Knocking on the Door

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1796

As the President of the South African Liberal Party and the champion of human rights, Alan Paton has been known to many as an eloquent speaker and accomplished writer in the fields of political science and philosophy. He is known to many others as a novelist whose poignant portrayals of his homeland evoke an understanding if not an acceptance on the part of his readers of the clashing viewpoints that both weave a multifaceted tapestry of culture and threaten to tear it apart. These two facets of Alan Paton as a writer are juxtaposed in this selection of his shorter works through the inclusion by the editor, Colin Gardner, of both imaginative and discursive writings.

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Gardner claims in the foreword that no evaluation of the works has been made, although through the selecting process he has provided the readers with a collection of items that speak for themselves with disarming forthrightness. They are presented in approximate chronological order, divided into four major sections, each of which is prefaced by a biographical note. His imaginative pieces are interfiled with the discursive works, but each genre is identified in the table of contents by a different typeface. Gardner, in selecting these items, has provided the reader with a balanced picture of Paton the public crusader and Paton the private philosopher set against the immensely complex backdrop of the South African social milieu.

Paton, because of his strong political and social convictions, has always felt compelled to write serious discursive pieces. Those presented in the first section include three pamphlets on penal reform written for the Penal Reform League of South Africa, and two more literary essays written for periodicals. During this first, somewhat sociologically oriented stage in his development as a writer, Paton served as the principal of a reformatory for delinquent black youngsters—an experience which forced him to focus upon and sharpen his conflicting feelings and thoughts on the racial situation in his country. “This is My Own, My Native Land,” an essay written for the periodical Commonsense, explicates the primary theme in his poetry at the time as well as in his reform pamphlets, that people must be understood and judged as individuals, not as members of a group. It is evident that his approach to penal reform would put into practice this very idea in the hope of fostering self-respect, especially on the part of black youngsters. The corollary theme echoes throughout these early years, that progress for black people is inevitable and would be better accepted graciously than forced.

While his professional writings at this time stand solidly for the acceptance of all on the basis of individual merit, the more private writings, his poetry, belie his concern for those who will find such acceptance very difficult. “Old Til” and “The Hermit” are both fairly short poems, and yet each mirrors the irrational fear, the panic, felt by persons who are being forced to accepts situations that are antithetical to their traditional beliefs. “Old Til” also shows evidence of his strengthening Christian beliefs and the shame he feels at the domination of the blacks by the organized church as an extention of the political climate, convincing them to be thankful for the white rulers of their country. This same shame and confusion over his conflicting feelings of idealism, tradition, and selfishness are very clearly set forth in “Trilemma.” His poetry is very personal, his loyalties not too clearly drawn.

At the end of this period in his life, Paton published his first major work, Cry, the Beloved Country, and in the same year resigned from the Reformatory principalship in order to devote his time to writing. His professional experience had acted as a catalyst, helping him to identify many of his own beliefs and the success of his novel revealed that they had universal applicability.

The second section of the work covers fewer years and spans his attainment of full success as a writer. The items included are primarily imaginative in nature, and very much motivated toward ending social injustice. In “Why I Write,” one of the two discursive pieces, Paton admits that he has found a voice of conscience within himself that he cannot silence, unpopular though his convictions might be with many of his fellow South Africans. “To Walt Whitman” is his forthright declaration that he will use his writing to create a better world for the generations of children to come.

Those poems and short stories are peopled with children, very young and innocent and infinitely sad. In the first short story, “Bulstrode’s Daughter,” when the children can accept one another as individuals but the adults cannot, it is the children who are hurt by the intolerance. His poignant eulogy, “To a Small Boy Who Died at Diepkloof Reformatory,” contrasts the frail and lonely little boy and his trivial transgressions against the massive forces of authority and the status quo, in a note of near impossibility of ever turning such an indifferent society toward compassion.

These are searchingly introspective pieces, reflecting a sense of guilt at not crying out loudly enough at injustices. “The Stock Exchange” is a relatively light and teasing poem on this guilt and inaction, but it suggests that Paton had begun to resolve his personal agony into a mature drive for action, with which he was ready to cope in a more public manner. The next fifteen years, represented by the selections in the third section, were ones of intense political and social involvement for the author. He founded the Liberal Party of South Africa and served first as national chairman and then as President.

