Alan Paton Paton, Alan (Vol. 4) - Essay

Paton, Alan (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paton, Alan 1903–

Paton is a South African novelist who deals in his fiction with racial problems and the terrors of alienation. He is best known for Cry, the Beloved Country. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16.)

Cry, the Beloved Country is a great and dramatic novel because Alan Paton, in addition to his skill of workmanship, sees with clear eyes both good and evil, differentiates them, pitches them into conflict with each other, and takes sides. He sees that the native boy, Absalom Kumalo, who has murdered, cannot be judged justly without taking into account the environment that has partly shaped him. But he sees, too, that Absalom the individual, not society the abstraction, did the act and has responsibility. Mr. Paton understands mercy. He knows that this precious thing is not shown on sentimental impulse, but after searching examination of the realities of human action. Mercy follows a judgment; it does not precede it.

Edmund Fuller, in his Man in Modern Fiction: Some Minority Opinions on Contemporary American Writing (copyright © 1958 by Edmund Fuller; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1958, p. 40.

The most famous and one of the earliest novels of forgiveness is Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country. This work and The Story of an African Farm are the two best-known novels in English—with a South African locale—to readers outside South Africa. Ironically, though Paton's novel has spawned a host of imitations and has been highly praised as propaganda, most contemporary South African writers deny any literary indebtedness to Paton. Yet Cry, the Beloved Country is at least as well-written a novel as the many novels which have followed its lead. Today also, Paton's humanism is being attacked as old-fashioned and sentimental. Ezekiel Mphahlele has accused Paton of falsifying human nature because in his view Paton divides people into good and bad and then lays on these cardboard figures a heavy liberalism and a "monumental sermon."…

In Cry, the Beloved Country the ways of justice and God are mysterious, but in the person of Paton's central character love brings an acceptance that explains nothing while meaning all. (pp. 223-24)

The second half of the novel has had a profound influence on the thoughts of non-South African readers, even if its message is currently being derided by some black South African literary critics. For Paton's novel is the supreme example of the kind of novel of forgiveness which calls for the construction of love on the ruins of tragedy. (p. 225)

If Cry, the Beloved Country has been likened to a sermon, Too Late the Phalarope can be likened to a lament…. Yet the point of Paton's [second] novel is not that Pieter could have been saved by the psychological awareness of others; it is that the South African milieu destroys those who are seeking love irrespective of color. Paton's people are not romantics but people simply open to the fact of experience. Those who accuse Paton of soft sentimentalism should look at his characterization of Stephanie. She is not represented as a heroic or vivacious woman but as a frightened animal, and Paton's attack on the Immorality Act (prohibiting cohabitation between white and non-white) is aimed at its senselessness. Pieter did not love the black girl he slept with. It was a matter of sexual, animal urgency, yet Pieter has to pay for his act with imprisonment and moral denigration. (p. 226)

Paton is the most important force in the literature of forgiveness and adjustment. His popularity and his integrity have made possible a receptivity to a whole new body of work that might otherwise have remained unnoticed. Undoubtedly his work is more significant as propaganda than as literature, but it should be emphasized that his writing is not without literary quality. If his talent lies in his ability to project the fervor and sentiment of his liberal views rather than in his ability to convey full-blooded human beings, it also contains much that is genuinely creative. (p. 227)

Martin Tucker, in his Africa in Modern Literature: A Survey of Contemporary Writing in English, Ungar, 1967.

Cry, the Beloved Country shares that quality of universal interest that always distinguishes outstanding products of the creative imagination. Some readers valued Paton's first novel for the refreshing combination of simplicity and lyricism in its language; others valued it most as a revealing record of South Africa's social and racial situation; and others again, although perhaps fewer in number, valued it for its challenge to their own comfortably sterile Christianity. (p. 22)

In Cry, the Beloved Country: A Story of Comfort in Desolation, Paton succeeds to a remarkable degree in portraying a segment of South African life during a brief period immediately following the end of World War II. And he succeeds, to an even more remarkable degree, in endowing this regional portrait with universal significance. He accomplishes this by incorporating into the actualities of South Africa's physical and social setting a fundamental theme of social disintegration and moral restoration. (p. 49)

It is not surprising that Paton wrote Cry, the Beloved Country quickly, since he already had all the material in mind. What is surprising, however, is that he wrote it so well. The stroke of genius that produced a unique artistic masterpiece was his hitting upon a lyric and dramatic framework that could incorporate more than the realistic "slice of life" ordinarily offered by novels of social purpose. (p. 54)

Three artistic qualities of Cry, the Beloved Country combine to make it an original and unique work of art: first, the poetic elements in the language of some of the characters; second, the lyric passages spoken from outside the action, like the well-known opening chapter; and third, the dramatic choral chapters that seem to break the sequence of the story for social commentary, but which in fact widen the horizon of the particular segments of action to embrace the whole land, as well as such universal concerns as fear, hate, and justice. (p. 55)

Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country offers no blueprint for society. What it does objectify is individual recognition of personal responsibility. Such recognition depends on a process of self-discovery…. (p. 66)

Paton's collection of short stories [Tales from a Troubled Land] seems likely to be the last of his books of fiction; for his career as a creative writer, that began with such promise in 1948, ended for all practical purposes when he was elected Chairman of the Liberal Party in 1956. In attempting to estimate his creative artistry on the basis of the novels and short stories he wrote during that short period, one thinks first of his regionalism. His art is related to South Africa as Robert Frost's is to New England. Both of these writers work within the framework of an external landscape where they know all flowers and shrubs, birds and animals, by their familiar names. As observers of the human inhabitants of these landscapes, both writers recognize the profound aspirations of human personality; and both communicate their insights in language that is fresh and simple, yet vibrant with meaning. While one may appropriately speak of the art of Paton or Frost as regional, it would be wholly inappropriate to speak of it as provincial—a term that suggests narrow interests or limited intellectual horizons. (pp. 96-7)

While he does not regard his occasional expressions in verse as constituting a claim to the title of poet, Paton has continued, from time to time, to publish poems…. These later poems draw almost exclusively on South African life and attitudes for their subject matter. These poems may be classified in three categories: first, some lyric portraits of aspects of African life; second, a few satirical verse commentaries aimed at conventional white South African assumptions and the theory of apartheid; third, a number of religious poems. (p. 107)

For some years Paton's literary reputation has rested on two successful novels and a handful of short stories. But the judgment of the future may rank his recent biography of Jan Hofmeyr as a literary achievement equal to the novels and possibly surpassing them. (p. 110)

Paton's personal relation with Hofmeyr helps to make this work a representative example of what the art of biography can accomplish in our age. (p. 112)

Edward Callan, in his Alan Paton (copyright 1968 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co.), Twayne, 1968.