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In a speech quoted in the Introduction to Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton tells us that the central theme of his novel is the deterioration of black men's character in the slums of white men's cities. Deterioration of the traditional culture is indeed central to the story, but Paton presents more than that. Most readers see two main themes in Cry, the Beloved Country-first, the theme of decay Paton describes, and, second, a theme of rebuilding through compassion or love. Other themes, such as the deadliness of fear, the horrible consequences of discrimination, the relationship between the land and the people, the role of chance or accident in life, and the place of spiritual values, are woven into these two main themes.
1. THE BREAKDOWN OF THE TRIBE
Book I of the novel deals most strongly with tribal breakdown, and Book II centers on crime among black youths, with Absalom Kumalo as a sample case. Almost immediately in Book I we note Stephen Kumalo's worried thoughts, but don't understand what he means by the "breakdown of the tribe" until he arrives in Johannesburg. As the story progresses, you learn that the members of his own family no longer see each other, that his sister found it necessary to support herself by crime, that his brother has abandoned religious values and moral standards based on family unity, that his son is a thief, and that his brother and nephew will lie to save themselves no matter what effect this has on other members of the family.
For the most part, you become aware of the pressures on blacks only gradually. Your awareness grows as Kumalo's does, during his search for his son. Sometimes a specific chapter is crammed with examples-for example, Chapter 9 on housing, Chapter 12 on crime, and Chapter 23 on the gold strike at Odendaalsrust. Outside the cities, causes of moral decay and tribal breakdown include the assignment of blacks to lands too poor for good farming, and the siphoning off of workers to mines where the pay is poor and working conditions are dangerous. In the cities, breakdown is caused by lack of jobs and laws of separation that do not provide blacks with housing and other facilities equivalent to those available to whites.
Wound through everything is fear. Whites fear not just black crime, but also a black uprising if speakers such as John Kumalo are allowed too much leeway. Blacks fear white retaliation for strikes and boycotts. Kumalo is afraid to know what has happened to his son; his son is afraid of what his father will say; the girl is afraid of life in general; John is afraid of the police. Fear is almost a climate of life, and whites are depicted as the ones to blame.
2. REBUILDING IN COMPASSION
Already in Book I the theme of the power of love or compassion is shown in Msimangu's speech to Kumalo after they have left John Kumalo's shop in Chapter 7. It is shown, too, in the lives of such blacks as Msimangu and Kumalo themselves, and the black leader Dubula. All values have not deteriorated after all, or these three would not be men of principle. Hope for the future is also shown by white men who defy the customs and laws of apartheid to give rides to blacks who are boycotting buses. Then there are the young white man from the reformatory and Mr. Carmichael. The reformatory official genuinely cares about the young blacks in his care, and Mr. Carmichael takes Absalom's case for free.
In Book II the theme appears primarily in the writings of Arthur Jarvis (Chapters 20 and 21) and in the reconciliation between Stephen Kumalo and James Jarvis. It also appears in Absalom's repentance and in his girl's growing desire to change, to start a new life. In Book III the theme blossoms.
Jarvis comes to see Kumalo no longer as pitiful, timid, stupid, and maybe not even very clean, but as a good man, a pastor beloved of his people, a man with a vision for the future. Kumalo in turn comes to see Jarvis no longer as practically a god, but as a caring father, husband, and employer who has grown willing to spend his money to help the people of Ndotsheni make better use of their land. One black man and one white man, at least, begin to work together on the only terms Msimangu and Arthur Jarvis considered workable-a willingness to work with others, whatever their race, out of a shared love of one's country.
Moreover there are the children-Gertrude's son, the grandchild to be born, and especially the small white boy, Arthur's son, who has already begun to follow in his father's footsteps. In them Paton suggests a readiness for change, a willingness to create a new kind of life for all South Africans.