About The AuthorBorn on January 11, 1903, in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, South Africa, Alan Paton evolved as an eloquent spokesman against apartheid and a great humanitarian. In 1935, after completing a series of educational programs at the University of Natal and teaching in the country school of Ixopo, Paton was appointed principal of the Diepkloof Reformatory school in the Transvaal Province, near the city of Johannesburg. Paton’s novel approach (involving freedom of movement, reward, and punishment) proved so successful in the rehabilitation of black juvenile delinquents that in his twelve years as head, the Diepkloof Reformatory was transformed into a model school and Paton became known as an authority on rehabilitation efforts.
Cry, the Beloved Country was the forerunner of a whole body of subsequent South African literature protesting apartheid. Like many twentieth-century African novels, Cry, the Beloved Country is the story of a journey, both an actual journey from a village to Johannesburg and a spiritual journey through a hostile society. The Reverend Stephen Kumalo, an Anglican priest and a Zulu, sets out to visit his dying sister and locate his son, Absalom, who has not been in contact since he left the village. With the help of his brother John and a fellow clergyman, Msimangu, Kumalo discovers that his son is in jail, accused of murder. After Absalom’s conviction, Kumalo returns to the village with Absalom’s wife and newborn child. The events that befall Kumalo during his journey through a society torn by the oppressive system of apartheid force him to confront suffering and assess his values.
Cry, the Beloved Country is set in the rural village of Ndotsheni, home of Stephen Kumalo, and in the city of Johannesburg. The contrast between village life and city life is among the novel’s key themes. The time is the mid-twentieth century, probably the same time as when the novel was written, 1945 to 1948.
Cry, the Beloved Country Character ListStephen Kumalo
The pastor of Ixopo, a village in the rural South African region of Ndotsheni, Kumalo visits Johannesburg in order to save his sister, Gertrude, when he receives a letter telling him that she is ill, but then begins to search for his son, Absalom, who had gone to Johannesburg but never returned. A kind and just man who believes in the strength of family life, Kumalo searches desperately for his son in order to reunite his family, but becomes an activist for social justice and a return to rural life once he learns that his son is responsible for the murder of Arthur Jarvis. Cry, the Beloved Country is essentially the story of Kumalo's newfound concern for the fate of South Africa and its inhabitants.
He is a wealthy white man in South Africa whose son, Arthur Jarvis, is a renowned social reformer murdered by Absalom Kumalo during a robbery. When he visits Johannesburg for the funeral for his son and the trial of Absalom, James Jarvis learns more about the social work that Jarvis did on behalf of South Africa and eventually devotes himself to promoting social justice in South Africa. James Jarvis later befriends Stephen Kumalo when they meet by chance while Kumalo delivers a letter. Although a conservative man, James Jarvis eventually devotes himself wholeheartedly to social progress, donating ten thousand dollars to start the Arthur Jarvis Club, donating milk from his estate to help starting children during the drought and arranging for a dam to be built in Ixopo to prevent further droughts.
The son of Stephen Kumalo, Absalom Kumalo left his family to move to Johannesburg and, as of the beginning of the novel, had been missing ever since. A major portion of the novel is devoted to Stephen's search for Absalom, who has gone from place to place in Johannesburg. When Stephen finds his son, he learns that Absalom had been sent to a reformatory and had gotten a young girl pregnant. A major reason why Absalom was missing is that he murdered Arthur Jarvis when he, Johannes Pafuri, and his cousin John attempted to rob his house. However, Absalom accepts blame for the crime and repents while the others do not. Despite admitting his culpability for the crime, the court sentences Absalom Kumalo to death by hanging.
Reverend Theophilus Msimangu
A minister in Sophiatown, a region of Johannesburg, he requests that Kumalo visit him in Johannesburg in order to save his sister, Gertrude, for she has been in jail and has worked as a prostitute since moving to the city. He serves as Kumalo's guide during his visit to Johannesburg, and eventually gives Kumalo his savings when he decides to forsake all worldly possessions and dedicate himself to serving the poor.
Twenty-five years younger than her brother, Stephen, Gertrude Kumalo lives in Johannesburg with her small child. It is her poor situation (she has been in jail for brewing liquor and works as a prostitute) that prompts Msimangu to send a letter to Stephen Kumalo requesting that he save his sister. Although Stephen intends to bring her home to Ixopo, Gertrude retains her errant ways even after moving in with Mrs. Lithebe. Instead of returning to Ixopo with her brother, Gertrude instead leaves her family, presumably to become a nun.
