It's hard to imagine a book published in South Africa in 1948—the first official year of apartheid—that wouldn't deal with questions of race; race would have been everywhere in South African society and politics at that time. Indeed, Cry, the Beloved Country is all about race, from Arthur Jarvis's liberal essays on preventing crime in the black community to John Kumalo's firebrand speeches about equal pay for black workers. But Alan Paton's name has become so totally associated with the anti-apartheid movement that it's hard to remember that he actually wrote this book in 1946, two years before the official establishment of apartheid. And in many ways, even though it was published right at the start of apartheid, his book stands as a clear-sighted prediction of the fear and hatred that apartheid would bring.
The narrator's ability to adopt the perspectives of both black characters like Kumalo and Msimangu and white characters like Jarvis shows that the novel itself has an integrated worldview. This combination of points of view becomes one more model of the kind of shared sympathy between people of different races that Paton would like to see in real-world South Africa.
Cry, the Beloved Country's focus on charitable organizations and the law as institutions to promote social change in South Africa allows Paton to criticize more one-sided, grass-roots revolutionary movements arising from within the black community itself.
In the classic Peanuts Halloween special, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, deeply neurotic character Linus says, "There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin." We can't really speak to the conflict over whether or not Linus's Great Pumpkin (a Halloween version of Santa Claus) exists, but the reason why people avoid talking about religion and politics is pretty clear: people tend to have strong religious and political views, and they like to fight about both.
But in Cry, the Beloved Country, the big political struggle is clearly about race. Many of the characters in the novel are concerned about South Africa's development as a modern nation when it is still being divided by these deeply racist, unjust divisions between the small, wealthy white elite and the large, oppressed black majority. Since racial politics are so divisive in the book, it makes some sense that Paton totally avoids the topic of religious divisions.
In fact, religion is a generally positive force in Cry, the Beloved Country. It brings together white and black priests, and it inspires liberal white men like Arthur Jarvis to consider the morality of South Africa's unjust, prejudicial laws. Where religion might be an extremely divisive topic in today's global political climate, for Alan Paton, Christianity is one of the strongest forces to bring South Africa's diverse communities together.
Rather than focusing specifically on spirituality, Alan Paton emphasizes the responsibility of Christian churches to participate in social reform movements in the secular world.
John Kumalo's criticism of the Christian church that it has not brought about real social change in South Africa presents a real challenge to the book's emphasis on Christian faith, which Stephen Kumalo never truly answers.
There are a lot of literal traps in this book: Absalom winds up in prison for murder, Gertrude and the other black African residents of Johannesburg are only allowed to live in certain parts of the city, and even Kumalo and the other Ndotsheni residents are stuck on land that is no longer productive or fertile. But Cry, the Beloved Country also spends a lot of time with more symbolic kinds of confinement. White men like Mr. Harrison and even Mr. Jarvis (before he starts reading his son's manuscripts) are trapped in hidebound, fearful ways of thinking about black South Africans. They may have all of the legal freedoms that the black people of the book do not have, but these white characters are still trapped by their prejudiced ways of thinking.
Although Absalom is only literally confined in prison after accidentally shooting Arthur Jarvis, he is also symbolically confined by his lack of education and opportunity before then, which drives him to become a thief.
While Paton writes movingly about the need for better racial equality in South Africa, the models of cross-racial cooperation that he presents, including Ezenzeleni and the reforms at Ndotsheni, all assume some management by white men.
What's the first word of the title of this novel? Cry! Any book that is instructing someone (in this case, "the beloved country") to cry with its first word is probably going to be about suffering. There is a ton of suffering in Cry, the Beloved Country, from Kumalo's heartbreak at the destruction of his family to Jarvis's mourning for the death of his only son. Suffering cuts across race to unite people who otherwise live on opposites sides of the book's cultural and economic divides. So, Kumalo and Jarvis's shared suffering provides an unexpected bond between the two of them that not only reminds us of each character's humanity, but that also gives them the strength to think of future reforms and improvements that they can make to prevent such suffering for future generations.
