Study Guide

Cry, the Beloved Country Analysis

By Alan Paton

  • Tone

    Mystical, Compassionate, Tragic

    Tone in a novel generally means the feel of the book, or in other words, the kind of emotions it produces with its language. And since Cry, the Beloved Country uses its deeply sad subject matter to create a political point, we can see why there would be a lot of raw emotion in this book. How does Alan Paton make the language of this book so sorrowful? Let's look at a passage from the last chapter, when Kumalo is meditating on top of a mountain while waiting for his son's execution.

    Why was it given to one man to have his pain transmuted into gladness? Why was it given to one man to have such an awareness of God? And why might not another, having no such awareness, live with pain that never ended? […] But his mind would contain it no longer. It was not for man's knowing. He put it from his mind, for it was a secret. (3.36.43-44)

    Here, Kumalo is wrestling with some big questions. In fact, these are the biggest questions: why is it that some people have a happy ending while others don't? Why is it that some people maintain faith in God, while others do not find their answers in religion? Instead of answering these giant questions with some easy reply, the novel tells us that this kind of stuff is "not for man's knowing" (3.36.44). The religious nature of these questions gives the book a mystical tone, meaning that the book deals with ambiguous, often deeply spiritual material.

    So this passage tells us that there are things that we not only do not know, but that we also cannot know, because they are beyond human understanding. By leaving the reader in a state of uncertainty about why all of these terrible things have happened to the Kumalo family and whether the future will be any better, Cry, the Beloved Country inspires a sense of anxiety and concern for its central characters and their social situations.

    We want to try to change things—to help as best we can. That's why we say that the tone of the book is compassionate. It produces a sense of sympathy in the reader because we know that the main characters are suffering so much confusion and doubt.

    But there's is also a sense of tragedy throughout this passage. Even though Kumalo spends much of the final chapter giving thanks for all of the good things in his life, he knows that many people do not have their "pain transmuted into gladness." In other words, while Kumalo feels that he has been saved, many others remain in pain.

    And not only are other people outside of the novel continuing to suffer, but Kumalo himself is about to lose his only child. Absalom is about to be executed for Pete's sake. We admire Kumalo's resolution to be grateful and to avoid despair at the end of Cry, the Beloved Country. But it almost makes it sadder for us that Alan Paton doesn't linger on some melodramatic scene of Kumalo's tears and misery. Kumalo's patience and dignity in the face of his great suffering give the book a deeply tragic tone.

  • Genre


    Cry, the Beloved Country is a complicated coming-of-age story for one big reason: our main character Kumalo is already technically of age. In fact, he's quite elderly—we know that his hair is white. But in terms of Kumalo's knowledge of the dangers and temptations of city life, he may as well be a child. And Kumalo's rough introduction to Johannesburg means that he has to learn fast.

    By the end of Cry, the Beloved Country, Kumalo has grown sadly familiar with the miseries of urban life. And he takes definite steps to improve the circumstances for the farmers of Ndotsheni, so that he can help preserve the country life that he believes is best for his people. So even if Kumalo's coming-of-age has come a bit late in his actual lifespan, he still gets an education in the ways of the world over the course of the novel, which transforms his outlook on reforming South Africa.

    Family Drama

    Not only does this novel represent a coming-of-age for Kumalo, but it's also a family drama for both Kumalo and Jarvis. While the larger backdrop of Cry, the Beloved Country is, of course, the social and racial inequalities of 1940s South Africa, the family provides the specific framework that Paton uses to show these inequalities.

    So Kumalo's brother, sister, and son all disappear into the city to face various different kinds of moral temptation. His sister falls into lust, his brother into pride, and his son into greed. And Absalom's greed is what takes James Jarvis's son from him too soon. But in spite of these bitter family relations, Jarvis and Kumalo manage to find common ground between them in their desire to improve life for the people of Ndotsheni.


    Last but absolutely not least, Cry, the Beloved Country is a tragedy. In spite of Kumalo's efforts to bring his people back together and to reinforce their moral values, Gertrude runs away, John continues to give his dangerous speeches, and Absalom is executed.

    But there is a ray of hope in the middle of all of this sorrow and wasted life: Kumalo's grandson will be raised in Kumalo's home village, Jarvis has helped to bring agricultural reforms to Ndotsheni, and someday, racial relations will improve in South Africa. The immediate events of the novel may be tragic, but Cry, the Beloved Country also looks forward to a better future for the nation of South Africa as a whole.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    In Alan Paton's note on the 1987 edition of Cry, the Beloved Country, he tells us a story: apparently, when the first two readers of his manuscript, Aubrey and Marigold Burns, asked him what he would call his novel, he challenged them to a game. All three of them wrote down the title they liked on a piece of paper before comparing them. All of them wrote down "Cry, the Beloved Country." The title actually comes from a phrase that repeats several times within the novel. (Check out chapter 11, paragraph 19 for the first time the narrator actually says it.) And we have to admit, the phrase does have a nice ring—it's almost Biblical in its simplicity and depth.

