Study Guide

Cry, the Beloved Country The Home

By Alan Paton

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The Home

The grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. 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; not too many fires burn it, laying bare the soil. Stand unshod upon it, for the ground is holy, being even as it came from the Creator. Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men, cares for men. Destroy it and man is destroyed. (1.1.2)

This introductory passage describing the rich valley of the Umzimkulu River makes it sound like the Garden of Eden: the ground is "holy" as it "keeps men, guards men, cares for men." This valley is the home for Kumalo's people, and when Kumalo thinks of this place, with its familiar hills and valleys, it provides comfort for him.

In his note on the 1987 edition of Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton quotes from another book of his, For You Departed, to reflect back on the process of writing Cry, the Beloved Country. He chooses this quote because it expresses his longing "for the land that cannot be again, of hills and grass and bracken, the land where you were born" (source). And indeed, we feel like we see that desire for the land that "cannot be again" in this opening chapter, when the narrator describes the lushness of the Umzimkulu valley before it grew permanently damaged by the harsh demands of the modern South Africa.

The great red hills stand desolate, and the earth has torn away like flesh. The lightning flashes over them, the clouds pour down upon them, the dead streams come to life, full of the red blood of the earth. Down in the valleys women scratch the soil that is left, and the maize hardly reaches the height of a man. They are valleys of old men and old women, of mothers and children. The men are away, the young men and the girls are away. The soil cannot keep them any more. (1.1.4)

Here, we have this almost apocalyptic vision of the Umzimkulu valley now, with its barren hills and bloody streams. Where the valley used to be able to protect and guard its people, now "the soil cannot keep [the men and young people] any more." In our section on "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory," we talk about "The Tribe" as this system of social organization that has been permanently broken by white colonization. Here, we see that the land that used to support these tribes has also been damaged, possibly forever. For groups of people that once relied on farming to support themselves, of course this destruction of farmland would totally change their way of life.

They washed their hands in a modern place, with a white basin, and water cold and hot, and towels worn but very white, and a modern lavatory too. When you were finished, you pressed a little rod, and the water rushed in as though something was broken. It would have frightened you if you had not heard of such things before. (1.5.2)

At the Johannesburg Mission House, Kumalo uses a bathroom with plumbing to wash up. The narrator's deliberate choice to talk about this plumbing as though it is something foreign to the reader makes the everyday, ordinary technology of a faucet—where you "press a little rod" and water comes rushing in—seem suddenly unfamiliar and weird. Paton is reminding us that a lot of things that the reading audience might take for granted would be unfamiliar to Kumalo and his family.

He fetched [Gertrude] with a lorry that afternoon, amidst a crowd of interested neighbours, who discussed the affair loudly and frankly, some with approval, and some with a strange laughter of the towns. He was glad when the lorry was loaded, and they left.

Mrs. Lithebe showed them their room, and gave the mother and child their food while Kumalo went down to the mission. And that night they held prayers in the dining-room, and Mrs. Lithebe and Gertrude punctuated his petitions with Amens. Kumalo himself was light-hearted and gay like a boy, more so than he had been for years. One day in Johannesburg, and already the tribe was being rebuilt, the house and the soul restored. (1.6.86)

Gertrude agrees to move back to Ndotsheni with Kumalo so quickly that Kumalo thinks he has made real progress in rebuilding the tribe on his first day in Johannesburg. What he doesn't realize is that deciding to do something is one thing; actually doing it is something else. Gertrude may think she can make it back to Ndotsheni, but in fact, her life has changed too much for her to be comfortable with her brother's way of life. What other things in the book appear to be damaged beyond mending? What can be rebuilt or started once again?

This is no time to talk of hedges and fields, or the beauties of any country. Sadness and fear and hate, how they well up in the heart and mind, whenever one opens the pages of these messengers of doom. Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, and cry aloud for the man who is dead, for the woman and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end. The sun pours down on the earth, on the lovely land that man cannot enjoy. He knows only the fear of his heart. (1.11.19)

This passage contains a mixture of things that have been lost and things that might be rebuilt. Hatred has destroyed "the law and the custom that is gone"—in other words, the traditions of pre-colonial tribal life are gone. And Absalom has accidentally shot "the man who is dead." But there is still the "lovely land"—as long as, someday, people learn to overcome the fear that is keeping them from being truly at one with said land. We would say that this passage presents 5/6 tragedy and 1/6 hope for the future…

