Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

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What happens in Cry, the Beloved Country?

In Cry, the Beloved Country, Reverend Stephen Kumalo contends with the fact that his son Absalom has murdered Arthur Jarvis. Kumalo meets Jarvis's father, who's so moved by his son's good works that he becomes a generous philanthropist and activist.

  • Reverend Kumalo has a series of unsettling experiences in Johannesburg, where he can clearly see the effect that racism has had on black South Africans.

  • Kumalo's son Absalom shoots and kills Arthur Jarvis during an attempted robbery. He's convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

  • Both Reverend Kumalo and James Jarvis grieve for their sons. Together, the two attempt to carry on Arthur's work and make a positive impact on their community.

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Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1,579 words.)