The story reveals how the practices of apartheid, as the system of racial segregation is called in South Africa, afflicts both blacks and whites in every aspect of their lives. Set in the late 1940’s, the events point out that only forgiveness and understanding will break down the barriers and put in order the chaos that apartheid has created.
An old black minister travels from his village to Johannesburg, the nation’s modern industrial city, to find his missing relatives. Wandering amid the black shantytowns and the great white-inhabited city which they encircle, he finds that his sister has turned to prostitution, his brother to rabble-rousing, and his son to murder. The son’s victim was a white man determined to correct his country’s racial problems and injustices.
Saddened, the old man returns to his village, which lies near the vast landholdings of the murdered man’s father. So these two men, who have lost their sons, play out “a story of comfort in desolation,” as the novel is subtitled. Through the intensity of their encounter emerges the compassion of which the human spirit is at rare times capable.
Such is the message of this work: Compassion will bring about forgiveness, love, and generosity, thus wiping away the evil that men do. Only then will “the beloved country” need “cry” no longer.
The novel made an impact at the time of its publication abroad, for it was the first widely distributed book to depict so graphically the cruel absurdity of apartheid. Yet history has proven that the solution Paton proposed has not worked. Although the ideas expressed have failed to stamp out apartheid--or any such form of separation along racial, national, or religious lines--that failure does not make the ideas any less valid.
Alexander, Peter F. Alan Paton: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. A particularly engaging, well-documented, enormous biography. Provides important background information on the genesis of the novel in chapters 12 and 13.
Brutus, Dennis. “Protest Against Apartheid.” In Protest and Conflict in African Literature, edited by Cosmo Pieterse and Donald Munro. New York: Africana, 1969. A notable and substantive critique of Cry, the Beloved Country from a black South African perspective. Argues that the novel’s simple, direct protest against apartheid is not forceful enough against the monstrosity of racism.
Callan, Edward. Alan Paton. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Contains ten chapters based on Paton’s own 1981 volume of autobiography, Towards the Mountain. Provides significant general background on Paton’s life and times, and a critical evaluation of his fiction, drama, biography, and poetry, including a full chapter on Cry, the Beloved Country.
Callan, Edward. “Cry, the Beloved Country”: A Novel of South Africa. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A supplement to the 1982 study, focused on the historical and literary context. Includes an eight-chapter critical reading and interpretation of the novel.
Paton, Jonathan. “Comfort in Desolation.” In International Literature in English: Essays on the Major Writers, edited by Robert L. Ross. New York: Garland, 1991. A general discussion of Alan Paton’s work, written by the younger of his two sons. Identifies a Christian ethic that calls for comfort in desolation as the single, most significant element of Cry, the Beloved Country.