Cry, the Beloved Country Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

Cry, the Beloved Country is a novel of social protest—a protest against apartheid, the policy of racial segregation that existed in South Africa. When the Reverend Stephen Kumalo travels from his home in Ndotsheni to the capital city of Johannesburg to find his missing family members, he encounters a disintegration of tribal customs and family life. Kumalo learns quickly that the whites, through the policy of apartheid, have disrupted African values and social order. He notes that city life leads to a demoralized lifestyle of poverty and crime for the natives. Even the Reverend Theophilus Msimangu, a priest who offers his assistance to Kumalo, believes that this disintegration of social values cannot be mended. Msimangu does, however, envision hope for “when white men and black men . . . desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it.” The land, in this case, South Africa, is the center of this novel. As the land becomes divided and eroded, so, too, do the people who live on it. Because James Jarvis and Kumalo reach a shared responsibility for their actions and thoughts as they attempt to understand the loss of their sons, Alan Paton believes that the country of South Africa has hope for restoration of its values and order in its new generation, especially in the sons of Arthur Jarvis and Absalom Kumalo.

Cry, the Beloved Country is structured in three sections. To depict the land as the central focus of this novel, Paton opens chapter 1 with a poetic reverence for “the fairest valleys of Africa.” Here the connection between land and people becomes evident. Book 1 points to the erosion of the land as the people leave their native soil. This section focuses on the native soil of the blacks, Kumalo in particular. It is difficult to maintain the beauty and fertility of the land when the tribal natives head for the promises of the city. The land, then, stands desolate. This deterioration is further illustrated in the shantytowns dishearteningly discovered by Kumalo as he enters Johannesburg.

The opening lines are repeated in chapter 18, which begins book 2. The melodic description of the land is now in reference to the whites’ partition of South Africa, namely, James Jarvis. The land is not depleted, but well tended. The openness and vitality of the land offer a sheer contrast to the depiction contained in book 1. James Jarvis’s farm, the finest one of the countryside, “stands high above Ndotsheni.” Paton thus symbolically portrays the destructiveness and divisiveness of apartheid in the ownership of land.

The third section holds a twofold purpose. Chapter 30 brings to light the drought that covers the land of Ndotsheni. Saddened by the land’s deterioration, Kumalo knows he must find a way to restore its beauty and fertility. Subsequently, this is assisted by a brewing rainstorm and, most notably, by the generosity of James Jarvis, who hires an agricultural demonstrator to ready plans for tillage. Symbolically, Paton realizes Msimangu’s words of hope that only love “has power completely.” The reconstruction of the land becomes a joint venture between Kumalo and James Jarvis, between black and white. Taking responsibility for one’s actions has brought a new understanding and renewed principles for the good of all humanity.

Stylistically, Paton parallels character to character and action to action to dramatize the social ills of South Africa and its native people, while contrasting these vivid portraits to the lives of the white South Africans. As noted previously, the novel’s three sections structurally suggest the two different worlds of Africans and Europeans, then offer a solution and a hope in the third book in the coming together of the two fathers. The safe, calm village life of Kumalo and the farm life of Jarvis parallel the city life in Johannesburg, a city of evil, corruption, and moral inequities for both blacks and whites. The need for truth and justice is paralleled by Kumalo’s search for his son Absalom, whom he finds in prison, with Jarvis’s news of his son’s death. Each father must come to terms with a loss. Although paralleled, it is Jarvis who claims an affinity, “for there is something between” them. Ironically, it is Kumalo’s son who shoots and kills Arthur Jarvis. Paton allows this parallel to function in two ways: first, to reflect the suffering of each father; second, to show that both Absalom and Arthur fall victim to apartheid. Paralleling, then, is more than just a structural device, but rather a focus on the issue of race relations in South Africa.

Paton uses unique literary techniques to enhance the poignancy of his themes. He employs intercalary chapters to dramatize the historical setting of the novel. These intercalary chapters serve as Paton’s social criticism of the divisive political and social order in South Africa. Paton also uses dashes to indicate dialogue, allowing not only for the realistic portrayal of conversation, but also for the rapid dramatic actions among characters. This simple literary technique generates the movement of plot and points directly to the language. Diction remains simple, yet eloquent in its delivery by the various characters. Kumalo speaks in a mildly solemn language emphasizing his ecclesiastic background; the Reverend Msimangu often speaks in an oratory fashion to proclaim his views. John Kumalo uses the language of violence to demonstrate his anger over apartheid and his love for power as a black leader in Johannesburg. The tribal language brings the novel credence and revelation of a people rooted in tradition and honor.

In 1946, Paton began writing Cry, the Beloved Country. Less than four months later, he finished it. Born in South Africa, Paton knew firsthand the tragedy that marked his homeland. He noted that although the story is not true, it is a social record of the truth. Cry, the Beloved Country is a classic work of world literature, not only for bringing to light a destructive political system but also for depicting the humanity among people that can be lost in the struggle for justice and power. Cry, the Beloved Country is a cry for one’s land, a cry for justice, a cry for understanding, and, certainly, a cry for hope. Indeed, this novel speaks for all lost generations who seek direction in a dark world.