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Cry the Beloved Country

Cry the Beloved Country

Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) was written by Alan Paton (1903-1988), a native of South Africa's city of Pietermaritzburg. To write his masterpiece, he drew from his experiences teaching in a school in Ixopo. He later served as a principal of a reformatory, called Diepkloof Reformatory, a school that housed about 600 boys. Here, he met many boys who served as the basis for his tragic character, Absalom Kumalo.

Paton was known by the inmates at the reformatory as "the man who pulled up barbed wire fences and planted geraniums."1 Paton knew of the healing powers of nature, and he captured the South African landscape in his writing. Often characterized as poetic in nature, his prose is on full display in Cry, the Beloved Country. The novel garnered acclaim upon publication and has become a global best seller. Let's take a closer look to understand the social commentary it makes, its importance to the people of South Africa, and why it is still relevant today.

Historical Context of Cry, the Beloved Country

Some background information to contextualize the social and political issues seen in Cry, the Beloved Country is necessary before diving into the summary.

Cry the Beloved Country, An image of Alan Paton, StudySmarterAlan Paton, writer of Cry, the Beloved Country, drew upon his own experience to write his novel.

Alan Paton began writing Cry, the Beloved Country, a social novel, while on a train to Norway in 1946. It's set in 1940s South Africa, while the United party was eager to industrialize the country and capitalize on the wealth of land. The National party, wanting the region to evolve and accept a more modern way of life by welcoming a more industrialized society, wanted to control immigration and placed strict regulations to gain control.

The party wanted the people to welcome the mining of their natural resources and to do the hard labor for minimal pay. To force this agenda, the National party imposed several regulations, such as enforcing racial segregation, limiting voting rights, outlawing interracial marriages and sexual relationships, restricting property rights, and limiting educational opportunities.

A social novel emphasizes the influence of the social and economic conditions of a time period in how they shape a character and determine events and outcomes. The social novel also contains an implicit, or explicit, idea recommending political and social reform. Examples of social novels include Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851), Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939).

The program The National party began, called apartheid (which means complete segregation), aimed to control three non-European groups: the Indian population, the native people, and what was known as the coloreds (people that were of both native and European descent). The program eliminated racially integrated universities, labor unions, and schools.

The final policy, called "separate development" separated the entire nation into white and black areas. Leaders of non-white groups were banned, placed under house arrest, imprisoned, or even executed. This also marked a period of strict regulations for creatives. Journalists, painters, sculptors, and photographers were monitored while foreign writers were not allowed to enter South Africa.2

Cry the Beloved Country, An apartheid sign, StudySmarterFig. 2 - An apartheid sign showing the separation.

Summary of Cry, the Beloved Country

Cry, the Beloved Country is loved for Paton's ability to use simple language beautifully. Throughout the novel, he sprinkles detailed accounts of the South African landscape that speak to the beauty of the area and its immense ability to regenerate. The book begins with a detailed description of the landscape and reveals an admiration and love for the soil. The story begins in a secluded village called Ndotsheni. Reverend Stephen Kumalo (who will be referred to as Kumalo throughout this article), the first of two protagonists, receives a letter from a colleague in Johannesburg asking him to visit. His sister, Gertrude, is sick and needs his help. Kumalo decides to go even though the trip is long and expensive, in part so he can find his son, Absalom, who fled the small village to Johannesburg.

In Johannesburg, Msimangu, the priest who sent the letter, welcomes him and is his host who gives him a place to stay and shows him around. Kumalo first visits his sister, only to discover she has taken to a life of crime to support herself. She has become a prostitute and is selling liquor. Kumalo convinces her to return home, to Ndotsheni, and to take her young son. There she will find safety and support.

Kumalo and his friend, Msimangu, begin their search for Absalom. They visit Kumalo's brother, a carpenter turned politician. He is now one of the most powerful politicians in the city, and informs Kumalo that Absalom used to work in a factory. As Kumalo travels, he learns about the racial, economic, and social issues tearing the country apart. Kumalo learns Absalom spent time in a reformatory and has a pregnant girlfriend.

The newspapers announce that a local man, Arthur Jarvis, has been murdered. Absalom is arrested and confesses to the crime. It was accidental, but they will try him in court. Kumalo helps to secure an attorney to defend his son. Kumalo meets Absalom's girlfriend, who is upset about the news of the murder, but she agrees to marry Absalom and go to Ndotsheni. Gertrude, Kumalo's sister, returns to Johannesburg and falls back into the life of crime and prostitution.