    The title obviously has two parts (that comma in the middle there makes it easy to see where the title splits). First, there is the "Cry," which is an order to someone. It's basically saying, hey you! Cry! (And to be honest, we obeyed this order several times when we first read this book.)

    The second part of the title tells us who the "Cry!" is addressing: "the Beloved Country." The beloved country is, of course, South Africa. Within the novel, the character Arthur Jarvis, in his work "Private Essay on the Evolution of a South African" talks about the great love he has for his country. And it is precisely because he loves South Africa, because it is his beloved country, that Arthur wants to improve it: "It is only [… when] one learns of the hates and fears of our country. It is only then that one's love grows deep and passionate" (2.24.3).

    Arthur Jarvis's emotions reflect the love of country that real-life author Alan Paton feels towards South Africa. He's not writing this bleak portrait of 1940s South Africa out of hatred for the country's faults. Instead (and maybe even more painfully, because it shows how much Paton cares), Paton proves that wanting to reform his home country is a sign of his great love for South Africa, for its landscape, its cultures, and its history. Indeed, Paton writes, in his note on the 1987 edition of the book, that the phrase Cry, the Beloved Country, "was written by one who indeed had loved the earth deeply, by one who had been moved when the birds of his land were singing" (source, Note on the 1987 Edition)—by one who perhaps cannot help but love his country too much for his own comfort in this bleak period of South African history.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Cry, the Beloved Country is a tragedy, so it makes sense that the ending is, well, sad. At the same time, there is a ray of hope: this book won't leave you feeling miserable. After all, Paton does not want us to despair over South Africa's future. The novel both acknowledges that bad stuff has gone on and tries to suggest that things may get better.

    Kumalo spends the last chapter sitting at the top of a mountain. He has apparently climbed this mountain twice before, in times of great emotional upset. And this evening definitely counts as emotional upset for Kumalo, since Absalom is going to be executed at dawn the next day in the capital city of Pretoria.

    Kumalo climbs this mountain near Ndotsheni to, literally, get away from it all. He goes to find perspective and to meditate and to mourn his son's death. Since this book is much more concerned with Kumalo's emotional responses to his son's fate than with what actually happens to Absalom, we stay beside Kumalo as he waits through the night on his mountaintop. Paton doesn't bother to represent the execution, since we know that it is coming. Instead, he avoids the violence of such a scene, emphasizing Kumalo's honest prayer and thanksgiving for all that is good in his life. Kumalo certainly takes seriously the novel's Christian message to avoid despair and to have faith in God's larger plan for the universe.

    As the novel winds down, it opens out from Kumalo's personal story to a larger narrative of South Africa itself. Kumalo watches the dawn coming and observes that the village in the valley is still dark: "The great valley of the Umzimkulu is still in darkness, but the light will come there. Ndotsheni is still in darkness, but the light will come there also" (3.36.56).

    The repetition in this passage makes the writing sound like a prophecy or a prayer in its own right. Clearly, Paton is calling on the symbolism of light and dark to talk about good and evil in South Africa, and to pray for reform. The town of Ndotsheni is "still in darkness" because it suffers from the inequality and poverty that Kumalo and Jarvis are working hard to change. The hopeful statement that "light will come there also" implies that someday, Ndotsheni and the great valley of Umzimkulu—and all of South Africa—will eventually see the light, that they will someday become more integrated and less racially divided places.

  • Setting

    Ndotsheni, High Place, and Johannesburg, South Africa

    The general setting of Cry, the Beloved Country is the country of South Africa. As we've mentioned, it's the "Beloved Country" of the title. But we talk a bit about the general themes of racial oppression in South Africa as a whole in "In a Nutshell." Here, we want to focus in a little more on the three specific settings of the book: the city of Johannesburg, the village of Ndotsheni, and the farm of High Place.

    What's So Bad About Johannesburg? Paton's Answer: Everything

    Johannesburg is the big boogeyman of Cry, the Beloved Country. Clearly, Alan Paton is not a fan of cities in general, or of this city in particular. After all, Johannesburg became the giant city that it is today thanks in part to the amazing wealth of South Africa's gold and diamond mines, which are the source of a lot of the racial inequality and the economic immorality that Paton wants to criticize with Cry, the Beloved Country.

    The European businessmen who first came to South Africa to make their fortunes off these mines felt that they needed to keep the wages of black miners low to maximize their profits. So South Africa's mining industry has a long, violent history of racial oppression. Paton refers to this history several times in Cry, the Beloved Country, when he talks about John Kumalo's threats of miners' strikes (inspired by the real-life 1946 miners' strike over unequal pay for black workers, which ended in violence) (source).

    Paton disapproves of both the artificially low salaries of the miners and of the violence of the white cops who shut them down. He also criticizes the greed these mines seem to bring out in everybody, no matter the color of their skin. At the end of chapter 23, where the narrator lays out debates over the discovery of a new vein of gold at Odendaalsrust, he ties together the mines and the dangers of city life: "No second Johannesburg is needed upon the earth. One is enough" (2.23.17).

