Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1130
Nature and Its Meaning
The tone of the novel, set from the first paragraph, is like a parable told of a distant place of beauty. Yet within that idyllic setting something is going horribly wrong. By the end of the second paragraph, the tone has changed to show that nature's lush greenness is actually fragile and interdependent with humans. "Destroy it and man is destroyed." Cry, the Beloved County is first and foremost the story of a land exploited and left to suffer by a people running after gold. Paton's story contains hope that a balance can be regained by raising awareness about the state of things so that the "natives" will have hope and men like Jarvis will make concessions so as to help them help themselves. It is a hope that the children will not care so much for ownership of the land or things, but for the beauty of the land and for each other.
From the start of Stephen Kumalo's journey to retrieve his family from Johannesburg, there is the unsettling presence of the land. Some critics have said that the land itself is a character in the novel whose pit of illness is the city. First, the land is described as lovely grass and hills, but then attention is drawn to the jarring effect of the road cutting through them. Next, as Kumalo journeys towards the city, the scars of industry are more pervasive as are the burdens on his people. Finally, the city is all noise and pollution and people. Africa is a sick person needing rescue from all those who depend upon it. Like Gertrude, the ill sister Stephen searches for, Africa is calling for someone to rejuvenate it. However, though Jarvis begins by sending an expert, Mr. Letsitsi, the reader can only hope that the land will have more success than Gertrude.
Clearly, the land's health or illness is isomorphic, that is having similar appearance, to the healthy state of the tribe and the nation. The land is the only concern of the tribal leader since most of his people have left for the city. The land is a common conversational topic amongst black and white farmers who are concerned at the growing length of time between rains. There is something very wrong in Africa, and people feel it. The land is ill and society seems to be out of order with itself. Unfortunately, the people decide to worsen things by increasing the burden on the majority of its population—the non-whites—and by doing little to restore the vitality of the withering beauty of the land.
Fear, the emotion that never seems to diminish throughout the novel, is ever present to Stephen. He fears for the land, for his son, for Jarvis, for all he sees in the city. Everyday a new fear arises and the greatest is that his faith is somehow pointless. This fear is a very important element at a crucial juncture in the novel. At the Mission House they have all just heard the news report of Arthur's death, but it is yet unknown who the culprit is. A sense of foreboding descends and Kumalo says privately to Msimangu, "Here in my heart there is nothing but fear...." Here Paton cleverly broadens the scope of this fear to include people generally.
Chapter twelve opens, "Have no doubt it is fear in the land," and the reader is allowed to know this because Paton provides bits of conversations of white people. The whites fear the blacks, and Kumalo fears that his son may be the one who killed Arthur Jarvis, thus setting off the most recent wave of hysterical paranoia in the city. Then there is the obvious fear of the white man's law and the impossibility of Absalom escaping death.
At the end of the novel, Paton lays all his cards on the table. Through Kumalo he suggests that the only reason Africa is not happy and healthy is fear. It is because people, white and black, are afraid of Kumalo and his wife, the young demonstrator, and Msimangu—afraid that such people would walk upright in the land, might be "free to use the fruits of the land," might sing Nkosi Sikelel' iAfnka, God bless Africa.
Race and Racism
James Jarvis allows the reader the best insight into race relations in South Africa when he reads his son's work. In contrast to Arthur's sensitive theories is the more general outcry over the crime of Absalom. Arthur gives a reason for both the poor state of race relations and general hysteria. In the manuscript Arthur was working on at the time of the crime, Jarvis reads, "The truth is that our civilization is not Christian; it is a tragic compound of great ideal and fearful practice, of high assurance and desperate anxiety, of loving charity and fearful clutching of possessions." In other words, Arthur felt that it was the inaction of able people like himself that allowed South Africa to deteriorate to its present state. Arthur's suggested solution, one that Mr. Letsitsi would appreciate, was the creation of the South African. Indeed, Arthur felt that the biggest problem was that the English bore English, the Afrikaners more Afrikaners, and the natives were general labor. To get around this, a unified South Africa would have to be created. Mr. Letsitsi, on the other side, was working for Africa too—thus he sang the yet little known anthem Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika.
The political rhetoric and the newspapers are not so logical or sober as the writings of Arthur Jarvis. Instead, as the pressure on the state increases due to the migration of blacks from the broken tribes to the city, the whites call for more separation and more exploitation. An effect of this pressure is visible in the hysterical pronouncements made in response to Absalom's crime in chapter twelve. People call for absolute separation by the division of Africa into white and black areas. Others call for the stricter enforcement of pass laws. Well-meaning whites seek to provide more money for education in hopes that this will give blacks more positive goals, thus preventing future crimes. However, none cry for integration, none call for the difficult investigations into the causes of South Africa's woes. Such causes, as Arthur hints, are too deep to be easy. Consequent to these calls, the political party favoring more separation was gaining adherents. In this way, the book prophesied the victory of the National Party. In fact, all throughout the book, the majority of whites are not like Arthur or his father but like Mr. Harrison, who sees the natives as "savage" and not as people with complex personalities and problems like the struggling Kumalo, the intelligent Msimangu, or the motherly Mrs. Lithebe.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 321
The most central themes of Cry, the Beloved Country, as in all of Paton's works, are those of love and fear, love for all the peoples of South Africa (including the Afrikaans-speaking, the English, the Blacks, the Coloreds, the Indians), and love for the land itself. Love in this novel is the unifying factor that will bind together the various ethnic groups. Love will help them to overcome their greed, fear and mistrust of each other. In short, love will be the panacea that will help them to live in peace and harmony, and to eschew hatred and distrust. As Paton himself expounds in the author's note to Cry, the Beloved Country, "It is my own belief that the only power which can resist the power of fear is the power of love. It's a weak thing and a tender thing; men despise and deride it. But I look for the day when in South Africa we shall realize that the only lasting and worthwhile solution of our grave and profound problems lies not in the use of power, but in that understanding and compassion without which human life is an intolerable bondage, condemning us all to an existence of violence, misery and fear." In fact, the word "fear" runs throughout the novel, being used several hundred times.
A second theme is about the cities (Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban), their attractions, temptations and dangers, and the society they create. The exodus from the reserves has created a society of overlords and the slum dwellers, whose lives are constantly overwhelmed with crime and violence. In Paton's words, "This is the central theme of my novel."
The dangers and fears of integration or "engulfment" could be said to form a backdrop to the novel. Further themes which figure prominently in the novel are confession, repentance and forgiveness, as well as human relationships, and the decay of the tribal system and its rebuilding.