Study Guide

Cry, the Beloved Country Freedom and Confinement

By Alan Paton

Freedom and Confinement

— We had a son, [Kumalo] said harshly. Zulus have many children, but we had only one son. He went to Johannesburg, and as you said—when people go to Johannesburg, they do not come back. They do not even write any more. They do not go to St. Chad's to learn that knowledge without which no black man can live. They go to Johannesburg, and there they are lost, and no one hears of them at all. (1.2.63)

When Kumalo says "no one" hears of these people who moved to Johannesburg at all, he means no one in the countryside hears from them again. His phrasing is a little weird, since of course the people who move to the city probably hear about one another all the time. But that doesn't seem to count. Kumalo's way of talking about the city even at this early stage of the novel makes it sound like it is always and only destructive, like there is no such thing as a community within Johannesburg. Why might Paton exaggerate the separation between city and country? How does his representation of the city as a trap for young black people fit in with other themes of Cry, the Beloved Country such as race?

[Kumalo] is silent, his head aches, he is afraid. There is this railway station to come, this great place with all its tunnels under the ground. The train stops, under a great roof, and there are thousands of people. Steps go down into the earth, and here is the tunnel under the ground. Black people, white people, some going, some coming, so many that the tunnel is full. He goes carefully that he may not bump anybody, holding tightly on to his bag. He comes out into a great hall, and the stream goes up the steps, and here he is out in the street. (1.4.27)

Kumalo has been born and bred in South Africa. But now, he is in the city of Johannesburg—a South African city—and it's like he's on a different planet. He is so frightened of the hustle and bustle of the Johannesburg train station that he has trouble making himself go outside onto the street. Even though we don't know yet how bad things are going to get in Johannesburg for Kumalo, this early scene of his confusion and discomfort already sets up the city as a space of confinement, as opposed to the freedom of his home in Ndotsheni.

Go to our hospital, [John] said, and see our people lying on the floors. They lie so close you cannot step over them. But it is they who dig the gold. For three shillings a day. We come from the Tranksei, and from Basutoland, and from Bechuanaland, and from Swaziland, and from Zululand. And from Ndotsheni also. We live in the compounds, we must leave our wives and families behind. And when the new gold is found, it is not we who will get more from our labour. (1.7.44)

Whatever you may say about John Kumalo, he definitely makes some good points about the political problems of South Africa. He points out that the mines have had a specifically destructive effect on the black communities of South Africa. Men from all over leave their families behind to work, and they don't even get good pay for doing so. The mines literally trap black men away from their wives and children; symbolically, they represent the larger problem of "the broken tribe" that Msimangu and Arthur Jarvis both talk about. For more on "the tribe," check out our "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" section.

Now this is Tuesday; the day after tomorrow I must go to Ezenzeleni, which is the place of our blind, to hold a service for them, and to attend to our own people. […] It is a fine place there; there is a chapel there, and the ground falls away from one's feet to the valley below. It will lift your spirits to see what the white people are doing for our blind. Then we can return strengthened for what is still before us. (1.11.3)

Freedom and confinement can be really politically complicated in this book. Here, Msimangu wants Kumalo to come with him to the center for the blind at Ezenzeleni so that Kumalo can see how much "the white people" are doing to restore freedom to "our" (in other words, black) blind people.

While much of the book is about ways in which white people have taken away freedoms from black South Africans, Msimangu is also careful to point out ways in which liberal white people have given back freedoms to some communities of black people. Why might Alan Paton emphasize the gratitude and thankfulness of black characters like Msimangu towards white charity? What might be Paton's motives in emphasizing the importance of white contributions to organizations serving black people?

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 [Kumalo] for all his sight could never make. Baskets stout and strong, in osiers of different colours, and these osiers ran through one another by some magic that he did not understand, coming together in patterns, the red with the red, the blue with the blue, under the seeing and sightless hands. (1.13.29)

Paton's phrasing here implies some possible prejudices of his own about blindness. By saying that the blind "dragged out their days in a world they could not see," the narrator makes it sound like life without sight is so burdensome that it's almost not worth living. Lots of disability activists might disagree with this notion of "dragging out" days in blindness—there are many different ways of experiencing the world around you, and sight is only one of them. However, Paton clearly wants to make a positive point that these blind people have discovered a new freedom through the opportunity to work at Ezenzeleni. Certainly, work can give people a sense of purpose, whether they are blind or not.