James Jarvis (who we will refer to as Jarvis throughout this article), the father of the recently murdered Arthur Jarvis, is a wealthy landowner who has benefited from the unfair treatment of others and owns a large successful plot of land that overlooks Ndotsheni. Jarvis reads his son's letters and writing, trying to understand and accept his loss. He meets Kumalo, the father of his son's murderer, accidentally. Kumalo gives his condolences, and the men form a bond. They attend Absalom's trial together, and Absalom is convicted and sentenced to death.

Cry the Beloved Country, A green and fertile farm in South Africa, StudySmarterFig.A fertile farmland in South Africa, similar to the one belonging to Jarvis.

By reading his son's writings, Jarvis gains an appreciation for Arthur's beliefs. He learns Arthur Jarvis served as president of the Africans Boys Club while alive. Arthur's work hinged on his belief in equality between the white men and native men, and he fought diligently for justice. Jarvis, influenced and inspired by his son, resolves to help the people of Ndotsheni by donating milk, and makes plans to pay for a dam to get water to the valley. He also hires an agricultural expert to create a strategy for sustainable farming. Jarvis loses his wife, and Kumalo and his congregation send a wreath showing support for him. When Kumalo is about to be sent away from his community, Jarvis offers to provide a new church, using his money for good and keeping Kumalo with his people.

Before Absalom's death, the men encounter one another and share their thoughts on the loss of their sons and their hope and love for Jarvis's grandson. The grandson is intelligent, kind, honest, and innocent. He is learning about the Zulu tribe from Kumalo. He represents the promise of a better future. Kumalo goes into the mountains and weeps for his son. He is powerless, and now Kumalo must turn to his faith for comfort.

Characters in Cry, the Beloved Country

Although there are many characters that serve to inform the actions and enhance the plot in Cry, the Beloved Country, the following are central to the storyline, as they impact the themes and meaning.

CharactersDescription
Stephen KumaloStephen Kumalo is a Zulu priest, native to the village of Ndotsheni. He is a gentle leader devoted to helping others. One of the two protagonists in this novel, he sets out on a journey to find his son.
Absalom KumaloKumalo's son, who fled from home to the city of Johannesburg and has lost his way. He commits a murder and must work to regain his decency.
Gertrude KumaloGertrude is Kumalo's sister and 25 years younger. She is a prostitute who lacks determination and resorts to a life of crime. She is the primary reason for Kumalo to begin his journey. Although he initially convinces her to leave Johannesburg, she returns and resumes prostitution.
MsimanguHe is Kumalo's host and helper in Johannesburg. As a minster, he has a strong understanding of the problems in South Africa.
Father VincentFather Vincent is a priest who helps Kumalo and marries Absalom and his girlfriend.
John KumaloHe is Kumalo's brother and a successful politician in Johannesburg. He worked his way up from being a carpenter, and although he fights for the rights of South Africans, he is afraid.
James JarvisJames Jarvis, the novel's other protagonist, is a wealthy white landowner whose property overlooks Ndotsheni. Absalom kills his son, leading him to reconsider his personal and political views.
Arthur JarvisArthur Jarvis, killed by Absalom in a theft gone wrong, is a white man who was fighting for South African rights. He never appears in the novel, but his ideas and his absence significantly influence the characters and plot.
Absalom's girlfriendA young sixteen-year-old girl. She is kind, accepting of help, and although sexually experienced, remains innocent.

Themes in Cry, the Beloved Country

Cry, the Beloved Country is a social commentary filled with a slew of themes. Here are two central themes critical to understanding the novel's meaning.

The Relationship Between Father and Son

In Cry, the Beloved Country, Paton uses his protagonists, their relationships with their sons, and their individual reactions to losing their children as a means to explore the nature of father and son relationships. A relationship with one's father is one of the most influential relationships in a person's life and helps to form the blueprint for an individual's values, morals, and methods they use to navigate the world.

The two fathers, Kumalo and Jarvis, begin the novel in search for their sons. Through letters and writing, both men find solace in the loss, understanding, and reconnection with their sons. Language and the written word become a powerful source and method to unite fathers and sons.

Kumalo's search is a literal one, where he must leave his home to enter the foreign city of Johannesburg and track down Absalom. As he follows the clues, he witnesses some of the injustices his son has faced and learns about Absalom. He sees how his son started out as a factory worker, descended into a life of crime, and attempted to rehabilitate himself in a reformatory, only to commit an accidental murder. Kumalo must turn to his faith after he learns that Absalom will die for murdering Arthur Jarvis.

