An Oprah Book Club selection, Cry, the Beloved Country, the most famous and important novel in South Africa’s history, was an immediate worldwide bestseller in 1948. Alan Paton’s impassioned novel about a black man’s country under white man’s law is a work of searing beauty.
Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.
The eminent literary critic Lewis Gannett wrote, “We have had many novels from statesmen and reformers, almost all bad; many novels from poets, almost all thin. In Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country the statesman, the poet and the novelist meet in a unique harmony.”
Cry, the Beloved Country is the deeply moving story of the Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son, Absalom, set against the background of a land and a people riven by racial injustice. Remarkable for its lyricism, unforgettable for character and incident, Cry, the Beloved Country is a classic work of love and hope, courage and endurance, born of the dignity of man.
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How is Cry, the Beloved Country part story, part prophecy, and part psalm? How does the story resemble the biblical parable of the prodigal son? How does it mirror another biblical parable, Absalom? What is the significance of Kumalo's son being named Absalom? Where else does the Bible inform the story?
There are many paradoxes in this novel: a priest's son commits murder; a white man who fights for the dignity of South African blacks is senselessly murdered; the father of the murdered son helps the father of the son who murdered to keep a disintegrating native tribe together. How do you reconcile these paradoxes? How do they contribute to the richness of the story? Why might Paton have made this choice?
Msimangu says, "I see only one hope for our country, and that is when white men and black men, desiring neither power or money, but desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it." The book was written in 1948. Some forty-odd years later, has Msimangu's prophecy come to pass? If so, in what ways? If not, why?
How does apartheid manifest itself in Cry, the Beloved Country? Describe or characterize the separate worlds inhabited by blacks and whites. Where do black and white lives touch?
Jarvis is unable to physically comfort Kumalo. Paton writes, "And because he spoke with compassion, the old man wept, and Jarvis sat embarrassed on his horse. Indeed he might have come down from it, but such a thing is not lightly done." But yet, when the people of Ndotsheni are in grave trouble, Jarvis provides milk and irrigation vital to their survival, and later a new church. Why is he capable of one and not the other? Exactly what is it that is not lightly done? How and why does such duality exist? What do you feel about such codes of behavior?
Cry, the Beloved Country is, in part, a story about those who stayed and those who left. What happens to the people who stayed in the tribal villages? What happens to those who left and went to Johannesburg? What is Paton's point of view of this mass migration? Does he feel it was necessary? Inevitable? What is your opinion?
Arthur Jarvis says "It was permissible to allow the destruction of a tribal system that impeded the growth of the country. It was permissible to believe that its destruction was inevitable. But it is not permissible to watch its destruction, and to replace it with nothing, or by so little, that a whole people deteriorates, physically and morally." What events in the novel illustrate the breakup of the tribal system? How is the tribal system destroyed? What is done to replace it?
An unidentified white person in the novel offers, "Which do we suffer, a law-abiding, industrious and purposeful native people, or a lawless, idle and purposeless people? The truth is, that we do not know, for we fear them both." What is it that the white man fears in both instances? Which does the white man suffer in this novel? What might be Paton's point of view? What is your opinion and why?
Throughout the story, Kumalo experiences the absence of God and momentary losses of faith. He suffers through periods where it feels as if God has deserted him. What other characters experience the absence of God? Does Kumalo ever experience the presence of God? If so, when? Is God basically absent or present in Paton's novel? If so, in what way does God manifest Himself?
Describe the role of faith in the novel. How does it serve Kumalo and Msimangu, the people of Ndotsheni? Was it faith that inspired Arthur Jarvis, and hence his father? What about Absalom? Is there any indication that faith impedes or injures any of the characters?
There is much mention of secrets in this novel, secrets with no answers. Father Vincent tells Kumalo, "Yes, I said pray and rest. Even if it is only words that you pray, and even if your resting is only a lying on the bed. And do not pray for yourself, and do not pray to understand the ways of God. For they are a secret. Who knows what life is, for life is a secret." How does this notion of secret permeate the novel? What does it give the novel? What effect do Father Vincent's words have on Kumalo? How do they affect you?
Although Kumalo is a priest and often has the highest intentions, he sometimes does things which are contrary. For example, when he visits his son's wife-to-be, in his efforts to hurt her, he asks if she would take him if he desired her. Where else do we see Kumalo falter? How do you reconcile these two sides of Kumalo? How do you relate to him? Do any of the other characters falter? If so, who? What is it that makes Paton's characters so realistic?
Kumalo and the demonstrator have very different opinions about the white man. Kumalo says, "Where would we be without the white man's milk? Where would we be without all that this white man has done for us? Where would you be also? Would you be working for him here?" And the demonstrator answers, "It was the white man who gave us so little land, it was the white man who took us away from the land to go to work. And we were ignorant also. It is all these things together that have made this valley desolate. Therefore, what this good white man does is only repayment." How do Kumalo and the demonstrator reconcile their different points of view? How might the other characters in the book feel? What is your point of view?
The last few sentences Arthur Jarvis wrote before his death are: "The truth is that our civilization is not Christian; it is a tragic compound of great ideal and fearful practice, of high assurance and desperate anxiety, of loving charity and fearful clutching of possessions." Where in this novel do we see a split between high ideals and narrow self-interest? Do the characters embody one or the other, or are they morally mixed? Do you think what Jarvis feels applies to present-day South Africa? If so, how? If not, how have things changed?
What is Paton's vision of the world? Does he express the view that human beings are immutable or capable of transformation? Are we left with any kind of message, any vision for mankind? If so, what is it?
Recommended Readings A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines Vintage, 1994 The Autobiography of Jane Pittman, Ernest Gaines Bantam, 1992 Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin Dell Press, 1985 The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison Vintage Books, 1995 July's People, Nadine Gordimer Penguin Books, 1992 The Life and Times of Michael K, J. M. Coetzee Penguin Books, 1985 Native Son, Richard Wright Harper Perennial, 1993 Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison Vintage, 1992 The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner N.W, Norton, 1993 The Wall of Plague, Andre Brink Summit Books, 1989 The Ways of White Folks, Langston Hughes Vintage Books, 1990
Alan Paton, a native son of South Africa, was born in Pietermaritzburg, in the province of Natal, in 1903. Paton's initial career was spent teaching in schools for the sons of rich, white South Africans, But at thirty, he suffered a severe attack of enteric fever, and in the time he had to reflect upon his life, he decided that he did not want to spend his life teaching the sons of the rich. He got a job as principal of Diepkloof Reformatory, a huge prison school for delinquent black boys, on the edge of Johannesburg. He worked at Diepkloof for ten years, and at the end of it Paton felt so strongly that he needed a change, that he sold his life insurance policies to finance a prison-study trip that took him to Scandinavia, England, and the United States. It was during this time that he unexpectedly wrote his first published novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. It stands as the single most important novel in South African literature. Alan Paton died in 1988 in South Africa.
"A beautiful novel, rich, firm and moving...its writing is so fresh, its projection of character so immediate and full, its events so compelling, and its understanding so compassionate that to read the book is to share intimately, even to the point of catharsis, in the grave human experience."
– The New York Times
"The greatest novel to emerge out of the tragedy of South Africa, and one of the best novels of our time."
– The New Republic
“We have had many novels from statesmen and reformers, almost all bad; many novels from poets, almost all thin. In Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country the statesman, the poet, and the novelist meet in a unique harmony.”