Essay Questions For Cry The Beloved Country

Cry, the Beloved Country (Paton)

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Discussion Questions
1. 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?

2. 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?

3. 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?

4. 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?

5. 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 hecapable 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?

6. 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?

7. 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?

8. 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?

9. 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?

10. 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?

11. 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?

12. 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?

13. 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?

14. 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?

15. 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?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

top of page (summary)

Cry, the Beloved Country is a novel of social protest—a protest against apartheid, the policy of racial segregation that existed in South Africa. When the Reverend Stephen Kumalo travels from his home in Ndotsheni to the capital city of Johannesburg to find his missing family members, he encounters a disintegration of tribal customs and family life. Kumalo learns quickly that the whites, through the policy of apartheid, have disrupted African values and social order. He notes that city life leads to a demoralized lifestyle of poverty and crime for the natives. Even the Reverend Theophilus Msimangu, a priest who offers his assistance to Kumalo, believes that this disintegration of social values cannot be mended. Msimangu does, however, envision hope for “when white men and black men . . . desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it.” The land, in this case, South Africa, is the center of this novel. As the land becomes divided and eroded, so, too, do the people who live on it. Because James Jarvis and Kumalo reach a shared responsibility for their actions and thoughts as they attempt to understand the loss of their sons, Alan Paton believes that the country of South Africa has hope for restoration of its values and order in its new generation, especially in the sons of Arthur Jarvis and Absalom Kumalo.

Cry, the Beloved Country is structured in three sections. To depict the land as the central focus of this novel, Paton opens chapter 1 with a poetic reverence for “the fairest valleys of Africa.” Here the connection between land and people becomes evident. Book 1 points to the erosion of the land as the people leave their native soil. This section focuses on the native soil of the blacks, Kumalo in particular. It is difficult to maintain the beauty and fertility of the land when the tribal natives head for the promises of the city. The land, then, stands desolate. This deterioration is further illustrated in the shantytowns dishearteningly discovered by Kumalo as he enters Johannesburg.

The opening lines are repeated in chapter 18, which begins book 2. The melodic description of the land is now in reference to the whites’ partition of South Africa, namely, James Jarvis. The land is not depleted, but well tended. The openness and vitality of the land offer a sheer contrast to the depiction contained in book 1. James Jarvis’s farm, the finest one of the countryside, “stands high above Ndotsheni.” Paton thus symbolically portrays the destructiveness and divisiveness of apartheid in the ownership of land.

The third section holds a twofold purpose. Chapter 30 brings to light the drought that covers the land of Ndotsheni. Saddened by the land’s deterioration, Kumalo knows he must find a way to restore its beauty and fertility. Subsequently, this is assisted by a brewing rainstorm and, most notably, by the generosity of James Jarvis, who hires an agricultural demonstrator to ready plans for tillage. Symbolically, Paton realizes Msimangu’s words of hope that only love “has power completely.” The reconstruction of the land becomes a joint venture between Kumalo and James Jarvis, between black and white. Taking responsibility for one’s actions has brought a new understanding and renewed principles for the good of all humanity.

Stylistically, Paton parallels character to character and action to action to dramatize the social ills of South Africa and its native people, while contrasting these vivid portraits to the lives of the white South Africans. As noted previously, the novel’s three sections structurally suggest the two different worlds of Africans and Europeans, then offer a solution and a hope in the third book in the coming together of the two fathers. The safe, calm village life of Kumalo and the farm life of Jarvis parallel the city life in Johannesburg, a city of evil, corruption, and moral inequities for both blacks and whites. The need for truth and justice is paralleled by Kumalo’s search for his son Absalom, whom he finds in prison, with Jarvis’s news of his son’s death. Each father must come to terms with a loss. Although paralleled, it is Jarvis who claims an affinity, “for there is something between” them. Ironically, it is Kumalo’s son who shoots and kills Arthur Jarvis. Paton allows this parallel to function in two ways: first, to reflect the suffering of each father; second, to show that both Absalom and Arthur fall victim to apartheid. Paralleling, then, is more than just a structural device, but rather a focus on the issue of race relations in South Africa.

Paton uses unique literary techniques to enhance the poignancy of his themes. He employs intercalary chapters to dramatize the historical setting of the novel. These intercalary chapters serve as Paton’s social criticism of the divisive political and social order in South Africa. Paton also uses dashes to indicate dialogue, allowing not only for the realistic portrayal of conversation, but also for the rapid dramatic actions among characters. This simple literary technique generates the movement of plot and points directly to the language. Diction remains simple, yet eloquent in its delivery by the various characters. Kumalo speaks in a mildly solemn language emphasizing his ecclesiastic background; the Reverend Msimangu often speaks in an oratory fashion to proclaim his views. John Kumalo uses the language of violence to demonstrate his anger over apartheid and his love for power as a black leader in Johannesburg. The tribal language brings the novel credence and revelation of a people rooted in tradition and honor.

In 1946, Paton began writing Cry, the Beloved Country. Less than four months later, he finished it. Born in South Africa, Paton knew firsthand the tragedy that marked his homeland. He noted that although the story is not true, it is a social record of the truth. Cry, the Beloved Country is a classic work of world literature, not only for bringing to light a destructive political system but also for depicting the humanity among people that can be lost in the struggle for justice and power. Cry, the Beloved Country is a cry for one’s land, a cry for justice, a cry for understanding, and, certainly, a cry for hope. Indeed, this novel speaks for all lost generations who seek direction in a dark world.

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