    The novel's negative view of Johannesburg as the fruit of South Africa's greed, racial oppression, violence, and social disorder becomes increasingly clear over the course of the book. It's pretty obvious even from the start of the book that something is going wrong with the city setting. When Kumalo first discusses the idea of going to Johannesburg in search of his sister, brother, and son, his wife complains: "[Absalom] went to Johannesburg, and as you said—when people go to Johannesburg, they do not come back. They do not even write anymore" (1.1.63). The way that she talks about Johannesburg in this passage makes it sound like the city eats people. And as we discover from the sad fates of Absalom and Gertrude, it's kind of true …

    Not That the Countryside Is Always So Much Better…

    So if Johannesburg is so bad, what alternative does Cry, the Beloved Country provide? Well, obviously, there's the countryside. But it's not as simple as that. There are two visions of country life that we see in this book.

    The first is in Ndotsheni. The book begins by telling us how beautiful the valley is where Ndotsheni is located. Yet, the land is growing sick: "the rich green hills break down. They fall to the valley below, and falling, change their nature. For they grow red and bare […] Too many cattle feed upon the grass, and too many fires have burned it" (1.1.3). So what worries Paton here is erosion of the land from overuse, overgrazing, and overpopulation. Because there just isn't enough good land to support the people of the valley of the Umzimkulu River in their traditional farming ways, more and more of them are moving to Johannesburg to find new work opportunities. And we know what Paton thinks happens to these people in Johannesburg: nothing good.

    The second model of country life is Jarvis's farm at High Place. This farm is located in the hills above the Umzimkulu River valley and above Ndotsheni. It's a carefully tended farm, which doesn't have the same problems of erosion and barrenness that have hit Ndotsheni: "It holds the rain and the mist, and they seep into the ground, feeding the streams in every kloof. It is well tended, and not too many cattle feed upon it, and not too many fires burn it, laying bare the soil" (2.18.1). Because Jarvis does not make the same demands on his land that the poorer people of Ndotsheni do, High Place is staying healthy and prosperous while the crops in the valley wither.

    In order to make Ndotsheni more like High Place, Jarvis sends Kumalo an "agricultural demonstrator." This young man's job is to teach the people of Ndotsheni all kinds of useful farming ideas like crop rotation and irrigation. With more careful tending of the land, Cry, the Beloved Country suggests, Ndotsheni will be able to keep more of its young people on the farms. Oh, maybe not all of them, but there won't be as much of a population drain as there is now, when all of the kids seem to travel to the cities.

    To be totally honest, this method Paton proposes of slowing down urbanization by improving farming opportunities seems a bit like trying to stuff a genie back into a bottle. Once waves of people start moving to the cities, it's tough to stop that migration and keep them back in the country. But we get into this issue in our section on "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" on "The Tribe."

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    Cry, the Beloved Country isn't supposed to be hard. After all, Alan Paton wants to influence his readers against the racism of South African pre-apartheid society. It's tough to convince people of your ideas if you're making it difficult to understand what the heck you are talking about in the first place.

    At the same time, Cry, the Beloved Country isn't supposed to be easy, either. Paton uses a lot of artistic language to try to give readers the flavor of Kumalo's life in the Zulu village of Ndotsheni. He also includes a ton of religious imagery, since a lot of the novel's anti-racist arguments come from Paton's belief in universal Christian love. Yes, Paton wants to convey his social message, but he also wants give us an artistically interesting and highly moral book. So Cry, the Beloved Country isn't the most difficult book ever written, but it's not A Very Hungry Caterpillar either (though we love that book, too).

  • Writing Style

    Mysterious, Poetic

    There are obviously lots of ways to write a book to inspire people to change the injustices of the world around them. One particularly common way is through critical realism, where an author tries to portray a problem or group of problems in society in as authentic and genuine a way as he possibly can. Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle, which shows the dangers of urban poverty and poor working conditions in early 20th-century Chicago, would be one example of this kind of serious, realistic approach to talking about economic and political issues.

    What makes Cry, the Beloved Country so unusual is that, like The Jungle, it is all about social problems. But it does not take the same realist approach to style. Instead, Cry, the Beloved Country is almost like a folktale, since it can be ambiguous in places. For example, here's a passage from Kumalo's final visit to Absalom's prison before he goes back to Ndotsheni:

    They passed again through the great gate in the grim high wall, Father Vincent and Kumalo, Gertrude and the girl and Msimangu. The boy was brought to them, and for a moment some great hope showed in his eyes, and he stood there trembling and shaking. But Kumalo said to him gently, we are come for the marriage, and the hope died out. (2.29.1)

    Check out that first sentence: "great gate in the grim high wall." Paton is using alliteration, which means that he is repeating the first sound in a sequence of several words. This pattern makes his sentences sound almost sing-songy, like a story that's being sung rather than spoken plainly.

    Paton's style comes across as highly poetic both because he uses literary tools like alliteration and because he often avoids giving us specific details about where and when the action of the novel is taking place. Where is that "grim high wall"? Before Paton makes it clear from context, we can only guess that it is Absalom's prison wall. But we can't be a hundred percent certain about that from the first sentence; Paton deliberately makes this ambiguous and confusing.

