives him great destructive powers, powers he is too cowardly to use fully against the white establishment he privately denounces. He has no real loyalties and is easily corrupted, as he later proves when his own son is accused as an accessory to murder. Everywhere Kumalo hears disturbing tales of his son but fails to find him. His search provides Paton with the opportunity to explore Johannesburg and its people. Caught up in a bus strike, Kumalo is persuaded against public transportation by those committed to change. He witnesses the forces that built a shantytown overnight. He shares in the pain and loss of the city’s black citizens. He hears of exploitation in the gold mines but also experiences the kindness of white strangers who go out of their way to give him a lift, who maintain model schools for blind natives, and who take pride in the good wrought in the “reformed” juvenile reformatories. When Kumalo finally finds his son, he is too late to save him, for young Absalom Kumalo has unquestionably murdered Arthur Jarvis out of fear and greed. His trial is swift but just, and, despite the counsel of a white attorney who works “pro deo” (for God), he is condemned to death—a sad young man in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong friends. His words of repentance are empty in the face of his deed and his fear. His father tries to redeem what he can, arranging a marriage to legitimize his grandchild-to-be, taking his new daughter-in-law’s child home with him, but he cannot help a son infected by city ways and needs.
The first part of the book depends on the relationship between the two clerics, on the kindness and understanding between them as they deal with a changing world in which they feel increasingly alienated. There is strength in their hopes and dignity in their efforts to cope. Msimangu tells Kumalo, “Something is happening that no Bishop can stop.” Ultimately, Msimangu opts for the monastic life and, in a last act of goodwill, gives Kumalo his entire savings. Kumalo, in turn, returns home to face parishioners with his son’s misdeeds.
The second part of the book depends on the relationship between James Jarvis, the father of the murdered, and the father of the murderer, Stephen Kumalo. Kumalo is appalled that his son has killed a man dedicated to improving conditions for black Africans. Neither the parish members nor James Jarvis blames the father. At first, Jarvis wants revenge. After understanding the depth of Kumalo’s suffering and studying his own son’s life and writings, however, he realizes that the best memorial is to practice his dead son’s beliefs, to take the first steps to account for past injustices. Inspired by a grandson very much like his dead son, Jarvis sends milk to hungry children, assigns an agricultural demonstrator to restore soil fertility, replaces bad seed with good, and begins building a dam to assure land restoration. After a wet night with Kumalo in the leaky wooden church, he vows to build a new one. Critics find Jarvis’s generosity unrealistic, but Paton modeled him on a true benefactor, Acting Prime Minister Jan Hofineyr, who unselfishly endowed programs to assist the education and training of black Africans and whose biography Paton wrote.
Paton makes convincing the unspoken communication between the two saddened fathers. His novel ends hopefully, with both fathers vowing to fight the moral paralysis that grips their land and to build constructively on the ruins of tragedy. Jarvis’s grandson learns the Zulu language and empathizes with its speakers. Jarvis is committed to transforming his valley and to assisting the natives who share it. Kumalo goes into the mountains to await his son’s dawn execution. His final cry is a lament for the lost, wasted lives of Africa’s wayward sons; but it is also a cry of hope for a future of bettered relationships, of revitalized land, of a dawn for black Africans. Kumalo sees darkness still engulfing the land—“the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear”—but believes the dawn of black emancipation must come as the morning dawn “has come for a thousand centuries, never failing.” Cry, the Beloved Country is a paean to Africa: its misery, its suffering, its beauty, and its potential.
Paton offers no simple solutions, no positive answers, only individual courage, personal responsibility, and an uncertain hope that someday blacks and whites, untouched by greed, will work together for the good of a country that is theirs together. His well-rounded characters are complex individuals with strengths and weaknesses. Kumalo may be named for the saintly martyr Stephen, but his anger and urge to punish sometimes overpower his Christian charity. Paton condemns a social order destructive of human values and life but also emphasizes individual differences that make one person choose right, no matter how difficult, and another choose wrong, no matter how much help, encouragement, or support he or she receives.