The brother of Stephen Kumalo, he is a former carpenter who has become a great political leader in Johannesburg primarily because of his charisma and speaking abilities. Unlike his brother, John Kumalo has forsaken the church and now lives a largely immoral life, having divorced his wife and taken up with a mistress. John Kumalo's son (Matthew) is also responsible in the murder of Arthur Jarvis, but because there is no tangible evidence he betrays Absalom and is acquitted for the murder.
Renowned as one of the greatest lawyers in South Africa and a great friend to blacks in the nation, he takes the case of Absalom Kumalo pro deo but unsuccessfully defends him during the trial, in which Absalom is found guilty and sentenced to death.
Mr. de Villiers
He is a participant in a conference discussing native crime who suggests that increased schooling facilities for blacks in South Africa would cause a decrease in juvenile delinquency.
He is a workman at the Doornfontein Textiles Plant where Absalom Kumalo worked. He tells Kumalo and Msimangu that Absalom was staying with Mrs. Ndlela in Sophiatown.
He is one of the major black political leaders in Johannesburg, along with Tomlinson and John Kumalo.
The father of John and Mary Harrison, James and Margaret Jarvis stay with him while they are in Johannesburg. Unlike his son, Harrison holds conservative views concerning racial matters in South Africa and worries greatly about native crime.
The brother of Mary Harrison, the wife of Arthur Jarvis, he meets James and Margaret Jarvis at the airport and helps the Jarvis family during their stay at Johannesburg. John Harrison holds much more liberal views than his father concerning the status of blacks in South Africa. Before leaving for home, James Jarvis gives John Harrison a check for ten thousand dollars and requests that he start the Arthur Jarvis club promoting social work in South Africa.
He is a taxi driver who was friends with Absalom. He tells Kumalo and Msimangu that Absalom went to live in Shanty Town.
Absalom Kumalo stayed with this woman while in Shanty Town before he went to the reformatory. She tells Stephen Kumalo and Msimangu that Absalom got a girl pregnant and that he has left the reformatory to live in Pimville.
Captain van Jaarsveld
He is the Ixopo police captain who tells James Jarvis about his son's murder and arranges for Jarvis's travel to Johannesburg.
Arthur Trevalyan Jarvis
A notable city engineer in Johannesburg renowned for his charity work on behalf of blacks in South Africa, he is murdered by Absalom Kumalo during a robbery. The president of the African Boys' Club, Arthur Jarvis is the son of James Jarvis and the author of several papers promoting social work on behalf of blacks in South Africa. It is these writings, which James Jarvis discovers after his son's murder, that prompt James Jarvis to take a greater interest in social work for blacks in South Africa.
She is the wife of James Jarvis. After a long illness, she dies once she and her husband return from Johannesburg after the trial of Absalom Kumalo, prompting James Jarvis to move to Johannesburg to live with his family.
He is the son of John Kumalo. One of the other defendants in the trial for the murder of Arthur Jarvis, he and Johannes Pafuri were also involved in the robbery and murder. Unlike Absalom, Matthew Kumalo receives a not guilty sentence for the murder and does not accept responsibility for his actions, likely causing a more stringent sentence for Absalom.
He is the new agricultural demonstrator in Johannesburg whom James Jarvis sends to Ndotsheni in order to teach modern farming methods in the region.
She is an elderly woman who offers Stephen Kumalo room and board in Johannesburg while he rescues his sister and searches for his son. When Kumalo brings Gertrude back to her house, she frequently argues with Gertrude over the young woman's irresponsible ways and carefree manner, but she rejoices when Gertrude suggests that she may become a nun.
He is the moderator of a conference discussing the plight of South Africa who promotes the idea that native crime will decrease only when native South Africans have worthy purposes and goals.
Mrs. Baby Mkize
She is a resident of Alexandra with whom Absalom Kumalo once stayed. When Msimangu and Kumalo visit her, she fears retribution for telling them where Absalom may be, but when Msimangu reassures her, she refers them to a taxi driver who might know where Absalom is. Absalom and his friends returned to Mkize's house after murdering Arthur Jarvis, and she is a witness at the trial against them.
Stephen Kumalo remembers the story of this young man, who was killed when he accidentally stepped into traffic while in Johannesburg.
He is the servant at the home of Arthur Jarvis who witnesses the robbery and murder and identifies Johannes Pafuri as one of the culprits during the trial. During the robbery, Pafuri hit Mpiring with an iron bar, knocking him unconscious.
