Cry, the Beloved Country | Study Guide

Alan Paton

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Cry, the Beloved Country | Book 1, Chapters 9–10 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 9

This chapter consists of 11 brief vignettes, comprising fragmentary descriptions and snatches of dialogue, all intended to convey a mood of frustration, displacement, and alienation. The subject is the poor of Johannesburg and its surrounding districts. The conflicts in each subsection of this chapter arise from the poverty and wretched living conditions of the people, as well as from white discrimination against blacks.

The first vignette underscores the crowded living conditions and tightly stretched resources of poor blacks. In the second subsection, speakers in a disembodied dialogue discuss one consequence of overcrowding and poverty—a breakdown of sexual morality. In the third subsection, the dialogue exposes the futility of oversimplified political "solutions" to the overcrowding problem. Waiting lists for housing number in the thousands. Bribery and governmental bureaucracy play a major role in peoples' struggles to find housing. In the fourth vignette, a woman named Mrs. Seme laments the fact she and her husband left their rural home.

In the next vignette, enterprising would-be householders build a slum named Shanty Town. It goes up overnight. But in the following section, a black family's young child becomes severely ill. In the dialogue that follows, the child's mother implores a local politician, Mr. Dubula, to locate a doctor. Mr. Dubula tries to reassure her. In the following section, the mother impatiently awaits the doctor as she listens to the singing of Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika ("God Save Africa").

In the ninth section, the wife tells her husband she is afraid because the baby's fever is so high. In the next section, the baby has died and the mother mourns her loss. Finally, Shanty Town is depicted as growing in size, with a swelling population of blacks pouring in from places like Pimville, Alexandra, and Sophiatown. At first, white observers are intrigued and curious, but they then turn hostile.

Chapter 10

At the beginning of this chapter, Stephen finds fulfillment in playing with the young son of his sister Gertrude. However, thoughts of his own son, Absalom, continue to worry him and cause increasing pain. Theophilus and Stephen travel to Shanty Town, where they acquire more leads. They visit a reformatory to which Absalom had been sent as a troublemaker by a magistrate.

The two priests speak to the young white man who serves as an official at the reformatory. He tells them Absalom was indeed an inmate there, but was released about a month ago for several reasons: he had exhibited good behavior, and he had also gotten a girl pregnant. The young man tells Theophilus and Stephen that after his work he will take them to Pimville, where Absalom and the girl are living.

At Pimville, however, the young girl who is carrying Absalom's child informs the visitors Absalom has gone to Springs and has not yet returned, after four days away. Theophilus and Stephen depart in great disappointment. Their search for Absalom seems futile.

Analysis

Stylistically, Chapter 9 is one of the most innovative chapters of the novel. Paton has assembled in a type of collage the many social issues of his time and arranged them into a series of brief, telling vignettes. These fragmentary sections vividly convey to the reader the frustration, confusion, and impoverishment of thousands of people in Johannesburg and its surrounding districts. The building of Shanty Town is characterized as an improvised act of desperation, rather than as an outgrowth or result of social progress or responsibility. Mr. Dubula's efforts are portrayed as the strivings of a power-seeker trying to keep his supporters in line. The death of the nameless woman's baby is shown as a wrenching consequence of overpopulation, and a lack of resources to cope with human needs.

Throughout the chapter, Paton skillfully uses dialogue, repetition, irony, rhetorical questions, and exclamations to drive home his major themes. The speakers are seldom identified, but such "vagueness" is part of the author's strategy. The social context, after all, is one of overcrowding and a bursting population with nowhere decent to live. To build Shanty Town, the needy are reduced to scavenging, picking over various sites for building materials.

In Chapter 10, the author reverts to a more standard narrative style as he describes the further stages of Theophilus and Stephen's search for Absalom—first in Shanty Town, then at the reformatory, and finally at Pimville. The most poignant moments in this chapter occur near the conclusion, when the two men must confront, once again, their disappointment at a trail gone cold. Theophilus bursts out in irritated frustration, reminding Stephen his situation is only one of thousands that exist in Johannesburg, a city of myriad troubles. But Stephen reminds him the child Absalom has fathered will be Stephen's own grandchild, and therefore Stephen has a compelling interest in pursuing the search. Theophilus movingly apologizes to the older priest, and Stephen forgives him. The episode endows the friendship between the two men with a vibrant texture and strong credibility.

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