There are few people that do not let their rooms, and Mrs. Lithebe is one. Her husband was a builder, a good and honest man, but they were not blessed with children. He built her this fine big house, it has a room to eat and live in, and three rooms to sleep in. And one she has for herself, and one for the priest that she is glad to have, for it is good to have a priest, it is good to have prayers in the house. And one she has for Gertrude and the child, for do they not belong to the priest? But strangers she will not have at all, she has money enough. (1.17.1)

Mrs. Lithebe is pretty much the only morally virtuous and well-off person we meet in all of Johannesburg. What makes her so different from Gertrude or John? Well, her advantage over Gertrude is that her husband loved her and looked after her, while Gertrude's husband left her to go and work for the mines. Mrs. Lithebe also differs from John because she has not had to earn her own dough; her husband has left her with money enough that she does not have to rent out her house or think about business. Mrs. Lithebe is a good person, but she is able to go to church and follow a moral path partly through luck. Without economic security, she might be like all of the other Johannesburg residents we meet in Cry, the Beloved Country.

I tell you there wouldn't be any South Africa at all if it weren't for the mines. You could shut the place up, and give it back to the natives. That's what makes me so angry when people criticize the mines. Especially the Afrikaners. They have some fool notion that the mining people are foreign to the country, and are sucking the blood out of it, ready to clear out when the goose stops laying the eggs. (2.21.24)

This statement comes from Mr. Harrison, the conservative father of Arthur Jarvis's widow. Mr. Harrison's statements are really revealing in a lot of ways. First, he jokes about giving South Africa "back to the natives." This phrasing suggests that South Africa does not belong to the "natives" now, that black South Africans are somehow not citizens of the country in the same way that white South Africans are. And this idea of rejecting black citizenship became an actual part of South Africa's racial policies in the 1970s.

Mr. Harrison also talks about the Afrikaners and the idea that "the mining people are foreign to the country." This division between English pro-mining South Africans and somewhat-less-enthusiastic-about-mining Afrikaners goes all the way back to the Boer Wars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These struggles are <em>really </em>complicated, so we won't get into it too much—we'll just say that, historically, Afrikaner nationalists have really valued farming and agriculture (in fact, the old word for Afrikaner is "Boer," which means "farmer"), while the main economic focus of the British settlers have been on the mines and natural resources. So Mr. Harrison is calling on old tensions in his rant, here, against the Afrikaners (source).

[Jarvis] put the papers back in the drawer and closed it. He sat there till his pipe was finished. When it was done he put on his hat and came down the stairs. At the foot of the stairs he turned and walked towards the front door. He was not afraid of the passage and the stain on the floor; he was not going that way any more, that was all. (2.24.9)

The "stain on the floor" is Arthur's blood, from his shooting in the kitchen of his own home. Is it significant to this whole idea of the home that that's where Arthur was shot? We think that Arthur's shooting in his own home emphasizes that Absalom's act was an ultimate betrayal. Arthur worked hard for black African rights, but he was also shot by a black burglar. The fact that Arthur was shot while he was working on a manuscript calling for understanding of the social conditions that have lead to rising crime rates among black people makes this whole thing doubly ironic.

There is calling here, and in the dusk one voice calls to another in some far distant place. If you are a Zulu you can hear what they say, but if you are not, even if you know the language, you would find it hard to know what is being called. Some white men call it magic, but it is no magic, only an art perfected. It is Africa, the beloved country. (3.30.34)

This whole section is beautiful, but we're not sure if it makes sense. First of all, what is this magic of understanding Zulu across a distance at sunset? Would Zulu called across a distance at noon or midnight be totally easier to understand? Why should this ability to understand be such a particular "art perfected"? And why does this ability represent "Africa" so especially?

Also, "Africa" is not a beloved "country"; it's a beloved continent. It's absolutely huge, with many, many countries with different histories and languages and traditions. So what is the relation between the continent of Africa and Paton's singling out of the beauty of voices calling out in Zulu at sunset? We know, we know, he's being poetic. It doesn't have to be a hundred percent accurate or sensible. What do you think the purpose of these kinds of imaginative passages might be in Cry, the Beloved Country?

Call oh small boy, with the long tremulous cry that echoes over the hills. Dance oh small boy, with the first slow steps of the dance that is for yourself. Call and dance, Innocence, call and dance while you may. For this is a prelude, it is only a beginning. Strange things will be woven into it, by men you have never heard of, in places you have never seen. (3.30.64)

This set of instructions is addressed to Gertrude's young son, who seems to be enjoying himself in the valley of the Umzimkulu, despite the sudden disappearance of his mom from the scene. Again, why do you think Paton takes on this particularly sing-songy style when he is describing the countryside near Ndotsheni? Why might Paton use different language to describe this area than he uses to talk about the city of Johannesburg?

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