    Speaking of deliberate confusion, Paton also uses "the boy," even though we all know he means "Absalom." "The boy" is a strange way to refer to a character whom we already know, after all. But calling Absalom by name would make it clearer that he belongs to a particular time and place. By leaving his name out of it, Paton makes this scene feel uncomfortably closer to the readers. We could fit any boy we know into "the boy," where "Absalom Kumalo" can only be one person. Paton uses deliberately mysterious, generic words and scene settings to make the events of Cry, the Beloved Country more unsettling to the reader. And yet, at the same time, more universal.

  • The Tribe

    Both Msimangu and Arthur Jarvis claim that the main cause of rising crime rates in South Africa is the breaking of "the tribe." Msimangu tells Kumalo: "The tragedy is not that things are broken. The tragedy is that they are not mended again. The white man has broken the tribe. And it is my belief—and again I ask your pardon—that it cannot be mended again" (1.5.58). Well that sounds believable, but what does the tribe mean in this novel?

    Paton makes some references to specific tribes in Cry, the Beloved Country. For example, Kumalo and his fellow Ndotsheni residents are Zulu, Mrs. Lithebe is Msutu, and Mr. Letsitsi is Xosa. However, this book doesn't really focus on differences between the black residents of South Africa. Instead, it emphasizes the different experiences of white and black people in South Africa. When Paton uses the tribe rather than the name of a particular tribe, he appears to be setting up a contrast between black Africans and "the white man."

    Rather than referring to a specific cultural group or people, which would be one way of defining "tribe," Paton appears to use the term to mean something broader: the traditional moral and social relations that organized the lives of the peoples of southern Africa before European colonization.

    Wait, So Who Is Supposed to Pick Up the Broken Pieces Now?

    Talking about the tribe allows Paton to discuss the responsibility that white people in South Africa bear for the oppression of the black people they have colonized and exploited. When he talks about white people breaking apart the tribe, he means that the arrival of white settlers forever changed the ways of life for black South Africans.

    Still, we do want to note that, while Paton uses this language of the tribe to express a liberal point of view for his time, it has become a really old-fashioned and problematic way of looking at race relations.

    Here's the thing: Cry, the Beloved Country assumes that, if the white man broke the tribe, it is then his responsibility to fix it. Arthur Jarvis writes: "[The tribe] was destroyed by the impact of our own civilization. Our civilization has therefore an inescapable duty to set up another system of order and tradition and convention" (2.20.15). But how can one "civilization" decide what's best for another group?

    It seems pretty condescending to us that Arthur assumes he both can and should "set up another system of order" for black South Africans, to replace the tribal system for them. It shows a lack of faith in the ability of black South Africans to figure out social systems for themselves. And it also assumes that, once this new "system of order" is in place, that it will be specifically for black people, rather than a shared social system for both white and black South Africans.

    We know that Cry, the Beloved Country does not support segregation at all. People of all races attend Arthur Jarvis's funeral, and the novel views this diversity as a totally positive thing. However, Alan Paton's liberal vision still appears to take for granted at least some degree of separation between races, even if it's not legally required and even if there is more equality between white and black political structures. It's like Paton can't imagine a South Africa where one society serves all of its citizens, regardless of the color of their skin. And admittedly, that probably was really hard to imagine in 1948.

  • The Blind of Ezenzeleni

    When Msimangu brings Kumalo to the center for black African blind people at Ezenzeleni, Kumalo is in a really bleak place. He feels a sense of despair and pointlessness because he has seen Gertrude, John, and Absalom, and he realizes that his hopes for reuniting his family are about zero. He tells Msimangu, "There is nothing in the world but fear and pain" (1.13.24). But Msimangu tells Kumalo that way of thinking is sinful: you have to have hope, even when things seem at their worst.

    At Ezenzeleni, Kumalo sees proof of Msimangu's hopeful advice. The residents of Ezenzeleni receive double prejudice, since they are black and disabled. But they don't let their social oppression bring them down. Instead, they work for their living, which gives them a sense of purpose. Kumalo observes:

    It was a wonderful place, this Ezenzeleni. For here the blind, that dragged out their days in a world they could not see, here they had eyes given to them. Here they made things that he for all his sight could never make. […] He talked with the people, and the blind eyes glowed with something that could only have been fire in the soul. It was white men who did this work of mercy, and some of them spoke English and some spoke Afrikaans. Yes, those who spoke English and those who spoke Afrikaans came together to open the eyes of black men that were blind. (1.13.29)

    There are a bunch of things happening in this passage. First, spiritually speaking, the blind people at Ezenzeleni clearly represent Paton's faith in the strength of the human spirit to overcome challenges if given the tools to do so.

    Second, economically speaking, this whole section of the novel is like Alan Paton's version of the old adage, "If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime." The people at Ezenzeleni have been trained to weave baskets out of branches of willow, and these baskets give them a profession that they can use to earn their own money and support themselves.

    Kumalo's later decision to ask for help to reform the farming of Ndotsheni follows on the same principles as Ezenzeleni: he wants to make Ndotsheni self-supporting, so that its people don't have to leave the village for the city of Johannesburg to make enough money to live on.

