Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
The Reverend Stephen Kumalo
The Reverend Stephen Kumalo (kew-MAH-loh), a Zulu who is an educated man and an Anglican priest. He lives in the country and is unused to the ways of the city and its people. Even so, he goes to Johannesburg to help his sister and find his son. He does his best, which is not enough, to help his relatives. When his son is executed, he cries out for help—for his land and his people as well as for his son.
Gertrude, the clergyman’s sister. She has become a prostitute and dealer in illegal liquor in Johannesburg.
John, the clergyman’s brother in Johannesburg, a practical man and a successful merchant. As a native politician, he is disturbed by the police and kept under their surveillance. He is a selfish man; he has also abandoned the Christian faith.
Absalom, the clergyman’s son. He is a country boy ruined by white ways in the city. He drinks, commits adultery, and steals, at last killing a man who is an activist for the natives, trying to help them improve their condition. Found guilty of the crime, Absalom is sentenced to hang. His one act of goodness is to marry the woman who carries his unborn child.
Arthur Jarvis, Absalom’s victim, a young white man who works hard to help the natives improve their lot in Africa. There is...
(The entire section is 342 words.)
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Themes and Characters
The underlying theme of Cry, the Beloved Country, as in all of Paton's works, involves the unifying power of love and the divisive force of fear. Paton feels that only love—for one another and for the land itself—can bind together the country's diverse ethnic groups and allow them to overcome their fear and mistrust of one another.
Such fear and mistrust is rampant in the cities of South Africa, and Paton's central theme addresses the attractions, temptations, and dangers of urban society. As tribal societies continue to break down, the apparent wealth and excitement of cities such as Johannesburg lure many impoverished natives away from their tribal homes. The exodus creates a society of overlords and slum dwellers whose lives are constantly overwhelmed by crime and violence. Feeling threatened by the influx of blacks into their community, the white Afrikaners resist integration and fear engulfment. Urban blacks are faced with internal strife as they struggle to maintain their customs outside of their decaying tribes, and external conflict as they lash out against social and economic oppression in the city. The novel teems with ethnically diverse characters. The most positive characters in the novel work towards racial harmony in an effort to eliminate the repressive apartheid laws and remove the artificial barrier that inhibits human relationships in South Africa. Many minor characters, such as Jan Hofmeyr and Father Beresford, are based on...
(The entire section is 1096 words.)
The novel teems with a multitude of characters of all ethnic backgrounds, creeds and colors. A sensitive reader of Cry, the Beloved Country cannot easily dismiss the magnificent minor characters such as Jan Hofmeyr and Father Beresford, because these characters are modeled on real figures in South African life, all liberal fighters for justice, equality and freedom in the society. Father Beresford is really a reincarnation of Father Trevor Huddleston and Bishop Reeves, both deported Bishops of Johannesburg, while Jan Hofmeyr was a liberal politician whom Paton greatly admired. Nor can the reader easily forget the brilliance and help of Mr. Carmichael, Absalom's defense lawyer, or Napoleon Letsitsi, the agricultural demonstrator, "an angel from God" in Stephen Kumalo's eyes, whom James Jarvis hires to restore the valley, or Mr. Mafalo. or the adorable and promising nine-year-old son of Arthur Jarvis.
But the most memorable in the novel are obviously the major characters. The protagonist, Stephen Kumalo, the country priest, lives in the valley of Ndotsheni. He is pious, humble, a kind, good husband, who is dedicated to his parish. Stephen Kumalo is unaware of the impact of the tribal disintegration until he undergoes a series of experiences in the city of Johannesburg, where he comes face to face with the evils and attractions of the city. He suffers tremendously in the quest for his son, his brother and sisters, all of whom have fallen on evil days, like...
(The entire section is 1375 words.)
Reverend Stephen Kumalo
Stephen Kumalo is a Zulu clergyman and pastor of St. Mark's Church in a rural district of South Africa. He journeys to Johannesburg because of a letter from Theophilus Msimangu expressing concern over the welfare of Gertrude Kumalo, the clergyman's sister. Concern for her and a verbalization from his wife that his son is not going to return brings Stephen to use the money they had been saving for their son's schooling and go to Johannesburg to find Gertrude and hopefully Absalom. The novel follows his journey to the city, his retrieval of his sister and her son, and the horrifying discovery of his son's crime. Just as he begins to look for his son, he discovers his son has committed murder.
