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Cry, the Beloved Country | Study Guide

Alan Paton

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Cry, the Beloved Country | Themes



Fear is an engulfing emotion in Cry, the Beloved Country, striking black and white characters alike. Paton stresses that the anxiety and uncertainties born of a segregated society have numerous unhealthy effects. Blacks are afraid to be perceived as presumptuous or ambitious, let alone confrontational. Questioning by the police—as in the investigation of Absalom Kumalo—is regarded with dread. Even Stephen Kumalo, a priest of unimpeachable integrity, behaves in awe when he is in the presence of a wealthy white person, such as James Jarvis.

Stephen's brother, John Kumalo, is portrayed as a rabble-rousing politician, proud of his influence and of his ability to whip up his listeners to a high emotional pitch. Yet, even John is depicted as afraid of his own eloquence. Deep within him persists the fear one day he may go too far, with violence breaking out that may lead to his imprisonment.

Perhaps the most poignant development of fear is the role it plays in the life of Absalom Kumalo. Absalom consistently maintains he did not shoot Arthur Jarvis out of malice, but out of fear. This argument does not suffice to get him acquitted in court, but it is easy to imagine that a young black man, involved in petty crime, might have fired a fatal shot out of panic.


In the novel, Paton presents compassion as one of the most powerful antidotes to fear, violence, and revenge. The leading vehicles of compassion are the two most important characters—Stephen Kumalo and James Jarvis.

It is notable that Paton avoids presenting Stephen Kumalo as a saint. Admirable as he may be, Stephen is tempted at several points in the story to give way to anger and revenge. For example, his reproaches of his sister, Gertrude, for her life of prostitution and liquor-dealing show Stephen as angry and ashamed. However, compassion wins out within him, for he is eager to help Gertrude reform her life. The same conflict occurs in Stephen's meetings with his son, Absalom, who has slipped into a life of petty crime.

James Jarvis is the character in the novel who might have most easily sidestepped compassion. But the humane, idealistic influence of his dead son, Arthur, who had so energetically championed social reforms in South African society, steadily takes root in James. By the time he and Stephen first meet, James is ready to declare that he harbors no anger over his son's death. He goes on to support Arthur's African Boys' Club for young blacks, contributes life-saving milk to black youngsters in Ndotsheni, and makes plans to rebuild Kumalo's church.

A third example of compassion in the novel is the Rev. Theophilus Msimangu. He is a complex figure who mingles goodwill, generosity, loyalty, impatience, anger, and occasional pessimism. Yet the reader cannot doubt his essential dedication to a virtuous life. His devotion to Stephen Kumalo earns him, in the end, the accolade of "friend of friends."


The theme of hope in the novel is allied to the theme of compassion. Together, they form countervailing forces to the theme of fear.

The characters most strongly associated with the theme of hope are Arthur Jarvis and his unnamed son, a nine-year-old boy. Despite his penetrating criticisms of South African society, Arthur Jarvis—as he is depicted through his manuscripts—believes profoundly in the power of education and social reform. He has dedicated his life to the improvement of his country. When he reads the manuscripts, Arthur's father, James, is deeply moved. In the last part of the novel, James takes concrete steps to put his son's ideals into practice, giving hope to the people of Ndotsheni.

In the final chapters of the novel, Arthur's young son visits Ndotsheni from Johannesburg to see his grandfather. Stephen Kumalo becomes acquainted with the boy. In a series of charming encounters, Stephen tutors the child in Zulu. Stephen thinks of the child as an angel, someone whose laughter has brought brightness to Ndotsheni.

In the novel's final pages, Stephen awaits the dawn that signals the execution of his son, Absalom. Paton makes clear, however, that the dawn is also a metaphor for South Africa's new beginning, or redemption. For this reason, the novel can be said to conclude on a note of hope.

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