The pastor of Ixopo, a village in the rural South African region of Ndotsheni, Kumalo visits Johannesburg in order to save his sister, Gertrude, when he receives a letter telling him that she is ill, but then begins to search for his son, Absalom, who had gone to Johannesburg but never returned. A kind and just man who believes in the strength of family life, Kumalo searches desperately for his son in order to reunite his family, but becomes an activist for social justice and a return to rural life once he learns that his son is responsible for the murder of Arthur Jarvis. Cry, the Beloved Country is essentially the story of Kumalo's newfound concern for the fate of South Africa and its inhabitants.
He is a wealthy white man in South Africa whose son, Arthur Jarvis, is a renowned social reformer murdered by Absalom Kumalo during a robbery. When he visits Johannesburg for the funeral for his son and the trial of Absalom, James Jarvis learns more about the social work that Jarvis did on behalf of South Africa and eventually devotes himself to promoting social justice in South Africa. James Jarvis later befriends Stephen Kumalo when they meet by chance while Kumalo delivers a letter. Although a conservative man, James Jarvis eventually devotes himself wholeheartedly to social progress, donating ten thousand dollars to start the Arthur Jarvis Club, donating milk from his estate to help starting children during the drought and arranging for a dam to be built in Ixopo to prevent further droughts.
The son of Stephen Kumalo, Absalom Kumalo left his family to move to Johannesburg and, as of the beginning of the novel, had been missing ever since. A major portion of the novel is devoted to Stephen's search for Absalom, who has gone from place to place in Johannesburg. When Stephen finds his son, he learns that Absalom had been sent to a reformatory and had gotten a young girl pregnant. A major reason why Absalom was missing is that he murdered Arthur Jarvis when he, Johannes Pafuri, and his cousin John attempted to rob his house. However, Absalom accepts blame for the crime and repents while the others do not. Despite admitting his culpability for the crime, the court sentences Absalom Kumalo to death by hanging.
Reverend Theophilus Msimangu
A minister in Sophiatown, a region of Johannesburg, he requests that Kumalo visit him in Johannesburg in order to save his sister, Gertrude, for she has been in jail and has worked as a prostitute since moving to the city. He serves as Kumalo's guide during his visit to Johannesburg, and eventually gives Kumalo his savings when he decides to forsake all worldly possessions and dedicate himself to serving the poor.
Twenty-five years younger than her brother, Stephen, Gertrude Kumalo lives in Johannesburg with her small child. It is her poor situation (she has been in jail for brewing liquor and works as a prostitute) that prompts Msimangu to send a letter to Stephen Kumalo requesting that he save his sister. Although Stephen intends to bring her home to Ixopo, Gertrude retains her errant ways even after moving in with Mrs. Lithebe. Instead of returning to Ixopo with her brother, Gertrude instead leaves her family, presumably to become a nun.
The brother of Stephen Kumalo, he is a former carpenter who has become a great political leader in Johannesburg primarily because of his charisma and speaking abilities. Unlike his brother, John Kumalo has forsaken the church and now lives a largely immoral life, having divorced his wife and taken up with a mistress. John Kumalo's son (Matthew) is also responsible in the murder of Arthur Jarvis, but because there is no tangible evidence he betrays Absalom and is acquitted for the murder.
Renowned as one of the greatest lawyers in South Africa and a great friend to blacks in the nation, he takes the case of Absalom Kumalo pro deo but unsuccessfully defends him during the trial, in which Absalom is found guilty and sentenced to death.
Mr. de Villiers
He is a participant in a conference discussing native crime who suggests that increased schooling facilities for blacks in South Africa would cause a decrease in juvenile delinquency.
He is a workman at the Doornfontein Textiles Plant where Absalom Kumalo worked. He tells Kumalo and Msimangu that Absalom was staying with Mrs. Ndlela in Sophiatown.
He is one of the major black political leaders in Johannesburg, along with Tomlinson and John Kumalo.
The father of John and Mary Harrison, James and Margaret Jarvis stay with him while they are in Johannesburg. Unlike his son, Harrison holds conservative views concerning racial matters in South Africa and worries greatly about native crime.
The brother of Mary Harrison, the wife of Arthur Jarvis, he meets James and Margaret Jarvis at the airport and helps the Jarvis family during their stay at Johannesburg. John Harrison holds much more liberal views than his father concerning the status of blacks in South Africa. Before leaving for home, James Jarvis gives John Harrison a check for ten thousand dollars and requests that he start the Arthur Jarvis club promoting social work in South Africa.
He is a taxi driver who was friends with Absalom. He tells Kumalo and Msimangu that Absalom went to live in Shanty Town.
Absalom Kumalo stayed with this woman while in Shanty Town before he went to the reformatory. She tells Stephen Kumalo and Msimangu that Absalom got a girl pregnant and that he has left the reformatory to live in Pimville.
Captain van Jaarsveld
He is the Ixopo police captain who tells James Jarvis about his son's murder and arranges for Jarvis's travel to Johannesburg.
Arthur Trevalyan Jarvis
A notable city engineer in Johannesburg renowned for his charity work on behalf of blacks in South Africa, he is murdered by Absalom Kumalo during a robbery. The president of the African Boys' Club, Arthur Jarvis is the son of James Jarvis and the author of several papers promoting social work on behalf of blacks in South Africa. It is these writings, which James Jarvis discovers after his son's murder, that prompt James Jarvis to take a greater interest in social work for blacks in South Africa.