I think we are all agreed that it is to be the truth and nothing but the truth, and that the defense will be that the shot was fired in fear and not to kill. Our lawyer will tell us what to do about this other matter, the possibility, my friend, that your nephew and the other young man will deny that they were there. For it appears that it is only your son who states that they were there. For us it is to be the truth, and nothing but the truth, and indeed, the man that I am thinking of would not otherwise take the case. (1.14.25)

Father Vincent wants to stick to the truth in Absalom's testimony. That's the only way that he can see Absalom's defense working at all in court. However, the legal system in South Africa (and in many other places) is such that telling the truth is no guarantee of your freedom. For more on Cry, the Beloved Country's contrast between law and social justice, check out our "Character Analysis" of the judge.

Up here on the tops is a small and lovely valley, between two hills that shelter it. There is a house there, and flat ploughed fields; they will tell you that it is one of the finest farms of this countryside. It is called High Place, the farm and dwelling-place of James Jarvis, Esquire, and it stands high above Ndotsheni, and the great valley of the Umzimkulu. (2.18.1)

Everything about the Jarvis farm at High Place speaks of freedom: rather than being stuck down in the dry river valley with Ndotsheni, it's at the top of the mountains. It is well-tended and fertile, which again makes it totally different from Ndotsheni. The contrast that Paton builds between High Place and Ndotsheni speaks to the larger differences in quality of life between the white and black characters in the novel. Jarvis is able to help Ndotsheni because he has the economic freedom to do so, a luxury that Kumalo does not share.

— Are you ill, umfundisi?
— I shall recover, umnumzana. (2.25.6-7)

When Jarvis and Kumalo first meet, before Jarvis finds out who Kumalo is, he sees that Kumalo looks sick. Kumalo, of course, does recognize Jarvis as the rich farmer of High Place and as Arthur's father, which is what makes him feel so unwell.

Jarvis addresses Kumalo in Zulu as umfundisi, as a sign of respect. But Kumalo answers him with the respectful umnumzana as a sign of guilt and responsibility. Paton uses these two terms to show (a) how horribly awkward this meeting is, and (b) the complex power dynamics in this conversation. Jarvis is free to address Kumalo however he wants, and he chooses a respectful term because he is a good man. Kumalo, on the other hand, is trapped by both his social position and his guilt towards Jarvis, so he has to use a more respectful term.

So the young man told them all he would have done in the other valley, how the people must stop burning the dung and must put it back in the land, how they must gather the weeds together and treat them, and not leave them to wither in the sun [….] But these were hard things to do, because the people must learn that it is harmful for each man to wrest a living from his own little piece of ground. Some must give up their ground for trees, and some for pastures. (3.33.80)

When Mr. Letsitsi starts going into detail about what the farmers of Ndotsheni need to do to improve the productivity of their land, he has to talk to them about sacrifice. For the good of the many, some of the farmers will have to give up their crops to plant trees to hold the soil and to grow pastures to graze cattle. Mr. Letsitsi is trying to make the case that sometimes, to achieve happiness for the greatest number of people, you have to give up some of your own freedoms in favor of a broader community-centered vision for the future.

— Do not go before I have thanked you. For the young man, and the milk. And now for the church.
— I have seen a man, said Jarvis with a kind of grim gaiety, who was in darkness till you found him. If that is what you do, I give it willingly. (3.36.32-3)

We also talk about this somewhat confusing quote in Jarvis's "Character Analysis." We just want to say that we find it striking that Jarvis seems to find positive freedom in the ability to help other people. By assisting the people of Ndotsheni to become more self-sufficient, Jarvis discovers his own social purpose in South Africa.

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