Cry, the Beloved Country

by Alan Paton

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Does Paton believe humans in Cry, the Beloved Country are immutable or capable of transformation?

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Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton is a novel that explores the issues of family and faith in the midst of the racially-tense backdrop of South Africa. Throughout the novel, Paton gives several indications through his character development of his feelings about whether or not it is possible for humans to change. By the end of this novel, the reader is caught up in the powerful story that is woven around the life of Reverend Stephen Kumalo and comes to the realization, as does Kumalo to some degree, that there is a definite possibility for change, but the cost of changing for the better can seem too high for many.

One of the things that is commonly understood in the novel is the danger the city of Johannesburg poses in corrupting individuals, or, changing them for the worse. Kumalo's brother John, transitions from being a simple carpenter to a politician with underhanded ways. Kumalo's son, Absalom, goes to the city and gets caught up in a life of crime, which eventually leads to him committing a murder. Kumalo's sister Gertrude, likewise, gets caught up in a life of crime in the form of prostitution.

Gertrude is an excellent example of a character who once she is caught up in a way of life finds it too difficult to leave. Kumalo initially leaves the small village where he serves as pastor to travel to Johannesburg in search of Gertrude because he receives a letter revealing that she is very ill. Once he arrives and locates her, Kumalo learns that she has turned to a life of prostitution and alcoholism. Kumalo offers her the chance to come back to the village with her son, whom she bore out of wedlock. Initially, Gertrude agrees to this, but as the novel continues, Gertrude ends up running off in the middle of the night from the place in Johannesburg at which she, her son, and Kumalo were staying and leaves her son for Kumalo to raise.

There is, however, a character who changes her life drastically through her decisions, and that is the character of Absalom's wife. We learn, as she speaks to Kumalo, that she has been married two other times and has led a difficult life in a city environment. The "city life" that Kumalo has such a difficult time understanding in the novel is exactly what is the norm for this girl. Yet, she chooses to return with Kumalo to his village and changes almost every aspect of her life to do so.

The human will's ability to change is a complex topic; Alan Paton therefore portrays its complexity through his novel. There are no fixed answers given. Some characters find the inner strength or desire to make a change for the better while others cannot join in that pursuit. Humans seem, in Paton's mind, to be as immutable as they wish themselves to be.

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Alan Paton's vision of the world was ideologically firmly in place from his college years. While he gained greater insight from travels to England and, later, to Scandinavian countries, and from greater exposure to the realities of life in South Africa, Paton was always devoted to aiding those who needed aid and seeing all men as free brothers with equal liberty and dignity. In college, Paton joined an organization of Christian men that was devoted to community service and broader social service because of his commitment to fostering circumstances in which transformation could occur. It was in the capacity of their president that he traveled first to England where he learned how South Africa's treatment of non-white was perceived and judged by other countries.

Paton eventually accepted a position in 1935 as the headmaster of Diepkloof, a prison for African men that was being converted to a reformatory. Since Paton's world ideology was rooted in transformation of humanity, he implemented many liberal changes that enhanced the lives of the inmates. He left Diepkloof as the Nationalist Party was gaining support and changes were being enforced that would undo all his reforms.

It was in 1948, almost immediately after leaving Diepkloof, that Cry, the Beloved Country was published to resounding success, which came as the Nationalist Party was gaining greater and greater political power and implementing the outrageous laws of apartheid segregation. Heartrending, Cry, the Beloved Country became the rallying cry and inspiration of the antiapartheid movement, which is predicated on the mutability and transformational power of humanity.

Later, in 1953, Paton founded the Liberal Party to fight against inhuman racial injustice and became its president. In 1960 the Nationalist government disbanned the party and revoked Paton's passport, keeping it in revocation until 1970. From this overview, it is clear that Paton's vision of the world was for a world in which each person has transformational power and the liberty, freedom and dignity to stand in peace and respect with the means to make and establish a safe, sound, productive, peaceful life.

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