*Johannesburg. South Africa’s biggest and most advanced city and center of the country’s prosperous gold mining industry. During the period in which the novel is set, Johannesburg, like the rest of South Africa, is governed by increasingly rigid racially discriminatory laws and customs, all of which favor the country’s white minority. Nevertheless, black Africans flock to the city and its mines from impoverished rural areas to find wage employment and other opportunity. However, even in the great city, jobs are hard to find.
The novel focuses on the quest of Stephen Kumalo, an educated Zulu man ordained as an Anglican priest, to find his son in Johannesburg. After he reaches the city, he discovers his sister working as a prostitute and selling bootleg liquor, and his brother, who has become a corrupt political activist. Meanwhile, he observes the downtrodden condition of the city’s African residents and the extreme racial inequalities in economic and political conditions. He yearns to be back in his own village, back to the innocence and the simple way of life.
Paton uses the modern city to accentuate Kumalo’s naïve expectations of city life. As Kumalo explores Johannesburg, he sees the worst of humanity: extreme poverty, prostitution, crime, filth, destitution, and deprivation. The city is the worst place he can imagine. However, even within this great center of racism and distrust, he encounters kindness and humanity—mostly from fellow African and white clergymen, who comfort and support him when his religious faith and optimism begin to leave him. Through their small kindness, Paton redeems the city.
Parkwold Ridge. Johannesburg home of Arthur Jarvis, a tireless activist for African rights who has been murdered by Kumalo’s son, Absalom, during a burglary attempt on the house. After Jarvis’s death, his father, James Jarvis, for the first time begins to understand his son’s dedication to African rights through his exploration of his son’s study, which is filled with books and his writings on the need for African reforms. Gradually, father gets to know his son better in death than he ever did in life. He learns that his son loved the land of South Africa itself. Although he fought almost alone in his cause and his principles, he was passionate about the sufferings and disenfranchisement of the majority of his country’s peoples. It is within his home that his life’s work on African reforms exists.
Ndotsheni (en-doh-TSHAY-nee). Arid and impoverished Zulu village in South Africa’s Natal Province in which Stephen Kumalo and his wife live in a simple home. Kumalo’s son, sister, and brother have all fled the village for the big city in search of better opportunities, and Kumalo, in turn, finally leaves the village to search for them. Only after seeing Johannesburg does he fully appreciate the simple and truthful ways of his home. The novel’s descriptions of Ndotsheni underscore the jarring differences of Johannesburg. Kumalo’s faith in humanity is restored after he returns home and sees the changes brought by James Jarvis’s material contributions to Ndotsheni’s welfare and agricultural development: daily milk supplies for children, a new dam, and other improvements.
High Place. Prosperous farm owned by James Jarvis, the father of Absalom’s murder victim. Although Jarvis’s farm is near Ndotsheni, Jarvis and Kumalo never cross each other’s path until they become aware of each other through their shared tragedy. Indeed, Jarvis has always isolated himself from the lives of his native African neighbors, and his interest in their welfare is minimal until after he meets Kumalo. The aptly named High Place is where James Jarvis isolates himself from Africans.
The time and energy Jarvis devotes to his farm also prevents him from understanding his son in his true light until after his son is dead. In honor of his son and moved by his growing understanding of the desperate economic problems of his African neighbors, Jarvis draws on the resources of his farm to make substantial contributions to the agricultural development of Ndotsheni.