    Third, socially speaking, the idea of blindness is closely tied to issues of race. If you literally can't see color, of course it makes sense that a lot of biases and prejudices about race would fall away. In this space of Ezenzeleni, white people and black people come together to give the blind an opportunity to work in a community to support themselves. So blindness takes on this additional symbolic force as the thing that allows both the people funding this project and the people benefiting from it to set aside questions of race.

    Sigh—Sometimes Paton Just Doesn't Quite Get It

    One last word about this passage: this section on Ezenzeleni is another place where we could imagine Paton coming in for criticism for his paternalism. We discuss this idea of "paternalism" in our "Character Analysis" of Father Vincent. For this passage, we will just say: Paton is addressing an economic reality when he says, "those who spoke English and those who spoke Afrikaans came together to open the eyes of black men that were blind." Book of the whole problem of South Africa's racist economic policies is that, in spite of the fact that white people made up a small minority of the overall population, they still held on to a vast majority of South Africa's wealth.

    At the same time, there is something a bit condescending about Paton's portrayal of white people donating money to poor black people so that they can make a living. Ezenzeleni offers a process of empowerment for its black residents, but it nonetheless depends on the charity and generosity of an elite class of white donors for it to function. Of course, Ezenzeleni is clearly doing good for its residents, and Msimangu generously donates his time there to show his support of the project. Still, Paton does not represent grass-roots organizations and movements developing from within the black community, which seems to be an oversight.

  • Arthur Jarvis's Study

    Between his portrait of Abraham Lincoln and his picture of the great South African estate at Vergelegen, Arthur Jarvis's study contains a ton of symbolism. But because his study is the only way we get to know Arthur's character in the novel (since he only enters the story as a memory after he has already been shot), we suggest that you go over to our "Character Analysis" of Arthur to find out more about what his study represents in the novel.

  • Umfundisi, Umnumzana, Inkosikazi, Inkosana—Tixo!

    Alan Paton uses these different Zulu forms of address for a couple of reasons: first, he wants to remind us that Kumalo and the other black characters in Cry, the Beloved Country come from a very specific cultural context, which is different from the background of white South African characters such as James Jarvis.

    However, these names also symbolize different social relations based on respect in the novel. So, religiously minded people in Johannesburg like Mrs. Lithebe and everyone in Ndotsheni all call Kumalo umfundisi, which means reverend. When James Jarvis first addresses Kumalo as umfundisi (2.25.4), he proves (a) that he knows Zulu very well, a language that he probably would have learned on his farm; and (b) that he respects Kumalo's social position on his own terms, as a Zulu Christian priest. Jarvis's appreciation for Kumalo's status as an umfundisi indicates that Jarvis is open to trusting Kumalo, which is an important basis for their later working relationship.

    When Kumalo calls Jarvis umnumzana—which means sir—in return, Kumalo shows Jarvis that he respects Jarvis's authority even in his own Zulu cultural context. None of the other white characters in the novel are called umnumzana; Kumalo saves this title for Jarvis because Jarvis is so generous to Kumalo even though Kumalo's son shot Jarvis's son. Similarly, when Jarvis's wife dies, Kumalo and the people of Ndotsheni call her inkosikazi, mistress, which shows their respect and humility to the entire Jarvis family. These honorable titles indicate that Kumalo is happy to show his gratitude towards this family that has helped his people so much.

    Last but not least, there is the term inkosana. Kumalo uses this word to talk to James Jarvis's grandson; it means little master. Specifically, it's supposed to be for the son of a well-respected chief or gentleman. By calling the youngest Jarvis inkosana, Kumalo continues to show his respect towards the whole Jarvis family. But he also subtly encourages the boy to continue studying and learning Zulu. The youngest Jarvis's interest in the cultures of the black people who live around him makes a good sign that he will be a generous and liberal social reformer like his father and grandfather before him.

    By the way, Tixo is a Xosa word that means "God." For more on Paton's use of this term, check out our "Quotes" section on "Power."

  • The Sticks With the Little Flags

    Kumalo has a problem: he wants to improve farming in Ndotsheni so that fewer young people leave the village for work in the Big Bad City (Johannesburg). So he goes to the chief, the local Zulu leader (whom he addresses with the Zulu word for chief, inkosi) and he visits the headmaster of the Ndotsheni school. He tells the chief that the only way to keep the people in the valley is "By caring for our land before it is too late. By teaching them in the school how to care for the land" (3.31.13).

    The problem is, though, that none of the people in the village—neither Kumalo nor the chief nor the headmaster—can put this plan into practice on their own. They don't have the resources to make the necessary improvements in education and farming practices. So the chief goes to the local magistrate (which is a local-level government official), and the magistrate comes to Ndotsheni with James Jarvis. James Jarvis brings with him a stack of sticks with little flags attached to them, which no one in Ndotsheni can recognize or understand. And he starts placing them in the ground at precise places.

    The important point here is that Jarvis is doing something to help the people of Ndotsheni. Clearly, he has the influence and the money to get things done, in a way that Kumalo or the chief can't. But the people of Ndotsheni can't always understand what he is doing to help. What could those little flags be for? Why can't the sticks be moved? The villagers have no idea, even though it has to do with their own town's future wellbeing.

