Study Guide

Cry, the Beloved Country Suffering

By Alan Paton

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So [the black and white Anglican] priests all talked of the sickness of the land, of the broken tribe and the broken house, of young men and young girls that went away and forgot their customs, and lived loose and idle lives. They talked of young criminal children, and older and more dangerous criminals, of how white Johannesburg was afraid of black crime. […]

— And it is not only the Europeans who are afraid. We are also afraid, right here in Sophiatown. It was not long ago that a gang of these youths attacked one of our own African girls; they took her bag, and her money, and would have raped her too but that people came running out of the houses. (1.5.6-7)

The relationship between suffering and crime is one of the main issues in Cry, the Beloved Country. It's clear that poverty and desperation often drive people to crime, or at least, that's what the novel suggests. And here, in Cry, the Beloved Country, the racism of South Africa's laws encourages a lot of crime specifically within the black community, against both white and black victims.

Racist white people like Mr. Harrison may use these rising crime rates to show that there should be stricter laws clamping down on the rights of black people. But of course, it's precisely because of these stricter laws that there is so much violence in Johannesburg. Paton isn't denying that there is a crime problem in Johannesburg. He is asking his readers to be more open-minded and sympathetic about finding out why there has been so much crime there as people's employment opportunities have been dropping.

Quietly, my child, your mother is by you. Outside there is laughter and jesting, digging and hammering, and calling in languages that I do not know. Quietly, my child, there is a lovely valley where you were born. The water sings over the stones, and the wind cools you. The cattle come down to the river, they stand there under the trees. Quietly my child, oh God make her quiet. God have mercy upon us. Christ have mercy upon us. White man, have mercy upon us. (1.9.79)

As this desperate, nameless mother in the Shanty Town worries over her ill child, she sings to the child about the countryside where they came from originally. This vision of the countryside provides a brief relief from the suffering that Paton ties so strongly to Johannesburg and its problems. But why do you think the mother's prayers are to both God and to the "white man"? What mercy might she be looking for from the "white man"?

Outside there is singing, singing round a fire. It is Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika that they sing. God Save Africa. God save this piece of Africa that is my own, delivered in travail from my body, fed from my breast, loved by my heart, because that is the nature of women. Oh, lie quietly, little one. (1.9.87)

This "piece of Africa that is my own" is the infant child of a mother living in poverty in the Shanty Town. In what sense does this child represent Africa? What is "the nature of women" in this passage? What is distinctive about the style of this passage compared to the parts of the novel that focus directly on Kumalo's plot line?

Who indeed knows the secret of the earthly pilgrimage? Who indeed knows why there can be comfort in a world of desolation? Now God be thanked that there is a beloved one who can lift up the heart in suffering, that one can play with a child in the face of such misery. Now God be thanked that the name of a hill is such music, that the name of a river can heal. Aye, even the name of a river that runs no more. (1.10.6)

While Kumalo is playing with his little nephew, he tells the child all about Ndotsheni and the Umzimkulu River. Telling his nephew about those familiar hills and the great valley makes Kumalo happy, since he is homesick. But while he is playing with his nephew, he suddenly goes off into this much bigger meditation about why we are all here and why life has to be so hard. What effect does it have on your reading of this novel that Paton regularly connects small plot points with much larger ethical and religious questions like, "Who indeed knows why there can be comfort in a world of desolation?" How do these meditations from Kumalo make you feel as a reader?

So [Msimangu] told [Gertrude and Mrs. Lithebe], and having told them, closed the front door on the wailing of the women, for such is their custom. Slowly he followed the bent figure [of Kumalo] up the street, saw him nodding as he walked, saw people turning. Would age now swiftly overtake him? Would this terrible nodding last now for all his days, so that men said aloud in his presence, it is nothing, he is old and does nothing but forget? And would he nod as though he too were saying, Yes, it is nothing, I am old and do nothing but forget? But who would know that he said, I do nothing but remember? (1.14.24)

Paton often uses a writing style called free indirect discourse. This may not sound particularly thrilling, but bear with us for a second: free indirect discourse is when a character is talking but there are no quotation marks or specific phrases like "He said" or "He thought" to show that it's the character who is speaking. Still, we know that this series of questions comes from Msimangu, and not from the third-person narrator, as Msimangu is looking at sad, broken Kumalo.

What effect does it have on your reading of these more emotional passages that Paton blurs the lines between character and narrator? How much influence do the characters' inner thoughts have on the narration of the book? How much do the characters' emotions bleed over into the narrator's description of what's happening in the novel?