While Kumalo and Jarvis use their individual suffering to build greater bonds with one another, the suffering of the oppressed black majority in South Africa creates greater distance between white elites and the black community. Therefore, while suffering in Cry, the Beloved Country can unite people on an individual level, it divides them on a broader national level.
Cry, the Beloved Country's emphasis on forgiveness and love in the face of suffering indicates its strongly Christian moral framework. Paton's emphasis on religion influences the way that this novel treats the larger theme of suffering.
Okay, please bear with us for a second through this comparison: we think that family in Cry, the Beloved Country is like plankton. Plankton are tiny shrimp and other mini-creatures that float in the ocean, usually near the surface. Lots of larger animals—whales and fish—live off these plankton. Without these tiny single-celled organisms, many larger animals would starve to death. But when plankton start to die off in large numbers, it usually indicates that there is something wrong with the sea around them: it's gotten too acidic or too polluted. And when the plankton suffer, all of the larger animals in the food chain that depend on them suffer, too.
Here is why we think families can be like plankton: they are individual groups, so a family is obviously a small unit of just a few people. But they also usually provide the basis for much larger social structures. Families teach their children how to interact with other people, how to follow laws, how to earn a living—all of that vital social stuff. And when families start to fall apart, that breakdown has consequences for law and order, politics, and the economy of the whole country. The destruction of Kumalo's family is not just a tragedy for Kumalo himself. It becomes a symptom of lack of opportunity, widespread poverty, racism, and injustice in South Africa at large.
Absalom Kumalo receives a loving upbringing from his highly ethical father, but as soon as he leaves his family behind, he begins to lose his way in the big city. Therefore, in Cry, the Beloved Country, it is not enough morally speaking to be born into a loving family; you also have to continue living near them for their moral influence to have an effect.
Msimangu's religious faith and his friendship with other priests provides him with an ethical community that substitutes for the blood family relations that tie together the Jarvises or the Kumalos.
Cry, the Beloved Country spends a lot of time beautifully describing the valley of the Umzimkulu River, where Kumalo and his family originally come from. A lot of the action of the book is also focused on renewing this home territory so that future generations of Zulus can continue to live away from the morally corrupt cities. Kumalo draws comfort from thinking about his home while he struggles in Johannesburg, and it is a positive sign for the future that his grandson and his baby nephew are both going to be raised in Ndotsheni rather than in Johannesburg.
But while the novel's liberal emphasis on renewing the land seems really positive in Cry, the Beloved Country, the idea of a non-urban, largely rural homeland for Zulus and other tribal groups unfortunately echoes later, ugly, bad-faith policies by the apartheid government in South Africa. In the 1970s, the apartheid government forced black Africans to leave the nation's cities and return to designated "homelands" (called "bantustans") while at the same time depriving them of their rightful South African citizenship (source). Paton fought such racist policies from 1948 (when the Afrikaner National Party first declared apartheid as its official policy for the government of South Africa) to his death in 1988. But his sentimental attitudes towards the home bears some uncomfortable resemblance to later, more prejudiced political policies.
Where individual characters like Kumalo have a much narrower definition of home tied to a specific village, more ambitious social reformers like Msimangu and Mr. Letsitsi think of all of South Africa as the home that they wish to renew and protect.
According to the home-oriented logic of Cry, the Beloved Country, Gertrude's discomfort with Mrs. Lithebe's house provides evidence of her deep immorality long before she decides to run away and abandon her son with Kumalo.
Johannesburg is the biggest city in South Africa. Ndotsheni is a tiny (fictional) village. Johannesburg has a diverse population (even though they are kept segregated). Ndotsheni is primarily Zulu. Johannesburg has lots of job opportunities, especially if you are willing to work on the wrong side of the law. Ndotsheni is primarily a farming village, with one opening for a dedicated priest. These two places could not be more contrasting, and it's clear that Paton favors the moral qualities of the countryside over the excitement of the city.
