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Cry, the Beloved Country | Study Guide

Alan Paton

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Cry, the Beloved Country | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Book 1

Rev. Stephen Kumalo, an elderly Anglican priest of Zulu descent, lives and works in the village of Ndotsheni in the region of Natal in South Africa. One day, a letter arrives informing him his sister, Gertrude, who has left her home for Johannesburg, is very ill. Kumalo soon departs for the big city to search for her, as well as for his son, Absalom, who has also left home.

At the Mission House in Johannesburg, Rev. Theophilus Msimangu welcomes Stephen and finds him lodgings at the nearby home of Mrs. Lithebe, a kindly member of the church. The two clergymen undertake the search for Gertrude together, and locate her in tawdry circumstances. She has slipped into a life of prostitution and liquor-dealing. Stephen urges her to reform her life, and she agrees to return to Mrs. Lithebe's with him, and then to their native land in Natal.

The trail of Absalom, however, proves more elusive. The priests finally discover he is living a life of petty crime, accompanied by Matthew Kumalo, the son of Stephen's brother John, and by another young black man. Absalom has spent time in a reformatory, and he has impregnated a young woman. Ominously, it comes to light that the three young black men have been involved in a home invasion, intent on burglary. Absalom Kumalo fired his revolver, killing the owner of the house, a young white man named Arthur Jarvis. The police arrest and imprison Absalom, and charge him with murder. Stephen locates Absalom's pregnant girlfriend and takes her under his protection. Meanwhile, at the intercession of Father Vincent, a white priest at the Mission House, a highly respected lawyer named Mr. Carmichael takes on Absalom's case "pro deo" (or "for no payment").

Book 2

The point of view shifts to that of James Jarvis, a wealthy planter who lives near Ndotsheni in Natal. He is the father of the murdered white man. Informed of the tragedy, Jarvis and his wife Margaret fly to Johannesburg, where they are hosted by the Harrisons, the parents of Arthur's widow, Mary.

After his shock has abated, James Jarvis takes steps to inform himself about his son's liberal ideas of social reform—a side of Arthur he was barely acquainted with. Visiting Arthur's house, James pores over manuscripts, letters, and books. He especially notes his son's admiration for Abraham Lincoln. James becomes increasingly convinced his son was propelled by a compassionate social vision.

Meanwhile, the wheels of justice are in motion, and Absalom's trial begins. John Kumalo, Stephen's brother, has hired a corrupt lawyer who employs perjury to get the charges against Absalom's companions dropped. Absalom insists he did not fire his revolver at Arthur out of premeditated malice, but rather out of fear.

Circumstances lead to a meeting between James Jarvis and Stephen Kumalo. Jarvis declares he harbors no anger.

At the end of Book 2, Absalom is found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by hanging. Stephen argues bitterly with his brother, John. Theophilus Msimangu informs Stephen and the other friends he has decided to withdraw from the world to become South Africa's first black monk, and he gives all his savings to Stephen as a gift. The Kumalo family makes preparations for the journey home, but at the last minute, Stephen finds Gertrude has disappeared.

Book 3

Upon his return to Ndotsheni, Stephen is lovingly welcomed home by his parishioners and neighbors. The land, caught in the cruel grip of a severe drought, is deteriorating. Stephen Kumalo prays constantly for the land's regeneration.

Finally, rays of hope appear. James Jarvis arranges for contributions of milk that help save black children from malnutrition and even death. Arrangements begin for the construction of a dam that will ensure better water distribution. A young agricultural expert arrives to help educate farmers and rehabilitate the area. The weather finally breaks, and rain inundates the valley. At one point, Kumalo and Jarvis take refuge in leaky St. Mark's Church.

Margaret Jarvis, who has been ill, dies toward the end of the novel. A grieving Kumalo sends a note of sympathy to Jarvis, who responds with the assurance that he and his wife would like to support the construction of a new church building. At this news, the bishop withdraws from his plan to reassign Stephen to another posting.

In the novel's final chapters, hope is also symbolized psychologically by the new bond between Stephen, the elderly black preacher, and Arthur Jarvis's young white son, who comes to Ndotsheni regularly to visit his grandfather James.

A letter from Mr. Carmichael, the Johannesburg lawyer, advises Stephen there will be no clemency in Absalom's case, and the young man will soon be hanged in Pretoria. The morning of the execution, Stephen retires to pray on the mountain. With the coming of dawn, he knows he has lost his son. At the conclusion of the book, the narrator asks: When will the dawn of South Africa, the beloved country, truly arrive?

Cry, the Beloved Country Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 Theophilus Msimangu writes Stephen Kumalo an urgent letter.

Rising Action

2 Stephen travels to Johannesburg and locates Gertrude Kumalo.

3 Stephen and Theophilus search at length for Absalom.

4 Arthur Jarvis is shot dead in a home invasion.


5 Absalom is found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.

Falling Action

6 James Jarvis supports land reclamation and a new church.


7 Stephen Kumalo finds inner peace.

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