James Jarvis begins his search for his son in the spiritual realm, as Arthur is already dead. He must come to terms with his son's death, and learn how to live with the loss. He realizes that, while alive, his son was a stranger to him. Jarvis tries to resurrect his relationship with his son in the only way he can. He learns about him, his beliefs, and why he was fighting so passionately for justice in South Africa. In reading Arthur's writings, Jarvis learns about Arthur, admires his conviction, and is inspired.

For both men, the written word becomes a vehicle to learn about and reconnect with their sons. Communication, whether verbal or written, is central to a solid parent-child relationship. Once both fathers are ready to learn about and accept their children for who they are, they meet the men their boys grew into. Unfortunately, for both, it is too late to salvage the relationship. However, they learn from it, and through their relationship with Arthur's surviving child, we see hope for the future.

Injustice

The injustice in Cry, the Beloved Country is a condemnation of the political and social situation South Africans faced leading up to and during apartheid. As Arthur's writings reveal, Black South Africans were purposely denied the right to learn skills, forcing them to work in the mines to provide for their families. Because lodging was only provided for the men and not their families, the social structure aimed to break up the family dynamic. South Africans were denied education, which created a large, uneducated, and obedient labor force for the wealthy.

The novel's primary plot is set in place by extreme social injustices. Black South Africans, because of strict laws, were only allowed to own limited amounts of land and then forced to overwork the land they have. The soil had been drained of all the nutrients, and it became barren and stopped producing. Ndotsheni has become an area bare, hostile, and unproductive. The young adults of the area, eager to begin their lives and make their own living, leave. This causes a collapse in the social order, threatens the communal way of living, and disconnects the youth physically, emotionally, and spiritually, from their elders and communities.

Facing limited options, a lack of family support, and few skills, many youths turned to a life of crime. This is true for both Gertrude and Absalom. The system creates a cycle of injustice and then punishes those stuck in it. Absalom, a product of this horrible and oppressive condition, dies because of it.

Cry the Beloved Country, a barren plot of land, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Overworked land is drained of the nutrients it needs to provide crops to grow.

The Meaning of Cry, the Beloved Country

Cry, the Beloved Country was a social commentary warning of the damages that social structures were causing. The meaning of Cry, the Beloved Country, lies in the bond that keeps families together and the bond that enslaved and oppressed people fight to maintain. Cry, the Beloved Country, is about coming together and the importance of brotherhood, the influence of fatherhood, and how those special to us can influence us long after death. In striving to be better people, we create a better society.

For Jarvis and Kumalo, that is true. Through their loss and sorrow, they find a friendship that transcends the cruelty of life. Arthur's son, through his friendship with Kumalo, and his honor and interest in the Zulu tribe, is a testament to the joining of two ideals and ways of life to become better. When people join their efforts and support one another, the future will thrive.

Quotes from Cry, the Beloved Country

Here are some important quotes from Cry, the Beloved Country.

Cry the Beloved Country, two people from different races shake hands, StudySmarterFig. 5 - Two people from different races are shaking hands, signifying unity and cooperation.

I see only one hope for our country, and that is when white men and black men ... desiring only good for their country, come together to work for it."

(Chapter 7)

Expressing the importance of cooperation and unity, as opposed to the current conditions, Msimangu reveals a central idea within the novel. People of all races must work together, live together, and cooperate to create a better life for themselves and to ensure a prosperous country. Actions must be thoughtful and intentional. No one man can achieve greatness alone, and a country cannot thrive as a whole while being split in two.

Sorrow is better than fear. Fear is a journey, a terrible journey, but sorrow is at least an arrival.

When the storm threatens, a man is afraid for his house. But when the house is destroyed, there is something to do. About a storm he can do nothing, but he can rebuild a house."

(Chapter 15)

While speaking to Kumalo, the wise and kindhearted Father Vincent notes that sorrow is a better emotion than fear. Fear can be crippling. But sorrow is more conducive to a productive life. Sorrow leads an individual to action, while fear stifles progress. Sorrow is an acceptance of what is, rather than a worry about what could be.

It shows an individual is living in the moment and can rebuild his home, rather than trying to fight the inevitable storm. Both Kumalo and Jarvis use their sorrow as a way to find understanding and acceptance. This leads to a better situation and life for the future.

For mines are for men, not for money. And money is not something to go mad about, and throw your hat into the air for. Money is for food and clothes and comfort, and a visit to the pictures. Money is to make happy the lives of children. Money is for security, and for dreams, and for hopes, and for purposes. Money is for buying the fruits of the earth, of the land where you were born."