    The book never totally confirms what these sticks are for, but it does tell us that there is a rumor going around that they have something to do with a dam Jarvis wants to build to improve the water supply to the village.

    This whole section implies two things: (a) you can't just expect people to do better. There have to be resources in place to improve people's quality of life. And (b) people don't always know or recognize where their best interests lie. As we find out from Napoleon Letsitsi, some of the Ndotsheni villagers resent being told how to plant, even if these new farming techniques will improve their lives in the long room. Jarvis's sticks show that he has the power to go in and make things better, whether the people of Ndotsheni understand and agree with him or not.

  • The Storm

    At the start of the novel, the narrator tells us that the land of the Umzimkulu valley is growing "red and bare" (1.1.3). And throughout the Ndotsheni chapters in Book 3, people complain of drought. But then, when Jarvis arrives in Ndotsheni to start planning for the dam, there is a sudden heavy rainfall.

    This storm symbolizes the renewal that Jarvis's cooperation with Kumalo brings to Ndotsheni. After this visit between the two men, the drought that has been choking Ndotsheni's farms finally ends. The narrator comments that "there is something new in this valley, some spirit and some life […] Although nothing has come yet, something is here already" (3.35.6).

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third-Person Omniscient Narrator

    The narrator of Cry, the Beloved Country often focuses on Stephen Kumalo, but it also feels free to weave in and out of the thoughts of the other characters. In fact, this narrator is unusually flexible and free-floating.

    For example, the narrator sometimes takes a bird's-eye view of whole stretches of land, as in the opening chapters of Books 1 and 2 when we fly over the valley of Umzimulu. But then it occasionally sticks so closely to interesting conversations between people that it doesn't even bother to give us the speakers' names or contexts, as in chapters 9, 12, and 23. And the narrator sometimes chooses to limit its own perspective, as in chapter 25. There, the narrator looks at Stephen Kumalo from James Jarvis's point of view as though Kumalo is a total stranger, a "native parson" (2.25.3) (a parson is a priest) whom Jarvis has never met before, rather than the central character whose thoughts we have spent many chapters reading.

    The narrator's constant movement in this novel means that we, as readers, can never get too cozy or comfortable with Cry, the Beloved Country. We might spend half of chapter 24 looking over James Jarvis's shoulder at Arthur's manuscripts and letters. But just as we have started to feel really in tune with Jarvis's sorrow and his need to know more about his son's ideas, the narrator will suddenly give us a jolt by showing us the pitying and condescending thoughts of a cop stationed outside the house, who is also looking at Jarvis.

    This shifting perspective reminds us not to take anything for granted. We can never grow to used to one point of view in Cry, the Beloved Country because there isn't one point of view. There are many, and they all demand our attention.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    A hero falls under the shadow of the dark power. 

    Christopher Booker's "dark power" makes it sound like Cry, the Beloved Country is actually Lord of the Rings, but sadly, there is no Sauron involved in Paton's plot. In this case, the "dark power" that overwhelms Kumalo at the start of the plot could be one of two things: (1) specifically, Kumalo's loss of contact with his brother, sister, and son; or (2) more generally, the high rates of poverty and unemployment within the black community in South Africa, which drives many of Kumalo's family members away from their home village. In either case, Kumalo decides to travel to Johannesburg to try and save his family from destruction.

    For a while, all may seem to go reasonably well.

    In fact, with Msimangu's help, Kumalo finds his sister and brother relatively easily. That "dark power" appears to be lifting from his life after all. Yes, Gertrude is living a rough life as a prostitute and John seems to have grown distant and greedy over the years away from home. But at least Kumalo has seen them again, and Gertrude even agrees to return with him to Ndotsheni with her son. Kumalo starts to feel more upbeat about the possibility of rebuilding his family, particularly as he feels himself getting closer and closer to finding his son.

    But eventually, it approaches again in full force, until the hero is seen imprisoned in the state of living death.

    Kumalo may feel upbeat for a time after Gertrude packs up her belongings and joins him at his boarding house. But of course, that period of hopefulness doesn't last long. Kumalo finds out that his son has been charged with murder. And even if Absalom didn't intend to shoot Arthur Jarvis, he still broke into the man's house carrying a gun, which horrifies Kumalo. Absalom is condemned to death for Arthur's murder, and Gertrude disappears just before Kumalo travels back to Ndotsheni. So all of Kumalo's dreams of having his family around him in Ndotsheni once again appear to be ruined.

    This continues for a long time. When it seems that the dark power has completely triumphed …

    Kumalo returns home to Ndotsheni with Gertrude's young son and Absalom's now-wife. His son is going to be executed for murder, which is grim. And Ndotsheni continues to struggle, without enough milk for the kids and without enough rain for the crops, which is also grim. Kumalo tries to arrange for new agricultural education in the village school to help improve the local farms and encourage kids to stay on in the village, instead of heading to Johannesburg for work. He wants to make sure that future generations have opportunities in Ndotsheni that Absalom didn't have. But he is an elderly priest, and he doesn't have a lot of political authority to get things like that done.