Perhaps the strongest piece in this section is “Praise Song for Luthuli,” which has not previously been published. Chief Albert Luthuli won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1961, after being banned and restricted to a small town for his role as President of the African National Congress. Paton’s outright admiration of such a controversial figure no doubt counted against him with a conservative majority and contributed to the revocation some years later of his passport.

While his speeches and political writings expound his humanistic social philosophy clearly and convincingly, there is evidence of a subtle shift in emphasis in many of his imaginative works. In his essay “The South African Novel in English,” he lends more credence to presenting the complex reality of contemporary South Africa than to using creative writing to urge one’s fellow citizens toward idealistic goals. He asserts that a novelist may accomplish a social purpose in writing, although his novel may not be written directly in that vein. In fact, in both “The Hero of Currie Road” and “Interview with Himself,” Paton’s theme reflects the difficulty in effecting social action through creative writing. His political goals at this stage are being furthered directly, allowing his creativity as a writer to ripen independently of his drive for social justice. This new maturity in his imaginative writings is reflected in an intensified evocation of emotion, and a diversification of themes and forms. “The General” and “The Magistrate’s Daughter” deal with the universal yearning on the part of the young for acceptance. Chess in Yugoslavia, a one-act play, satirizes the human penchant for stereotyping others.

Complex imagery, however, is still not a major component of Paton’s style, and, in fact, never clouds his message. Although early in his career (in his essay on Roy Campbell) he professed to admire strong poetic imagery, in actuality he has kept it to a minimum in his own writings. It is a conscious choice, explained in his essay on “Why I Write,” made during the years when he wanted to use his gifts as a creative writer to further the cause of social justice. Very plainly, he wanted his work to be easy for the average man to understand, not something so stylistically obscure and full of literary allusions that it would only appeal to a small group.

With the demise of the Liberal Party in 1968, Alan Paton returned to private life. This time he did not turn primarily to imaginative writing, although many of the discursive works presented here reflect a more personal philosophical and theological concern for universal human rights. His deepening Christian convictions are both openly expounded and more subtly evident in his Biblical allusions and the use of parables.

“The Perfidy of Maatland” is actually a parable of South African political life, a commentary masquerading as a short story, while “The Problem of Suffering” is more outright in its theology. Paton seems at this stage to be concerned very much with the universal human condition. The first essay in this section, “Why We Must Go on Dreaming,” contends that although there is often a disparity between what people dream and what their governments do, it is nonetheless a part of being human to continue to dream.

Persistence in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles is, in fact, the essence of Paton’s personal crusade. The continued image of “knocking on the door,” even though that door is never opened, is a theme reflected in his writing from the earliest period. Although he acknowledges that the allusion is to the character searching for justice in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, the metaphor is very Biblical, and considerably more positive, in its origins.

“The Hermit,” which is the third selection in the anthology, uses the image of persistent knocking on the door to remind recalcitrant conservatives not only of the omnipresent and immanent revolution of the oppressed against the oppressors, but also that the longer they take to open the door (society) the harder they will find it to open. Decades later, we can see the same symbolism in “Death of a Priest,” this time with Paton in a more overtly crusading mood, reminding the political establishment that it cannot forever cover up its acts of terrorism against minorities as long as there is someone to speak for those who are oppressed.

In his speech at the unveiling of the tombstone of Chief Albert Luthuli, the controversial black leader whom he had defended years before, he sets forth this theme, acknowledging it as a figure that he consciously uses. In “Memorial of Luthuli” he extols the Chief for having spent the greater part of his life knocking on the door, acting as a conscience to the leaders of the government.

Even if Gardner had not chosen it as the title for the volume, it is evident to the reader that Alan Paton saw his own destiny to be knocking on the door of social injustice and racial inequality, not in a passive way, but actively, patiently, persistently, in the hope that it would be opened not only to him, but especially to the children of future generations.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 25

America. CXXXIV, April 17, 1976, p. 345.

Choice. XIII, June, 1976, p. 502.

Christian Science Monitor. May 4, 1976, p. 34.

Library Journal. CI, February 1, 1976, p. 530.

New York Times Book Review. May 17, 1970, p. 3.

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