Born 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.
The underlying theme of Cry, the Beloved Country, as in all of Paton’s works, involves the unifying power of love and the divisive force of fear. Paton feels that only love-for one another and for the land itself-can bind together the country’s diverse ethnic groups and allow them to overcome their fear and mistrust of one another.
Cry, the Beloved Country’s distinctive style incorporates diction and symbolism that complement the religious simplicity of the protagonist, Stephen Kumalo. A simple village parson, Kumalo is not a deeply philosophical figure. He has been educated in a missionary school where the Bible is taught almost to the exclusion of other subjects.
Apartheid stands as the novel’s primary social concern. With his subtle and sympathetic treatment of this particular issue, Paton established a tradition in South African literature that is mirrored in the works of J. M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer. Absalom Kumalo’s murder of Arthur Jarvis does not lessen the readers’ sympathy for those oppressed by apartheid; rather, it suggests the complexity of evils spawned by such oppression. Readers will certainly want to compare the social climate in South Africa as Paton describes it with the current struggle of South African blacks for equality.
1. What are the symbolic differences between the High Place where James Jarvis lives and the valley?
2. St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death, falsely accused of speaking words against the Holy Land and the law. How is Stephen Kumalo like St. Stephen?
1. Trace the biblical names in the novel-Absalom, Stephen, Peter and John-to their original stories and show how Paton’s characters resemble the biblical ones.
Paton’s fictional works focus on South Africa and the injustice of apartheid. Paton exposes the social and economic evils of apartheid and urges that the system be eliminated. While Cry, the Beloved Country is devoted specifically to the plight of blacks in South Africa, Paton writes about the Afrikaners (descendants of the original Dutch settlers) in Too Late the Phalarope. His short stories in Tales from a Troubled Land, especially “Life for Life” and “Debbie Go Home,” examine the lives of the “colored” (mixed race) people of South Africa.