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Cry, the Beloved Country | Study Guide

Alan Paton

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Cry, the Beloved Country | Context


South Africa's Modern History

European colonization of South Africa began with the Dutch in the 17th century, and the British in the 18th century. These two groups of settlers often had a strained relationship. In the late 19th century, diamonds were discovered in South Africa, and gold soon afterward. These discoveries had a profound effect on immigration, investment, labor patterns, and urbanization. In particular, the city of Johannesburg, the center of the gold mining region, mushroomed into a metropolis. The importance of the gold-mining industry in South Africa is highlighted in Paton's novel, particularly when a potential miners' strike is viewed with great alarm.

Tensions between settlers of British and Dutch descent—the latter were often called Boers or Afrikaners—came to a head in 1899. This led to the Boer War—also known as the South African War—which lasted from 1899 to 1902. The victorious British managed to unify white interests in the country, and the Union of South Africa was established in 1910. However, the British and the Afrikaners continued to view each other with suspicion.

From the beginning of the modern state, whites constituted a small minority of the population—approximately 20%. The white minority, however, systematically imposed segregationist policies on blacks and people of mixed race. In 1948 these policies were officially codified into a social system called apartheid, an Afrikaner word meaning "separateness."


Apartheid affected all aspects of life in South Africa—residency, marriage, education, employment, entertainment, and travel. Laws such as the Group Areas Act of 1950 delineated residential and business sections in urban areas for each race. The Land Acts set aside over 80% of the land in South Africa for the white minority. Blacks were excluded from political participation. In Cry, the Beloved Country, Paton provides vivid examples of segregation, such as when whites hesitate to shake hands with blacks, or when whites and blacks use separate entrances and exits to a courtroom.

Internal opposition and international criticism were both important forces that impacted apartheid. The African National Congress, in particular, was a significant counterbalancing force. Finally, in the early 1990s, the system unraveled. In 1994 the first free elections were held in South Africa, and Nelson Mandela was elected the country's first black president.

Paton's Lyric Style

Although Cry, the Beloved Country is ostensibly a realistic novel of social history, Paton employs a highly poetic, lyrical style. This style owes much to the rhythm and cadences of the Bible. Indeed, Paton often alludes to well-known biblical passages, such as Psalm 23 (a song of faith recited at funerals or memorial services) and Luke 15 (the parable of the prodigal son, about the return home of a wayward son). The cadences of Paton's prose are also indebted to some of the traditional qualities, patterns, and euphemisms (words substituted when others seem too harsh) of African languages, such as Zulu. For example, in Chapter 2 when Stephen Kumalo converses with his wife about the Reverend Theophilus Msimangu's letter, they both describe the missive as "not an easy letter," meaning it contains bad news.

Other devices favored by Paton are apostrophe (direct address of a person or object not physically present at the scene), sensory imagery, figurative language, and repetition.

  • One of the most striking examples of repetition is the verbatim echo in the first few lines of both Chapter 1 and Chapter 18. This signals a new turn in the plot that will reveal many symmetries and parallels.
  • In a simile at the beginning of Chapter 3, Paton describes the landscape thus: "And always behind them the dim wall of the wattles, like ghosts in the mist."
  • At the end of Chapter 7, Paton uses foreshadowing when Mrs. Ndlela says about Absalom, "I did not like his son's friends. Nor did my husband. That is why he left us."
  • Soon after the beginning of Chapter 5, Paton uses a humorous apostrophe when he mentions a lavatory toilet: "It would have frightened you if you had not heard of such things before." In Chapter 30, a more urgent example of this device occurs: "Call, oh small boy, with the long tremulous cry that echoes over the hills."
  • In Chapter 23, Paton employs allusion when he refers to the well-known poem by William Blake, "The Tyger": "He looks for ... the world like a converted tiger ... and ... burns bright in the forests."
  • Paton uses sensory language in most of his descriptions of the South African landscape, as in this passage from Chapter 1: "The great red hills stand desolate, and the earth has torn away like flesh."
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