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?
Questions About Power
- What kinds of power does Cry, the Beloved Country portray? How does the power of characters like Msimangu or John Kumalo differ from that of Arthur or James Jarvis?
- How does power differ across gender lines? Do women have any power in Cry, the Beloved Country? If so, how do they use it? If not, what might this indicate about Paton's own biases?
- Does Kumalo gain power over the course of his journey? How and/or how not?
Chew on This
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.