Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 835

The critical reputation of Cry, the Beloved Country in the international community has been overwhelmingly positive. Alan Paton's novel, both written and submitted to publishers while on a tour, received much praise the moment it was released. It sold out on its first day of appearance and entered its sixth print run by the end of the year. Back home in South Africa, however, the newly independent Paton was not so warmly embraced. The novel was critical of the new regime and Afrikaners because of their narrow vision and fear-ridden pride. Conversely, black South Africans could never forgive Paton for being a white and could never see the book as anything but a parable written by a white man—sympathetic though he was. The most positive reviewer from this camp was Dennis Brutus, a poet who was a prison inmate with Nelson Mandela. Brutus attributed a new sort of writing in South Africa to Paton and his novel. Paton, said Brutus, set in motion a writing that viewed apartheid critically in such a way as to move people and awaken them to our blight of inhumanity. Unfortunately, Brutus's valuation was retrospective as well as a minority opimon. Martin Tucker, in his book Africa in Modern Literature, said that few writers were indebted to Paton. Even so, Cry, the Beloved Country outsold all other books except the Bible in South Africa.

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Though the first print run was small, the critics picked up the novel and sounded its triumph. The New York Times Review, the New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, and the Yale Review were all enthusiastic in 1948 when the novel was released. They applauded the new sense of lyricism which Paton had brought English literature by the adoption of the Zulu and Xosa syntax. They praised the breadth of the subject matter yet simple style of the book. While still positive, there were those critics who seemed to miss the point of the novel. One example was Harold C. Gardiner's review in which he says, "the story is preeminently one of individuals. There are no sweeping and grandiose statements about 'the race problem.'" Apparently, he would have preferred a normal protest novel to the more poetic parable Paton wrote.

In 1957, Sheridan Baker wrote an interpretive article which found that the geography of Paton's story was not only symbolic but that it was the same type of Christian allegory to be found in Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress and Dante's Divine Comedy. This would not have been so bad, says Edward Callahan in his 1991 book, but Baker used his idea about Paton's work in an educational packet wherein children were instructed by Baker to make ludicrous associations in the novel Fortunately, the article by Harry A. Gailey entitled "Sheridan Baker's 'Paton's Beloved Country,'" in which Gailey says that the interpretation of Baker is textually baseless, is also included in the anthology of Baker.

A more rational approach to the novel was close by. Edmund Fuller wrote glowingly of the novel in his Man in Modern Fiction. There he wrote that 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 in conflict with each other, and takes sides." Thus, while moving only slightly beyond the obvious praise for Paton's political stance, a critic was seeing the story as that of an individual quest for meaning and not just a political protest.

Most criticism of the book simply sides with Paton due to the political tension of the work. In fact, there is little variation amongst the reviewers when it comes to what it is in the novel which deserves praise. Mostly, it was felt that the quasi-Biblical language of the novel was an emotional catalyst that helped to place the reader on the side of the Kumalos and only secondarily with the Jarvis family. Typical of these reviews is that by Edwin Bruell in "Keen Scalpel on Racial Ills." In that article he compared Paton's novel with Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird because both novels present children as the innocent victims of society's molding forces. Another review by Myron Matlaw in Arcadia simply sums up the critical view of Paton: "Understatement, deceptive simplicity, repetition, selectivity of narrative, episode, and setting, as well as the emotional charge of Paton's style—all these are manifested in Paton's characters as well."

In a recent book by Edward Callan, Cry, the Beloved Country: A Novel of South Africa, the view is taken that the book is a classic because of its endurance. After forty years and two movies, Paton's novel is still widely read. He also cites the work as having a universal appeal because of its poetic language and its theme of human responsibility. The setting for the novel, adds Callan, has changed incredibly in that span of time but he makes no prediction about how this will affect the reception of the work.

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