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.
Such fear and mistrust is rampant in the cities of South Africa, and Paton’s central theme addresses the attractions, temptations, and dangers of urban society. As tribal societies continue to break down, the apparent wealth and excitement of cities such as Johannesburg lure many impoverished natives away from their tribal homes. The exodus creates a society of overlords and slum dwellers whose lives are constantly overwhelmed by crime and violence. Feeling threatened by the influx of blacks into their community, the white Afrikaners resist integration and fear engulfment. Urban blacks are faced with internal strife as they struggle to maintain their customs outside of their decaying tribes, and external conflict as they lash out against social and economic oppression in the city.
The novel teems with ethnically diverse characters. The most positive characters in the novel work towards racial harmony in an effort to eliminate the repressive apartheid laws and remove the artificial barrier that inhibits human relationships in South Africa. Many minor characters, such as Jan Hofmeyr and Father Beresford, are based on real figures in South African life, all liberal fighters for social justice, equality, and freedom. Father Beresford recalls Father Trevor Huddleston and Bishop Reeves, both deported bishops of Johannesburg, while Jan Hofmeyr was a liberal politician whom Paton greatly admired. Other minor but memorable characters include Mr. Carmichael, Absalom’s defense lawyer, and Napoleon Letsitsi, the agricultural demonstrator, “an angel from God” in Stephen Kumalo’s eyes, whom James Jarvis hires to restore the valley of Ndotsheni.
Stephen Kumalo, the protagonist, is a pious, humble, and dedicated country priest. He remains unaware of the impact of tribal disintegration until he comes face to face with the dangers and attractions of Johannesburg. He suffers tremendously in the quest for his son and even begins to doubt his religious beliefs. Eventually Kumalo manages to restore his faith and, with the help of James Jarvis, the valley. This restoration suggests hope for the renewal of the tribe. The birth of Absalom’s son reiterates this hope and signals the beginning of a new breed of black South Africans who will actively seek the reform of a repressive society.
James Jarvis lives in High Place, far removed from the tribulations of the valley, as the name of his homestead indicates. A white man, he speaks Zulu but has no direct connection with the blacks until he, like Stephen, loses a son in Johannesburg. After learning more about the political philosophy of his son, Arthur, he becomes a philanthropist, building a new church and bringing in an agricultural expert to help restore the valley. He also sympathizes with Stephen Kumalo. These two older characters are connected through suffering and loss; Kumalo’s son has murdered Jarvis’s son and is in turn killed by the state. Because Kumalo and Jarvis are capable of forgiveness, this common denominator drives them to better the lot of the people and to bring peace to the valley.
Arthur Jarvis, a professional engineer, is a scholar and a revolutionary. Arthur first alienates his father when he refuses his agricultural inheritance, instead choosing to pursue an independent professional interest in Johannesburg. Arthur devotes time to the poor by becoming president of the city’s African Boys’ Club. He avidly reads about South African racial problems and advocates educating the blacks and ending the whites’ economic exploitation of the blacks, pointing to Christ and Abraham Lincoln as his mentors. Because both these role models were assassinated for preaching the truth, Arthur may also be seen as a Christ-figure and a political martyr. Paton enhances Arthur’s spiritual image by having Arthur appear only through the letters, diaries, and manuscripts left behind at his desk. His influence changes his father for the better, and his funeral brings down the barriers of segregation. Arthur Jarvis represents the voice of unity, compassion, and straightforward yearning for a just and equitable society.
Absalom Kumalo, brought up in a stable home by a strict, religious family, rebels against parental and societal authority, bringing hardship to his parents. Like that of his biblical counterpart, King David’s son Absalom, Absalom Kumalo’s rebellion against his father leads to his death. Just as David laments, “O my son Absalom! my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam. 18:35-36), Stephen Kumalo suffers and laments for his only child. An essentially good person, Absalom vows to always tell the truth no matter what the consequences; but his natural rebelliousness, intensified by an oppressive political system and the pressures of the city, leads to his troubled end.
The clerics, Father Vincent and the Reverend Theophilus Msimangu, both priests in Johannesburg, are helpful and understanding. The benevolent Msimangu openly confesses his weaknesses as a priest but takes his evangelical duties seriously. Father Vincent is a humble, dedicated priest who arranges for Mr. Carmichael to defend Absalom and performs the marriage ceremony of the imprisoned Absalom and his pregnant wife. Father Vincent tries in vain to gain a pardon for Absalom and is present at the execution.
Stephen’s brother John, John’s son Matthew, and their friend Johannes Pafuri are rogues. The corrupt John Kumalo enjoys talking politics and inciting a crowd to riot, but he never places himself in danger of arrest. He advocates strikes and the formation of trade unions, but he is motivated by the prospect of financial gain. In contrast, his colleagues Dubula and Tomlinson are sincere and devoted to the workers. Matthew Kumalo and Pafuri actually plan and execute the burglary that leads to Arthur Jarvis’s death. Persuaded by his cousin and friend to participate in the crime, Absalom alone is punished after Matthew and Pafuri betray him.
Presented without any appreciable depth, the women characters are essentially seen as helpmates. Mrs. Lithebe is a religious and devoted Christian woman who accommodates Stephen Kumalo in Sophiatown. Margaret Jarvis, James’s wife, rarely appears except when grieving for her son’s death and during her own death scene. Gertrude Kumalo, Stephen’s sister, remains a prostitute in Johannesburg despite his efforts to rehabilitate her. Stephen Kumalo’s wife is a loyal, hardworking companion, who constantly supports her husband. Absalom’s wife builds a new life for herself, and her child becomes a symbol of a new generation.