Cry, the Beloved Country
by Alan Paton
Reverend Stephen Kumalo
When we try to pin down a personality for our main character Stephen Kumalo, it's actually kind of difficult. Who is this guy? We know that he is a Christian man of faith, that he is a priest, that he is Zulu, that he's on the older side of things (since he's got an adult son), that he's married (even though we don't even know his wife's name), and that he has to deal with a lot of hardship over the course of Cry, the Beloved Country.
These are all important parts of Kumalo's social identity. They tell us something about who he is to the people of his village, Ndotsheni (a beloved reverend), and to the nation at large (a black man, which means that he suffers from political, legal, and economic oppression at this point in South African history).
But these details don't tell us about his personal life. Like, where did he meet his wife? When did he choose to join the church? We have no idea. Or, does he have any hobbies? What does he like about living in his village? We don't know that stuff either. Most of what we know of Kumalo's emotional experiences is through dialogue, when he is reacting to immediate, mostly bad, news.
This lack of depth to Kumalo's personality tells us something about what Paton wants to achieve with this character. Kumalo isn't truly a distinctive person. He is more of a type, the kind of person who might suffer from the injustices of South African society in the 1940s.
As a preacher, Kumalo is too moral to fall for the temptations of the city the way Gertrude and Absalom do. And as a humble man, he's too honest to seek after power the way his brother John does. So Kumalo is in a perfect position to observe the damaging results of black unemployment and the lack of defined social roles in the people around him. And his emotional, personal reactions to these symptoms of broader political and economic problems remind readersthat, all statistics about crime aside, there are actual people suffering from the results of South Africa's legalized, horrifying racism.
How Can a Grown Man Be So Naive?
Cry, the Beloved Country is also the story of a man seriously out of his comfort zone. When Kumalo first arrives in the city of Johannesburg, he is so frightened of the traffic and the crowds of people that he is afraid to leave the train station. And of course, he immediately gets cheated: a young man offers to buy a bus ticket for him and then disappears with his money. Obviously, this is not a guy who is comfortable with city life.
Still, there is a purpose to Kumalo's innocence. Paton isn't assuming that we, as readers—especially international readers—will have any idea about the layout of Johannesburg or the motivations and habits of its residents. And the easiest way to introduce us to the city (and to its crime, which is the specific topic of Cry, the Beloved Country) is to introduce an equally unknowing character to it. That way, more knowledgeable characters like Msimangu can explain to Kumalo (and to us) what's what.
In fact, this is a classic sitcom strategy. If you go back to the first episodes of How I Met Your Mother or Friends, you'll see that these shows also use the technique of introducing a new character—Robin, in the case of HIMYM, Rachel, in the case of Friends—into an existing social circle so that there's a plot-level reason for all of the explanations that a first episode or couple of episodes requires. So Kumalo is the Robin or Rachel of Cry, the Beloved Country (in terms of character function, if nothing else).
Uncle Tom's Cabin, Not Django Unchained
We've mentioned that Kumalo is a Christian priest, but we haven't talked about the fact that Kumalo's religious faith is actually a really important part of the overall point of Cry, the Beloved Country. Not only does Kumalo's role as a preacher bring him in touch with a lot of liberal white priests who are eager to help him (most notably, Father Vincent), but it also speaks to one of the big moral messages of the book: brotherly love.
This novel (like many others including the Lord of the Rings books, the Harry Potter series, and the Beatles song "All You Need Is Love") suggests that the only force strong enough to fight the fear that leads to hate is love. What is more, the Christian emphasis on brotherly love has obviously played a huge part in real-life anti-racist struggles. After all, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist preacher.
However, Kumalo's particular character focus on forgiveness and charity does open up Cry, the Beloved Country to some criticism. Let's look at a passage near the end of the novel, when Kumalo is reflecting on his son's execution. The narrator comments:
And what was there evil in their desires, in their hunger [to be free]?[…] Yet men are afraid with a fear that was deep, deep in the heart, a fear so deep that they hid their kindness, or bought it out with fierceness and anger, and hid it behind fierce and frowning eyes. They were afraid because they were so few. And such fear could not be cast out, but by love. (3.36.50)
Paton's use of this rhythmic and repetitive language ("deep, deep in the heart, a fear so deep"; "fierceness and anger, and hid it behind fierce and frowning eyes") reminds us a little bit of the Bible's style, actually. And the content could come straight out of a sermon: that last line that such fear "could not be cast out, but by love," comes across as a piece of moral instruction to the reader. As a character, Kumalo focuses on forgiveness, acceptance, and trust in God, even though the fate of his family seems so unfair and unjust.
This puts Kumalo's character squarely in Uncle Tom's Cabin territory. Uncle Tom's Cabin is a famous anti-slavery novel written in the mid-19th century by a white woman named Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe used her strong belief in Christian love to present an argument that slavery always horribly corrupts the people who participate in it. And Stowe's book was hugely successful in gaining white support in the North for the anti-slavery movement in the years leading up to the American Civil War.
But both Uncle Tom's Cabin and Cry, the Beloved Country have been criticized by people who feel that these books emphasizelove while, at the same time, ignoring the right of black activists to make their own choices about the strategies they use in achieving social change. Some readers have found these works to be condescending and patronizing to black reformers, since they discourage independent political organization on the part of the black community (a point to which we'll return in our "Character Analysis" of John Kumalo).
Kumalo is obviously a good man, but he's also basically a passive one. He can't achieve the reforms he wants without Jarvis's financial and planning help, since he has no money and no experience of the larger world. Instead, Kumalo is proud to rely on Jarvis's assistance to make specific changes to Ndotsheni, without larger ideas about the nation as a whole.
This is not a novel that encourages black people to get angry about their mistreatment at all: Kumalo is certainly no Django, from Quentin Tarantino's recent, outrageously violent slavery revenge flick Django Unchained. Indeed, Cry, the Beloved Country as a whole is pretty conservative about the political potential or possibilities of black group action or uprising. For more on this topic, check out our section on "Race."