She is the wife of James Jarvis. After a long illness, she dies once she and her husband return from Johannesburg after the trial of Absalom Kumalo, prompting James Jarvis to move to Johannesburg to live with his family.
He is the son of John Kumalo. One of the other defendants in the trial for the murder of Arthur Jarvis, he and Johannes Pafuri were also involved in the robbery and murder. Unlike Absalom, Matthew Kumalo receives a not guilty sentence for the murder and does not accept responsibility for his actions, likely causing a more stringent sentence for Absalom.
He is the new agricultural demonstrator in Johannesburg whom James Jarvis sends to Ndotsheni in order to teach modern farming methods in the region.
She is an elderly woman who offers Stephen Kumalo room and board in Johannesburg while he rescues his sister and searches for his son. When Kumalo brings Gertrude back to her house, she frequently argues with Gertrude over the young woman's irresponsible ways and carefree manner, but she rejoices when Gertrude suggests that she may become a nun.
He is the moderator of a conference discussing the plight of South Africa who promotes the idea that native crime will decrease only when native South Africans have worthy purposes and goals.
Mrs. Baby Mkize
She is a resident of Alexandra with whom Absalom Kumalo once stayed. When Msimangu and Kumalo visit her, she fears retribution for telling them where Absalom may be, but when Msimangu reassures her, she refers them to a taxi driver who might know where Absalom is. Absalom and his friends returned to Mkize's house after murdering Arthur Jarvis, and she is a witness at the trial against them.
Stephen Kumalo remembers the story of this young man, who was killed when he accidentally stepped into traffic while in Johannesburg.
He is the servant at the home of Arthur Jarvis who witnesses the robbery and murder and identifies Johannes Pafuri as one of the culprits during the trial. During the robbery, Pafuri hit Mpiring with an iron bar, knocking him unconscious.
She is a resident of Sophiatown with whom Absalom Kumalo once stayed. She gives Msimangu and Kumalo a forwarding address for Absalom Kumalo in Alexandra, and tells them that she disliked Absalom's friends but claims to know nothing about any crimes they may have committed.
The third defendant in the trial of Absalom Kumalo, he conspired with Absalom and John Kumalo and was responsible for hitting the servant Richard Mpiring with an iron bar during the robbery. He pleads not guilty to the murder, and like John Kumalo receives a verdict of not guilty, thus helping to place the entirety of the blame on Absalom.
He is a friend of Kumalo's friend who requests that Kumalo give a letter to his daughter, who is presumably working for the Smith family in Johannesburg. Kumalo learns that Sibeko's daughter was fired for brewing liquor in her room, and that the Smith family neither knows nor cares where she is now.
One of Margaret Jarvis's nieces, James and Margaret Jarvis visit her during their time in Johannesburg. It is at her house that James Jarvis meets Stephen Kumalo when Kumalo delivers the letter from Sibeko for his daughter, a former servant at the Smith household.
Along with Dubula and John Kumalo, he is one of the three major black leaders in Johannesburg.
He is the white priest at the Mission House who tells Stephen Kumalo that the sorrow that he feels over his son is an improvement over fear, for the sorrow can enrich him. He introduces Kumalo to Mr. Carmichael, the lawyer who will defend Absalom.
He visits Stephen Kumalo in Ixopo in order to relieve him of his post and send him to Pietermaritzburg to assist his friend Ntombela at his church. He does this because he presumes that there will be tension because James Jarvis lives nearby, but decides to let Kumalo remain in Ixopo when he reads a letter written by Jarvis thanking Kumalo for his letter of condolence regarding the death of Margaret Jarvis.
The political leader of the blacks in Ixopo and a great stout man, Stephen Kumalo visits him in order to request help in restoring life in the Ndotsheni region. The chief essentially dismisses Kumalo's claims, but later works with James Jarvis when he devotes himself to helping the blacks in Ndotsheni.
One of the several major characters in the novel not given a name, he takes Kumalo to the train station when he journeys to Johannesburg, and later is responsible for delivering the milk from the Jarvis estate to the villagers at Ixopo. When Kumalo begins to doubt that he is appropriate for his post, he suggests that his friend take his place as pastor at Ixopo.
The Little Boy
The unnamed son of Gertrude Kumalo, he returns to Ixopo with Stephen Kumalo when his mother decides to leave her family to join a convent. Gertrude arranges for the pregnant girl to take care of her son before they leave Johannesburg.
The Little White Boy
This little white boy from the Jarvis estate visits Stephen Kumalo in Ixopo and asks to learn a few words of Zulu from him. When the little white boy learns about the drought in Ndotsheni and the devastation that it causes, James Jarvis sends milk for Kumalo to distribute among the children of the village.
The Pregnant Girl
A major character in the novel even though she is never given a name, she is pregnant with Absalom Kumalo's child. Msimangu and Kumalo find the pregnant girl in Pimville, and despite Msimangu's skepticism Kumalo decides that he is responsible for her. Kumalo eventually accepts the girl into his family, and she marries Absalom before he is executed and returns to Ixopo with Kumalo.
The White Man from the Reformatory
He is a worker at the reformatory where Absalom was sentenced who helps Msimangu and Kumalo search for Absalom. After they discover that Absalom is a suspect in the murder of Arthur Jarvis, the white man continues to help Kumalo, and even, in a show of solidarity with their plight, exits the courtroom with the blacks, an action that is not taken lightly in South Africa.
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