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.
Questions About Family
- In Cry, the Beloved Country, which characters neglect their family responsibilities? What does this lack of connection to family say about their moral codes more generally?
- Are all of the families in this novel united by blood, or are there other ways of building family in Cry, the Beloved Country? If so, which characters might provide examples of families of choice? If not, why might Paton emphasize the importance of biological family and inheritance?
- If family is such an important guarantee of moral responsibility and integration in the novel, why does Msimangu not have one? How does Msimangu maintain his moral perspective without the blood relations that help the Jarvises and the Kumalos find their way?
Chew on This
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.