    But finally comes the miraculous redemption.

    But then, James Jarvis comes to the rescue. Jarvis lives on a rich farm near Ndotsheni, so he is familiar with the village. And instead of responding to his son's shooting with hatred, Jarvis has been reading all of his son's papers on improving the social conditions for black people in South Africa.

    Under his son's influence (and with some unexpected hints from his young grandson), Jarvis sends milk to Ndotsheni for the children. He arranges for a new farming instructor for the village. And he donates money to Kumalo to rebuild the village church. With Jarvis's money to help him with his plans, Kumalo finally sees some hope for the village of Ndotsheni as a whole, even as he awaits the execution of his only son.

  • Plot Analysis

    Exposition (Initial Situation)

    Wait, Where Is Everybody?

    Here's the sitch: a Christian priest named Stephen Kumalo lives in Ndotsheni with his wife, but all of his other family members—his sister, his brother, and his only son—have disappeared into the big city of Johannesburg.

    As we know from the title of this book—Cry, the Beloved Country, not Cry, the Beloved Stephen Kumalo and Immediate Family Members—the plot of this novel is about a group of individuals, but it's also about larger problems that affect the country of South Africa. So, the book begins with both the initial situation of our main character Stephen Kumalo and the broader social issues that have led to his family's troubles.

    The narrator tells us that Kumalo's valley has been hard hit by over-farming and overgrazing, which has led to soil erosion and poor harvests. Because the farms can't support their people anymore, a lot of young men and women have been leaving their traditional villages for the cities. These people never come back to their families in the countryside, leaving the farms to be tended by children and the elderly. This is also what has happened to Kumalo's family in particular: his brother John, his sister Gertrude, and his son Absalom have all gone to the city of Johannesburg to look for better opportunities. And none of them have kept in touch with the old folks back home. Bummers all around.

    Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

    Oh, There the Kumalos Are—But They're Not Doing So Great

    It's time for a man (and woman) hunt, Shmoopers. With the guidance of Msimangu and the liberal white priests of the Mission House, Kumalo spends ten chapters in Johannesburg searching for his sister, his brother, and his son.

    With Kumalo's search for his family, we get to see different aspects of what Paton believes is wrong and damaging about urban life. So, we meet Gertrude, Absalom's long-lost, much younger sister. She is a prostitute who has been selling moonshine and neglecting her son.

    We also meet John, Kumalo's brother, who is a shopkeeper and politician. John is a classic opportunist, which means he takes advantage of people's frustrations to get power and attention for himself.

    And then there's Absalom. Kumalo's son has fallen in with a bad crowd and started stealing. Kumalo's sad search for his kid finally ends in prison, where Absalom is waiting for his trial for the murder of Arthur Jarvis, an up-and-coming white reformer.

    All three of these characters illustrate the various kinds of crime and bad faith that (Paton thinks) have become huge problems in the black community now that traditional tribal family and social structures have broken down. Without well-defined social roles and opportunities for the future, isolated people like Gertrude and Absalom don't have much to protect them from getting into trouble in a big, crime-ridden city like Johannesburg.

    Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

    Can't We Kumalos All Just Get Along?

    We've reached the end of Book 1 as Kumalo works to bring his family back together following the sad discoveries of the first seventeen chapters. After all of the terrible stuff that Kumalo has found out about the lives of his sister and son in Book 1, at last we appear to have hit bottom. So surely, there's nowhere for things to go but up?

    Kumalo has convinced Absalom's pregnant girlfriend to return to Ndotsheni with him and raise her child with Kumalo and his wife. That's cool. Plus, Gertrude has also agreed to return home to the village with her son. And while Absalom's case continues to look bleak, at least he is back on track morally speaking, since he has told the absolute truth about his involvement in the Jarvis burglary/murder. He has admitted to shooting Jarvis (accidentally, of course), and his lawyer Mr. Carmichael is ready to start planning his defense. Maybe it can all turn around…

    Falling Action

    Nope, It Turns Out That We Can't

    Throughout Book 2, we wait and wonder: are Kumalo's efforts to reunite his family back in Ndotsheni and away from the temptations of Johannesburg actually going to work? And how will the Jarvis family help or harm Kumalo's plans?

    We get all kinds of hints in Book 2 that Kumalo's wish for a happy family may not entirely work out, but we don't know exactly what is going to happen yet. Gertrude has been squabbling with the highly moral Mrs. Lithebe (the churchgoing woman Kumalo is staying with in Johannesburg), and she's clearly not happy with the quiet life of her brother. John has hired a lawyer for his son to claim that Absalom is lying and that Matthew Kumalo wasn't even there during the Jarvis burglary (even though he was). We still don't know how Jarvis is going to respond to his son's political ideas—and we don't know how he is going to treat Absalom, his son's murderer. The only one who seems honestly content with Kumalo's plans is Absalom's fiancée, who just seems eager to live in a quiet, stable place with her new family.

