Study Guide

Cry, the Beloved Country Family

By Alan Paton

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Now there in Johannesburg were many of his own people. His brother John, who was a carpenter, had gone there, and had a business of his own in Sophiatown, Johannesburg. His sister Gertrude, twenty-five years younger than he, and the child of his parents' age, had gone there with her small son to look for the husband who had never come back from the mines. His only child Absalom had gone there, to look for his aunt Gertrude, and he had never returned. And indeed many other relatives were there, though none so near as these. (1.2.15)

Since Cry, the Beloved Country is a novel instead of a report on the effects of racist laws on black communities in South Africa, we start with a story instead of a stack of statistics. The lack of economic opportunity in Ndotsheni has torn Kumalo's family apart, as one by one, his brother, brother-in-law, sister, and son have all traveled to the city to find work or to bring the family back together. And none of them have come home. So Paton is using a highly personal story of a broken family to show the effects of economic and legal discrimination on black people in South Africa.

Msimangu said gravely, yes, [Gertrude] is very sick. But it is not that kind of sickness. It is another, a worse kind of sickness. I sent for you firstly because she is a woman that is alone, and secondly because her brother is a priest. I do not know if she ever found her husband, but she has no husband now.

He looked at Kumalo. It would be truer to say, he said, that she has many husbands. (1.5.15-6)

The proof of Gertrude's immorality is that she does not have a traditional family life. Not only has she not found her original husband, but she now has "many husbands." Msimangu's comparison between physical sickness and Gertrude's sexual behavior says something about the novel's fairly conservative views on the morality of sexuality in general. For more on sex and sexuality in Cry, the Beloved Country, check out our "Character Analysis" of Gertrude.

[Kumalo's] thoughts turned to the girl, and to the unborn babe that would be his grandchild. Pity that he a priest should have a grandchild born in such a fashion. Yet that could be repaired. If they were married, then he could try to rebuild what had been broken […] Yet where had they failed? What had they done, or left undone, that their child had become a thief, moving like a vagabond from place to place, living with a girl who was herself no more than a child, father of a child who would have no name? (1.13.10)

Kumalo clearly feels like this situation with Absalom is all his fault. He wonders what he could have done to keep Absalom from becoming a thief. But does the novel itself blame Kumalo for his failures as a father? Where does the novel place the responsibility for Absalom's crimes? What does Cry, the Beloved Country suggest about the place of the family in promoting social stability?

There is a man sleeping in the grass, said Kumalo. And over him is gathering the greatest storm of all his days. Such lightning and thunder will come there as have never been seen before, bringing death and destruction. People hurry home past him, to places safe from danger. And whether they do not see him there in the grass, or whether they fear to halt even a moment, but they do not wake him, they let him be. (1.15.40)

Kumalo is talking about his own family drama, here. He's the man sleeping in the grass, while a storm gathers overhead. What he means is that others knew of Absalom's troubles long before Kumalo himself figured it out. But why does Kumalo present his personal tragedy in these big, mythic terms? How does the Kumalo family drama relate to the larger South African national tragedy in the background of Cry, the Beloved Country?

— Did they catch the native?

— Not yet, Mr. Jarvis.

The tears filled the eyes, the teeth bit the lips. What does that matter? he said. They walked down the hill, they were near the field. Through the misted eyes he saw the plough turn over the clods, then ride high over the iron ground. Leave it, Thomas, he said. He was our only child, captain. (2.18.66)

After Jarvis receives the news of Arthur's death, he feels the same grief that Kumalo does at Absalom's loss. But the big difference is that the police captain comes to tell Jarvis all about the case while Jarvis is working his farm, while Kumalo has to travel to Johannesburg and track down Absalom on his own. Kumalo has to pay a lot of money to pursue his search, while it is no trouble at all for the Jarvises to go into the city for Arthur's funeral and the trial of Absalom.

So even though Kumalo and Jarvis share grief on a personal level, Jarvis has much better resources to deal with what has happened to his son. Kumalo's poverty and lack of access to government and police institutions makes his heartbreak over his son that much more difficult to manage.

— Do you not hear the way they speak, the way they laugh? Do you not hear them laugh idly and carelessly? — I did not know it was wrong. — I did not say it was wrong. It is idle and careless, the way they speak and laugh. Are you not trying to be a good woman? (2.27.8-10)

What is the difference between "wrong" and "idle and careless" here? When Mrs. Lithebe asks Gertrude if she is not trying to be "a good woman," it certainly sounds as though she is saying that "idle and careless" is the same thing as morally "wrong." What is Mrs. Lithebe's relation to Gertrude? Why does she feel that she has the right to offer these moral pointers to Kumalo's sister? Why is Mrs. Lithebe so personally concerned that Gertrude stay on the straight and narrow?

Msimangu saw that Gertrude would soon break out into wailing and moaning, and he turned his back on the others and said to her gravely and privately, heavy things have happened, but this is a marriage, and it were better to go at once than to wail or moan in this place. When she did not answer he said sternly and coldly, do you understand me? And he said resentfully, I understand you. (2.29.4)

At Absalom's wedding to his girlfriend while he is in prison, Msimangu notices that Gertrude is about to cry loudly. He stops her and tells her to be quiet. Why? Why is it inappropriate for Gertrude to show how she feels here? What does Msimangu's demand here show us about gender relations and social customs among the Zulu people (at least, as Paton represents them in Cry, the Beloved Country)?

Tomorrow they would all go home, all except his son. And he would stay in the place where they would put him, in the great prison in Pretoria, in the barred and solitary cell; and mercy failing, would stay there till he was hanged. Aye, but the hand that had murdered had once pressed the mother's breast into the thirsting mouth, had stolen into the father's hand when they went out into the dark. Aye, but the murderer afraid of death had once been a child afraid of the night. (2.29.166)

Here, the narrator draws our attention to Absalom's humanity. Yes, he may be about to be executed for murder, but he was also once a child with parents who loved him. This family connection makes Absalom seem even more sympathetic to us. How does the narrator's reminder of Absalom's childhood and his family members affect you as a reader? Why do you think Paton throws in this detail about Absalom when he describes Absalom's guilty verdict? What larger point might Paton be trying to make by increasing the reader's sympathy for Absalom?

— Umnumzana, there is a brightness inside him.

— Yes, yes, that is true. The other was even so.

And then he said, like a man with hunger, do you remember?

And because this man was hungry, Kumalo, though he did not well remember, said, I remember. (3.36.22-5)

Both of the men who die as a result of the events of this novel, Arthur and Absalom, leave children behind them. We don't know what Absalom's baby is going to be like (though we do know that Absalom wants him to be named Peter if it's a boy), but we do see a connection between Arthur and his son. There is a "brightness" inside both of them. The fact that both of these people have children, and that Arthur's son is so much like Arthur, provides hope for the future, even though the present is so tragic and difficult.

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