Cry, the Beloved Country | Study Guide

Alan Paton

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Cry, the Beloved Country | Book 1, Chapters 1–2 | Summary

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The author of Cry, the Beloved Country divided the work into three books, each of which contains several chapters. This study guide further breaks down these books with groupings of two to three chapters.

Summary

Chapter 1

The setting at the start of the novel is the region of Natal in the southeastern part of South Africa. The period is the mid-1940s. The story opens with a lyrical description of the hilly countryside. At the beginning of the story, however, there are signs all is not well with the land or its people. Farming has grown difficult and unproductive, and the local people are leaving their homeland.

Chapter 2

Reverend Stephen Kumalo, the novel's protagonist, serves as the Anglican priest of St. Mark's Church in Ndotsheni, a village in Natal. Stephen and his wife, both of Zulu descent, live quiet, simple lives.

One day a letter arrives from Johannesburg, sent to Stephen by the Reverend Theophilus Msimangu, a priest who resides at the Mission House in Sophiatown, a district of Johannesburg. Theophilus informs Stephen that Stephen's sister, Gertrude, who moved to Johannesburg, is now gravely ill. Stephen should make every effort to come quickly. Arrangements will be made for his accommodation.

Stephen and his wife discuss the situation. He will use their savings for the journey. In a brief conflict with his wife, Stephen laments the fact that not only his sister, but also his brother and his son, have forsaken Ndotsheni for Johannesburg. None of these relatives have written, and their whereabouts are unknown. Stephen says he will begin his journey the next day. His wife weeps in patient suffering.

Analysis

Paton provides an immediate indication of the simple, yet lyrical prose style that gives the novel much of its distinctive character. "These hills are grass-covered and rolling," he says as he begins to describe the setting, "And they are lovely beyond any singing of it."

Literary critics have often remarked that two important influences helped shape Paton's style—the poetic phrasing of African languages, such as Zulu, and the Bible's rhythmic cadences and vivid vocabulary. As early as the second paragraph of Chapter 1, Paton alludes to Exodus 3:5, the episode of the burning bush in which God commands Moses to remove his sandals, for the place where he stands is "holy ground." Soon afterward, in a bizarre reversal, Paton turns this idea on its head when he describes the coarse and sharp ground of the valley below.

In Chapter 2, the dialogue between the characters helps to establish the tone, pacing, and flavor of the story. For example, the child who delivers Theophilus's letter to Stephen addresses the priest as "umfundisi," a respectful title meaning "parson." This word will recur frequently in the novel. Other distinctive language in this episode include "small one," "the mother," and the common salutations of parting and farewell, "Go well" and "Stay well."

It is apparent from many details in Chapter 2 the Kumalos are relatively poor. They have been saving money, for example, for a new stove for Mrs. Kumalo, and for new clerical clothes for Stephen.

Stephen says he will write to the bishop, informing him he has no idea how long his absence from Ndotsheni will be. As background for the novel, it is important to know Stephen is a priest of the Anglican (Church of England) denomination of Protestantism, brought to South Africa by British settlers. Theologically, liturgically, and organizationally, Anglicans are more similar to Roman Catholics than most of the other Protestant denominations, such as Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, and Dutch Reformed. However, Anglican priests, unlike Roman Catholic priests, are permitted to marry. Today, some Anglican groups permit the ordination of women priests and bishops, unlike Catholics. In Anglicanism, the bishop of each diocese—or administrative division—is its highest-ranking official. Anglican church services are held in English.

As Stephen sets out on his journey at the end of Chapter 2, Paton includes a brief coda that contributes an ominous note of foreshadowing. Johannesburg, he hints, is not a place of calm or serenity.

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