But even within these contrasting regions, there are strong differences: Johannesburg's black areas are much poorer and more dangerous than its white neighborhoods. And in the countryside, Ndotsheni struggles much more with drought and bad soil than Jarvis's farm High Place does. So even though there are all these grand differences between the country and the city, there are also ongoing contrasts between white and black areas of South Africa in both of these regions in Cry, the Beloved Country.
Kumalo's retreat to the mountain to meditate at the end of Cry, the Beloved Country symbolizes a journey to an individual, personal place outside of the novel's grand divisions between black and white and between the city and the countryside. This mountain represents the possibility of a place that is not marked by racial or economic divides.
The big difference between Cry, the Beloved Country's portrayal of Ndotsheni and Johannesburg is that Ndotsheni's difficulties with soil erosion and poverty can be fixed, while Johannesburg's greed and immorality seem built into the fabric of city life and thus cannot be changed.
Cry, the Beloved Country doesn't just show us the problems that it sees with 1940s South Africa. It also gives several models for possible ways forward to bridge the divide between black and white populations in the country.
Both Arthur Jarvis and Msimangu talk about the broken tribe (check out our section in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more on this). To rebuild the tribe—or in other words, to give new economic and educational opportunities to South Africa's oppressed black majorities—Msimangu preaches at a center for black African blind people at Ezenzeleni. This center, which has been funded by white charitable organizations, empowers blind people to earn money in exchange for their hard work weaving baskets.
Similarly, Jarvis funds an agricultural instructor to go to Ndotsheni and train the people there to farm more productively. Jarvis also gives John Harrison a thousand pounds to start a political reform group called the Arthur Jarvis Club in Johannesburg. Paton's vision of money from liberal-minded white people going to organizations run by both black and white people to help develop economic and educational advocacy for black South Africans echoes not only his real-life political activity, but also shows the kinds of policies that he wants to see in place to change the racial inequality of the country.
By giving Msimangu and Arthur Jarvis similar ideas about the "broken tribe" (for Msimangu, see 1.5.58; for Arthur, see 2.20.14-15), Cry, the Beloved Country suggests that liberal politics can and should cross racial boundaries in South Africa.
John Kumalo's involvement in politics is both corrupt and selfish, while Msimangu's activism is humble and self-sacrificing. This distinction suggests that Cry, the Beloved Country is critical of professional politics while emphasizing private social activism and community organization instead.
Since Cry, the Beloved Country is a book about racial injustice, questions of power come up all the time. While many of the well-meaning white characters in the book use their power in positive ways to help people, no one can deny that Jarvis or the people who fund Ezenzeleni have the power to do these kind things because they are white. They still profit off an unequal system, even if they use their profits to help people. Similarly, corrupt black characters such as John Kumalo sometimes use their money and influence to bully other characters in their community. There is exploitation on both sides of the racial divide.
But in addition to questions of power among the characters, there are also issues around Paton's power as a white South African author portraying a Zulu central character. Cross-cultural writing is always a complex and often productive topic for critical thinking. We can consider, for example, the much more recent controversies over Kathryn Stockett's book The Help, which some people have found condescending in its representation of the real-life struggles of African-American domestic workers. What do you think of Paton's project to represent the speech and thought patterns of an elderly Zulu priest? Do you find his portrayal convincing? Politically useful? Does its message of the endurance of basic human dignity overcome any parts that seem dated or awkward by today's standards? Why or why not?
Women like Mrs. Lithebe exert a lot of power over individual households, which gives them some social status within the home-oriented focus of Cry, the Beloved Country. But this power for women is highly limited and the novel offers little opportunity for women to affect these movements against racial inequality outside of the home.
Both Msimangu and John Kumalo show their power through their speaking voices, which they use to inspire the people who listen to them. Arthur Jarvis also plays on people's emotions, but he uses articles and pamphlets to do so. This difference between the spoken and written word indicates cultural contrasts between the black and white communities as they are portrayed in Cry, the Beloved Country.