Through Stephen, whose name recalls the martyred saint, the reader can transverse the lines of tension existing in South Africa in the mid-1940s: race relations are deteriorating while nobody wants to admit the reasons why; the land becomes more and more impoverished with the associated problems of hunger and illness among native peoples; society is in upheaval as the culture of the Zulu tribe is dismantled by the economic siren song of the city. Stephen Kumalo, through all this, encounters doubt but then overcomes doubt with hope. He embodies hope, for Africa, for Mr. Jarvis, for the agricultural specialist who has come to help them. This hope, aided by the very generous gift of Msimangu's bank book, dampens the sense of tragedy Kumalo faces all around him.
(The entire section is 442 words.)
James Jarvis is a white landowner and father of Arthur, Absalom Kumalo's victim. Jarvis's estate is adjacent to the village where Stephen Kumalo lives. The death of his only son hits him hard but does not fill him with vengeance. Instead, he goes to his son's house and reads through his son's papers. There he reflects and accepts his son's thoughts about living as equals among the native peoples. It is not that previously he was a bad man, a miser, or a racist— only that he had been passive and did not do anything to help solve the problems of South Africa. That all changes as he reads the writing of his son and passes this writing to his wife.
When he returns to his estate he begins to distribute milk for the relief of the children. Then he finds an advisor who will help to restore the barren valley. He does this with the big picture his son presented in his mind. He does this both because it is the right thing to do but also because it will benefit his own family. This later consideration is clearly represented by his grandson who is allowed to ride his horse to the Rev. Kumalo's house for impromptu Zulu lessons.
The fathers meet in a very dramatic moment and both sense the genuine sorrow of the other. One could say they are almost friends, brought together by the tragedy. Yet they are not friends and cannot be. Jarvis is wanting to do right and Stephen is a conduit for that. Stephen in turn can only pray and be a willing conduit—he...
(The entire section is 334 words.)
Reverend Theophilus Msimangu
Reverend Theophilus Msimangu is a clergyman at the Mission House in Sophiatown, Johannesburg. A bit of a cynic, Msimangu is extraordinarily compassionate. He offers Stephen reasons for his search and assistance at every step along the way. He is a guide through the city not unlike Virgil who guided Dante through hell in the Inferno. And again, like Virgil, he offers explanations for the confusion that Kumalo finds in the city (which itself is set up in a circular pattern not unlike Dante's Hell). For example, Msimangu explains to him the politics of the bus boycott as well as the role of John Kumalo; he opens the eyes of Kumalo to the life that women, like Absalom's girlfriend and Gertrude, lead; he also has a wider understanding of the change occurring in South Africa—an understanding not unlike that of Arthur Jarvis. At the end, he has decided to give up all worldly goods and withdraw to an ascetic life In doing so, he gives Stephen his life savings. This money not only happily replenishes all that Stephen had to use for the journey, but puts Stephen ahead.
Msimangu, as a guide, is humble, generous, and wise. He is not unbelievably good because, as he admits, God touched him and that's all. At each stage of Stephen's search he handles details, gains information, and leads him to the next stage. He brings him to trial and supports him...
(The entire section is 259 words.)
Mr. Carmichael is a tall, grave, white man brought to Rev. Kumalo by Father Vincent. He agrees to take up the defense of Absalom "pro deo"—for God, for free. Carmichael agrees to defend Absalom because he is a just man and senses that Absalom is telling the truth but his companions are not. Thus, he tells Kumalo, he could never defend the other two. At once then, Mr. Carmichael is a "godsend" who will do what he can to persuade the court not to execute Absalom. However, he is more than a lawyer, he is a white man who calls Kumalo "Mr. Kumalo" and is all business—no awkward racism. The lawyer is a man of the law, not of nonsense, but still he is unable to get past the paranoia that recent reports of "native" crime has spread amongst the people. The punishment for Absalom is inevitable.
John Harrison is a minor figure who is representative of the "average" white person in Johannesburg. John is the brother of Mary, Arthur Jarvis' wife. As a businessman, he is a part of the white establishment. By association with Arthur, it could be imagined that John is a tolerant person but instead, he says to James Jarvis, "He and I didn't talk much about these things ... I try to treat a native decently ... [but] we're scared stiff." Once, he was asked by a government official to speak to Arthur about toning down his liberal speech. Now, due to the reports of increasing crime and the murder of...
(The entire section is 1322 words.)