    Resolution (Denouement)

    Maybe This Generation of Kumalos Is in a Tough Spot, But the Future Is Looking (Mostly) Brighter

    In chapters 28 and 29, everyone's fate is (more or less) sealed: Absalom will be executed, Gertrude runs away and abandons her child, and John refuses to apologize to Kumalo. But the future for Ndotsheni as a whole is looking up, thanks to Jarvis and Kumalo's work together.

    Sure, a lot of stuff goes wrong at the end of Cry, the Beloved Country. Absalom weeps desperately when his father leaves him at the prison, since he doesn't want to be executed. Then, just as Kumalo is about to leave for Ndotsheni, Gertrude disappears, leaving her son behind. And John Kumalo, having encouraged his son to turn on Absalom in the courtroom, refuses to apologize to Kumalo for anything that has happened, the jerk.

    In a lot of ways, this is a tragic ending, since none of the relatives that Kumalo thoughthe was traveling to find in Johannesburg actually return to Ndotsheni with him. But the silver lining to all of this is that Kumalo has found new family. Absalom's fiancée—now wife—continues to like the idea of returning to Ndotsheni. Msimangu has decided to become a monk and to give up all of his worldly possessions to Kumalo. So Kumalo is no longer a desperately poor man. And James Jarvis has chosen to continue his son's good deeds by donating money to the cause of social reform for the black community. So things are improving in really unexpected ways.

  • Three-Act Plot Analysis

    Act One

    In Book 1, we follow Reverend Stephen Kumalo's quest to find his lost brother, sister, and son.

    The first—and longest—part of Cry, the Beloved Country deals with country priest Stephen Kumalo's confrontation with the Big Bad City, Johannesburg. The temptations of Johannesburg (alcohol, sex, money, and power) lead Kumalo's lost family members in some pretty dark directions. His sister Gertrude becomes a prostitute and a seller of illegal moonshine. His brother John becomes a puffed up, greedy politician. And worst of all, his son Absalom becomes a robber and a killer.

    But Paton tries to present these crimes in a sympathetic light, by emphasizing that they are the result of a lack of opportunity and cultural support among black South Africans now that traditional tribal morality has been destroyed by white colonialism. What has happened to Kumalo's family is a symptom of a sickness in South Africa as a whole.

    Act Two

    In Book 2, now that Kumalo has found his family members, we have to discover what exactly he is going to do with them.

    The thing is, Kumalo's original plan is to bring everybody back together in Ndotsheni: Absalom, Gertrude, and John. Now, John is firmly attached to Johannesburg's political scene (and he likes the power too much to want to go back to his little village). Gertrude has said that she wants to live the quiet life in Ndotsheni, but she's obviously too used to partying in the city to head home with her much older, stuffier brother. And Absalom is condemned to death for the killing of Arthur Jarvis.

    So Kumalo's plans have all come to nothing. Now, all that remains is for Kumalo to find some source of new hope to rebuild his life in Ndotsheni.

    Act Three

    Book 3 of the novel brings together James Jarvis (the father of Absalom's shooting victim) and Kumalo to reform Ndotsheni. Back in his home village, Kumalo tries to reform the education system so that people will have new opportunities for work in the countryside and they won't feel the need to leave for Johannesburg. Having lost his family to the city, he wants to create new chances at home so that the next generation—his grandson and his young nephew—won't face the same struggles that Absalom and Gertrude faced. However, Kumalo doesn't have enough influence on his own to get anything done.

    Thankfully, James Jarvis has responded to his son's death with sympathy for Arthur's desire to reform South Africa's racist social institutions. So Jarvis helps Kumalo improve Ndotsheni's agriculture, provide milk for the village children, and renovate the crumbling old church. With Jarvis's financial backing, Kumalo really starts to see hope for the future of Ndotsheni, even if, as an old man, he may not live long enough to see real change come to South Africa.

  • Allusions

    Literary References

    Biblical References

    Historical References

    • World War II (2.18.12)
    • Abraham Lincoln (2.20.3-5; 2.20.20; 2.21.59; 2.24.1); "The Famous Speech at Gettysburg" (2.20.20); "Second Inaugural Address" (2.21.59)
    • Tennessee Valley Authority (2.23.15) is referenced as a model of natural resource management.
    • Napoleon (3.33.46, 3.35.7)

    South African Cultural References

    • "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" ("God Bless Africa") (1.9.87, 3.30.62, 3.35.47, 3.36.50)
    • Vergelegen (2.20.3, 2.20.5, 2.24.1)
    • Jan Smuts (2.20.4; 2.23.6)
    • Cecil Rhodes (2.20.4)
    • "coloured people" (2.21.1): In the South African context, this racial term generally refers to people who have mixed black and white parentage. While this term first came into use in the nineteenth century, it became an official racial designation with the Population Registration Act of 1950, when it was one of the four official, legal racial categories that could be used to register South Africans (the other three were white, African, and Indian).
    • Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr (2.23.6): An early South African Liberal activist and friend of Paton's. Alan Paton was a huge admirer of Hofmeyr's politics, and bitterly regretted Hofmeyr's death in 1948 (the same year that the Afrikaner National Party first declared apartheid). In recognition of his influence on Paton's views, Paton wrote a biography of Hofmeyr after his death.