[Jarvis] kissed [Mrs. Jarvis], and she clung to him for a moment. And thank you for all of your help, she said. The tears came again into her eyes, and into his too for that matter. He watched her climb the stairs with their daughter-in-law, and when the door closed on them, he and Harrison turned to go to the study.

— It's always worse for the mother, Jarvis. (2.19.30-1)

There is this weird split in Cry, the Beloved Country where the women are most often the ones who weep visibly. So, Kumalo's wife cries when Kumalo prepares to leave Johannesburg. Here, Margaret Jarvis is visibly emotional. And yes, tears come to Mr. Jarvis's eyes, too, but it's Mrs. Jarvis's emotion that sparks Mr. Jarvis's tears. And Mrs. Lithebe and Gertrude wail when Absalom's verdict comes through. In fact, Msimangu actually warns Gertrude not to cry when they go to see Absalom for the last time in prison. Why might Paton emphasize a connection between women and emotion? In addition to crying, how do the men of the book generally show their feelings?

The old man's face was working. He continued to look on the ground, and Jarvis could see that tears fell on it. He himself was moved and unmanned, and he would have brought the thing to an end, but he could find no quick voice for it.

— I remember, umnumzana. There was a brightness in him.

— Yes, yes, said Jarvis, there was a brightness in him.

— Umnumzana, it is a hard word to say. But my heart holds a deep sorrow for you, and for the inkosikazi, and for the young inkosikazi, and for the children. (2.25.57-60)

When Jarvis and Kumalo meet for the first time, Kumalo's tears show that he is sincerely moved by the suffering of the whole Jarvis family. His use of the Zulu terms of address—umnumzana meaning "sir," for Jarvis, inkosikazi meaning "mistress" or "lady," for Margaret and Mary Jarvis—also emphasizes how personal his feelings are, because he is using his own language to express them. At the same time, Kumalo's difficulty meeting Jarvis's eyes and his general expression of upset makes it clear that Kumalo is unsure how appropriate it is for him to share in the Jarvis family's grief, when it is his son who killed Jarvis's son. Luckily, Jarvis seems to accept Kumalo's sorrow in the kindly spirit in which it was meant.

[Kumalo] had come to tell his brother that power corrupts, that a man who fights for justice must himself be cleaned and purified, that love is greater than force. And none of these things had he done. God have mercy on me, Christ have mercy on me. He turned to the door, but it was locked and bolted. Brother had shut out brother, from the same womb had they come. (2.29.139)

Kumalo deeply resents his brother John after the advice John gave to Matthew Kumalo to betray Absalom, his cousin. Because Kumalo is so resentful, he winds up trying to make his brother feel paranoid about the police, who are watching his speeches closely. What Kumalo wanted to say was that John should avoid the corruption of power. But instead of giving him this moral advice, Kumalo shows how human he is by trying to hurt his brother for turning on Absalom. Kumalo's human side makes him all the more sympathetic as a character—the fact that he does things he regrets makes us feel really bad for him.

I have never thought that a Christian would be free of suffering, umfundisi. For our Lord suffered. And I come to believe that he suffered, not to save us from suffering, but to teach us how to bear suffering. For he knew that there is no life without suffering. (3.30.88)

When Kumalo tells his friend back at the village about the fate of Sibeko's daughter, his friend hears the news philosophically. His friend reminds Kumalo that suffering is part of life, and that the point is not to avoid it, but to show God how you manage the pain that comes to you. Cry, the Beloved Country never claims that the goal of reform is to eliminate suffering altogether. The point is to minimize suffering where we can. It's impossible to make life entirely free of pain, but we can "bear suffering" in good and bad ways. Kumalo, this friend, and Jarvis all provide examples of morally good ways to learn from suffering.

[Kumalo] was too old for new and disturbing thoughts and they hurt him also, for they struck at many things. Yes, they struck at the grave silent man at High Place, who after such deep hurt, had shown such deep compassion. He was too old for new and disturbing thoughts. A white man's dog, that is what they called him and his kind. Well, that was the way his life had been lived, that was the way he would die. (3.35.55)

After Kumalo hears Mr. Letsitsi's view that he is helping Ndotsheni for the future of his people, rather than in thanks to Jarvis, Kumalo feels a bit distressed. Kumalo does feel a lot of personal loyalty to Jarvis, and he doesn't feel that Jarvis owes Ndotsheni the help he has given because he is a white man. Kumalo's lack of resentment towards Jarvis for the racial inequality of South Africa causes others to call "him and his kind" a "white man's dog."

Why do you think Paton throws in this detail about Kumalo's negative perception by some people in his community? Why wait until the second to last chapter of the novel to bring this up? How does this description affect your perception of Kumalo's character and relation to Jarvis?

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