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Barron's Booknotes-Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton

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Some characters in Cry, the Beloved Country,- even some major characters-are more types than individuals. That is, they stand for kinds of people, and you see only one side of their personalities. Some minor characters are also presented as types. They are not given names. Instead, they are always introduced by the same phrase-for example, "the young white man from the reformatory."



Kumalo is the Zulu pastor of St. Mark's Church of Ndotsheni, a village near the town of Ixopo in the province of Natal. An American skimming this novel might at first see Kumalo as an "Uncle Tom." He seems almost too respectful of whites and not very assertive about the needs and rights of his own people. But Kumalo is far more complex than that. Some readers see Kumalo as a basically good man who achieves a kind of saintliness because of his experiences in the novel. Whatever your personal interpretation is, Kumalo is the most fully developed character-perhaps the only fully developed character-in the novel.

He does begin as a fairly innocent "country boy," despite being 60 years old and educated enough to serve as a village parson. As you first meet him, he is somewhat timid, yet a little vain about his status as pastor. He and his wife are poor, but their strong love of family is clearly shown by their willingness to spend their savings on the journey to Johannesburg.

In Johannesburg, city ways bewilder Kumalo at first. He is even cheated out of some money as soon as he arrives. But he is able to learn, and can eventually get around the city by himself. You see that he is a kind man when he buys his sister and her child new clothes. He is tenacious, too. He does not easily accept defeat in his search for his son, and even opposes his friend Msimangu who advises him against accepting his son's pregnant girl. He's not totally angelic, however. When Kumalo sees people close to him violating the strict moral code they've been taught, anger consumes him and he speaks out cruelly. He quickly repents, however, and begs forgiveness.

Almost without noticing it, he begins to see the drought and the breakup of families in his own village in a new light. He begins to understand that whites have caused many of the social and economic problems of blacks. In his own life, however, he finds it difficult to change lifetime habits and speak up to white men he respects, like his bishop or James Jarvis.

Kumalo suffers deeply. By the end of the novel he has lost a brother, a sister, and a son. But he has gained a daughter-in-law, a nephew, and a grandchild as yet unborn. Once, when much younger, he had considered taking a job that would pay better than the priesthood. But suffering ennobles him. He grows into every bit as much a man of God as his friends Msimangu and Father Vincent. Instead of becoming a bitter old man, he acquires the vision to propose improvements for the good of his village.


Msimangu is an Anglican priest assigned to the Mission House in Sophiatown, a district of Johannesburg. His first name means "one who loves God." Msimangu seems better educated than Kumalo, and speaks Afrikaans as well as Zulu and English. He is a powerful preacher and a sophisticated, knowledgeable man. He is also sensitive and is deeply affected by the injustices suffered by blacks. He considers love the only force strong enough to bring whites and blacks together. Msimangu calls Kumalo to Johannesburg because of Gertrude, takes him to Gertrude and to John Kumalo, and then helps him search for Absalom. Sometimes disillusionment sets off his temper. For example, when Kumalo wants to take in Absalom's girl, Msimangu angrily dismisses her as a slut who is unlikely to change. Like Kumalo, however, Msimangu quickly regrets his words and asks forgiveness. He ultimately gives Kumalo all his savings and enters a monastery. You are not told why. What is your thinking on the matter? Perhaps he believes a priest doesn't belong in politics, or perhaps he is simply following his own deep attraction to the spiritual life.


Kumalo's sister Gertrude is young enough to be his daughter. When her husband, a miner, disappeared in Johannesburg, she took their baby and left to look for him. She never found him, but quickly embraced the freedom of the city even though she could earn her way only by prostitution, gambling, and the making and selling of bad liquor. It's possible that for dramatic reasons, Paton decided to have Gertrude drift into prostitution. With the knowledge that you have gained from reading Cry, the Beloved Country, what other alternatives were there? If Paton had depicted Gertrude solely as a cook in a shabby restaurant would that have been just as effective for his purposes?

When Kumalo confronts her with the shame she has brought on the family, she seems to repent. But in the end she knows that she cannot possibly go back to the restrictions of village life. She gives her little boy to Absalom's new wife and disappears again into Johannesburg. Gertrude is more a type than a complex individual. She is so changed by city life that she cannot return to traditional Zulu values.


Kumalo's brother John is a carpenter who moved to Johannesburg and became prosperous. He has left the church, his wife Esther has left him for being unfaithful to her, and he lives with a woman he hasn't married. A fat, bull-necked man, he is a prominent speaker whose powerful voice could move thousands of people to action. Yet he always stops short of inciting a riot. He fears being arrested and losing his comfortable life. When his son Matthew is arrested with Absalom on suspicion of murder, he hires a crooked lawyer to get his son acquitted. John's narrow action on behalf of his son alone, shocks Stephen Kumalo. (You might want to consider other ways John could have acted.) After the trial John plans to keep a better eye on Matthew, but it is doubtful that his own moral standards will inspire his son. He, too, is somewhat of a type character, a Zulu man changed by the city, but he emerges as a more complex individual than Gertrude.

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Barron's Booknotes-Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton

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