(Chapter 23)

This quote presents the idea that an obsession with money is unhealthy. Money is a tool for humankind, but should not be the primary purpose in life. Money is for sustenance, to live life and enjoy the fruits of the land. Money alone cannot feed. Money does not have the power to give life, but land and soil are the true source of life. While the incessant need for money corrodes the soul and corrupts society, the land can regenerate. Money should serve a purpose and not be the purpose.

Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much."

(Chapter 12)

For Allan Paton, this passage "suggests that one can love a country too deeply" and that love can control and even destroy.3 In this respect, fear controls through love. The fear of losing that which you love, whether it be freedom, country, or community, can make a human lose control of their own will.

Cry the Beloved Country - Key takeaways

  • Cry the Beloved Country is written by Alan Paton.
  • Paton began writing the novel in 1946, and it was published in 1948.
  • Cry, the Beloved Country tells the story of two fathers, Kumalo and Jarvis, their relationships with their sons, and how they come to terms with their deaths.
  • The novel is set during apartheid and is a strong social commentary on the damages resulting from that system.
  • Cry, the Beloved Country is marked by its simple style, poetic details, and themes of the father and son relationship and injustices in society.

1. Foley, Andrew. "Considered as a Social Record: 'A Reassessment of Cry, the Beloved Country.'" English in Africa. October 1998.

2. Bar-Yosef, Eitan. "Zionism, Apartheid, Blackface: Cry, the Beloved Country on the Israeli Stage." Summer 2013.

3. Paton, Alan. A Note on the 1987 Edition. Cry, the Beloved Country. 1987.


References

  1. Fig. 1 - Alan Paton (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alan_Paton.jpg) by Perijove at Swahili Wikipedia (https://sw.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mtumiaji:Perijove) is licensed by GFDL (http://gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)
  2. Fig. 3 - South African Farm (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:South_African_Farm.jpg) byRyanj93 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Special:Contributions/Ryanj93) is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
  3. Fig. 4 Overworked Land (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Barren_Land_on_the_Visapur_Fort,Pune.JPG) by NishantAChavan (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Special:Contributions/NishantAChavan) is licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
  4. Fig. 5 - Handshake (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Black_and_white_handshake_MOD_45148076.jpg) by Graeme Main is licensed by OGL v1.0OGL v1.0 (https://nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/)

Frequently Asked Questions about Cry the Beloved Country

Cry, the Beloved Country takes place in South Africa in the 1940s.

Absalom commits murder and is hanged. 

Cry, the Beloved Country is about Stephen Kumalo, a pastor and father, searching for his son in South Africa. 

Cry, the Beloved Country was published in 1948.

Cry, the Beloved Country is a social criticism of the societal structures that led to apartheid in South Africa.

Final Cry the Beloved Country Quiz

Question

Who is the author of Cry, the Beloved Country?

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Answer

Cry, the Beloved Country is written by Alan Paton.

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Question

When was Cry, the Beloved Country published

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Answer

Cry, the Beloved Country was published in 1948.

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Question

What type of novel is Cry, the Beloved Country?

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Answer

It is a social novel, providing a criticism of the current political situation and an idea for change.

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Question

Who is Stephen Kumalo? 

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Answer

Stephen Kumalo is a South African native, religious leader, and father to Absalom, a convicted murderer. 

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Question

What happens to Absalom at the end of Cry, the Beloved Country?

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Answer

Absalom is hanged for the murder of Arthur Jarvis. 

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Question

Who is James Jarvis? 

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Answer

James Jarvis is the second protagonist in Cry, the Beloved Country, a wealthy landowner, and father to the murdered Arthur Jarvis. 

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Question

Who attends the trial with Kumalo? 

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Answer

James Jarvis attends the trial of his son's murderer with the murderer's father, Kumalo.

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Question

Who is Gertrude? 

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Answer

Gertrude is Kumalo's sister, and the reason he goes to Johannesburg to begin with. He saves her from prostitution, but by the end of the novel, she has returned to it. 

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Question

What is the setting of Cry, the Beloved Country?

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Answer

Cry, the Beloved Country is set in 1940s South Africa, at the onset of apartheid.

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Question

Which character represents a brighter future in Cry, the Beloved Country

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Answer

Jarvis's grandson, son of Arthur, represents a brighter future where two cultures can come together respectfully, to improve a country.

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