She is a resident of Sophiatown with whom Absalom Kumalo once stayed. She gives Msimangu and Kumalo a forwarding address for Absalom Kumalo in Alexandra, and tells them that she disliked Absalom's friends but claims to know nothing about any crimes they may have committed.
The third defendant in the trial of Absalom Kumalo, he conspired with Absalom and John Kumalo and was responsible for hitting the servant Richard Mpiring with an iron bar during the robbery. He pleads not guilty to the murder, and like John Kumalo receives a verdict of not guilty, thus helping to place the entirety of the blame on Absalom.
He is a friend of Kumalo's friend who requests that Kumalo give a letter to his daughter, who is presumably working for the Smith family in Johannesburg. Kumalo learns that Sibeko's daughter was fired for brewing liquor in her room, and that the Smith family neither knows nor cares where she is now.
Cry, the Beloved Country ThemesReuniting the Family and Nation
The plot of Cry, the Beloved Country largely concerns the efforts of Stephen Kumalo to reunite his family by bringing back his sister Gertrude and his son Absalom to Ixopo. However, this theme takes on larger dimensions when one considers it in reference to the events that develop throughout the novel. A major theme that Paton develops is that family life in South Africa is broken; he illustrates this primarily through the Kumalo family itself, but then enlarges it to encompass family life in South Africa in general. The novel contains numerous instances in which families are broken apart by migration to Johannesburg, such as the family of Sibeko, and the cumulative effect of this, as Kumalo realizes, is that villages such as Ixopo and the nation of South Africa in general is one of families that need to be reunited. The shift of the plot during the third segment of the novel from reuniting the family in South Africa to reuniting village life in Ndotsheni reflects this theme and enlarges it. Furthermore, Paton shows the theme of reuniting family and nation through the writings of Arthur Jarvis concerning a South African national identity. A major reason that Arthur Jarvis worked for social justice, according to his works, is to unite the nation as one cohesive whole, instead of a nation of various disparate ethnic groups.
Christian Values of Kindness
A major theme that Paton develops throughout Cry, the Beloved Country is the importance of always acting with a sense of kindness. There is a specifically Christian connotation to this value, as demonstrated by the dominant Christian influence of the characters, most specifically the pastors Stephen Kumalo and Theophilus Msimangu. Paton promotes the idea that adhering to this simple sense of kindness is at least a partial solution to the problems in South Africa; it is the reciprocal kindness between Jarvis and Kumalo that causes the bond between them to develop, while it is Kumalo's kindness to the small white boy that is the impetus for Jarvis to work on behalf of South Africa by donating milk to work against the drought and by arranging for the placement of new farming methods in Ndotsheni.
The Tension Between Urban and Rural Society
Alan Paton uses the conflict between urban and rural society and the various qualities they represent as a major theme of the novel. For Paton, rural life is best exemplified by Stephen Kumalo and his personality, while urban life is best exemplified by John Kumalo. Paton clearly places his sympathy on the qualities of rural life: rural society comes to represent family, religion, morality and stability, while the chaotic urban life that Paton describes represents the breaking up of families, hedonism, and atheism. Paton also illustrates this theme through the development of several characters in the novel: the literal move of characters such as the pregnant girl to rural life in Ndotsheni represents a change to a greater moral sense, while the most corrupt character in the novel, John Kumalo, is fully enmeshed in urban Johannesburg society.
References and allusions to the emancipation movement in the United States abound in Cry, the Beloved Country along with figurative comparisons to the quest for freedom. The most obvious use of emancipation imagery regards Arthur Jarvis, who idolized Abraham Lincoln and draws on Lincoln's work to free the slaves during his own quest for social justice. Paton uses this to elucidate the comparison between the antebellum United States and his contemporary South Africa, both societies in which the quest for justice for blacks is paramount. Paton does not use the theme of emancipation merely for its literal context, however; the major question of the novel at its conclusion is when freedom from fear, poverty and bondage will occur.
The Public Significance of Actions
An assumption that Alan Paton makes throughout Cry, the Beloved Country is that numerous actions are significant not in themselves but in what they represent. This is most clearly demonstrated through two separate events, the first in the journey from Alexandra back to Johannesburg and the second at the end of the trial of Absalom Kumalo. In both instances, a white man shows his allegiance to the blacks of South Africa: in the first, a white man carries black men in his car in support of a strike, while in the second the young man from the reformatory exits the courtroom with the blacks. Paton uses this theme in order to show that public declarations of support are an important step in gaining justice in South Africa by demonstrating allegiances and loyalty.
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