Cry, the Beloved Country Summary and Analysis
by Alan Paton
Book I, Chapters 13-17
Kumalo and Msimangu make the silent journey to Ezenzeleni, and on the journey Msimangu tells him that he understands his silence. Kumalo realizes that Msimangu was right: there is no need to fear the one thing in a great city where there were thousands upon thousands of people. Absalom had gone astray where so many others had gone astray before, but Kumalo can nevertheless not comprehend that he might have killed a white man. Kumalo wonders how he failed, and what he might do about his expected grandchild. Kumalo admits to himself that the tribe was broken and would be mended no more.
Kumalo finds Ezenzeleni great, for the blind had eyes given to them and made things that he could never make such as baskets. Msimangu gives a sermon to the blind there in which he quotes from the Bible: "I the Lord have called thee in righteousness . . . To open the blind eyes to bring out the prisoners from the prison / And them that sit in darkness of the prison house." Kumalo knows that Msimangu is speaking to him at this moment. After the sermon, Kumalo goes to Msimangu and says that he is recovered.
Stephen Kumalo begins to finally understand the repercussions of his son's actions in this chapter, in which he retreats into silence upon learning of the fate of his son. This chapter serves as a transitional point for the Kumalo character. His character's focus shifts from the mere search for his son to setting right the fate of his son and those involved with the murder. This is best reflected in the shift in Kumalo's attitude from the specific concerns over reuniting the tribe to alternatively more personal concerns (the fate of the young pregnant girl) and more broad social concerns relating to the fate of South Africa. A major question of this chapter concerns the ambiguity over Kumalo's newfound attitude: it is ambiguous whether Kumalo's realizations are a cynical admission of failure or a necessary adjustment and revelation, a departure from his previous naïveté. Certainly there are elements of both, but through the metaphor of blindness that pervades this chapter, Paton suggests that Kumalo's new attitude is not a sign of failure but a sign of maturity.
During the visit to Ezenzeleni, Paton compares the state of Stephen Kumalo through the chapter to the blind at Ezenzeleni. Kumalo enters Ezenzeleni metaphorically blind, but leaves the area with a newfound vision. Paton imbues this with intense Biblical imagery, the most explicit of this contained in Msimangu's sermon, which is in many ways the impetus for Kumalo's conversion. Like numerous Biblical figures, Kumalo is redeemed by suffering and receives a new and greater vision from it.
When they return from Ezenzeleni, Kumalo finds that Mrs. Lithebe had found buyers for Gertrude's tables and chairs, and Gertrude would use the money to buy shoes and a coat. The young man comes to visit Kumalo, and tells him that he has arranged so that Kumalo can come to the prison. Msimangu insists that Kumalo tell John where he is going before he leaves. When Stephen admits this to John, John worries that his son and Absalom are companions. John decides to accompany Stephen to the prison.
At the prison, Stephen Kumalo finally finds his son, who claims that it is too late. Stephen wishes to know why he carried a revolver, and he says that he never knows when he might be attacked. Absalom says that he was frightened when the white man came so he shot him, but did not mean to kill him. Stephen asks about the reformatory, and asks whether this is Absalom's repayment to their kindness. Absalom weeps over everything, but Stephen continues and asks why he wrote no message to him. Absalom blames the devil, but Stephen asks whether he can say that he fought with the devil and had no strength left. Stephen orders Absalom not to write to his mother until he sees him again. When Stephen leaves his son, he sees John Kumalo and tells him the story. John Kumalo insists that there is no proof that his son or the other young man were there at all. John Kumalo asks Stephen who will believe his son. He claims that both he and Stephen save souls, and that he will save Absalom's.
The contrast in the attitudes and style of John and Stephen Kumalo become significant in this chapter, in which the two brothers find that both of their sons are suspects in the murder of Arthur Jarvis. This evokes the underlying conflict between the two brothers apparent from their first meeting, in which John represented the secular and the urban, while Stephen represented the religious and the rural. The conflict between the two brothers will involve other issues as the fate of the two cousins diverge, while encompassing the major difference in the two men's approaches to the world. Paton suggests the eventual conflict between the brothers through the difference between their visits with their respective sons; while Stephen Kumalo uses his visit to Absalom to seek truth and repentance, John uses his visit to establish a legal strategy and look for a way to shift the blame away from his son.
Alan Paton uses the character Absalom Kumalo as a personalized symbol of the problems of blacks in South Africa taken to a tragic end. Absalom Kumalo is in some sense a cautionary tale: he emerges in this chapter not as a heartless murderer or an irresponsible transient, as his actions have suggested, but as a scared and foolish young man acting on instinct rather than forethought. Paton suggests this through the forthright quality in which Kumalo expresses himself; he seems barely capable of dissembling, and honestly admits his culpability in the murder of Arthur Jarvis. Paton portrays him as a pitiable and weak character caught in a situation that he barely understands but deeply regrets. This naïveté in Absalom will be the young man's downfall, as he falls victim to those who are more savvy than he is and thus able to shift greater blame to the repentant boy.
Throughout his visit with Absalom, Stephen Kumalo never wavers; he remains true to his principles in dealing with his son, properly berating his son for his lost opportunities and attempting to bring his son closer to penitence. This suggests that the struggle for Absalom Kumalo will not be a legal one. With his admission of guilt, Absalom's legal fate is already to a great extent sealed; whether Stephen Kumalo can find redemption for his son will be the focal point of the rest of the novel.
Kumalo returns to Mrs. Lithebe's home tired and dispirited. The young white man from the reformatory comes to speak to him about a lawyer. He says that Absalom must have a lawyer, because he does not trust John: his plan to deny that his son and the third man were there, while a lawyer can make the contention that Absalom had no intention of actually killing the white man. He warns Stephen that, no matter what, Absalom will be severely punished, but if his defense is accepted, it will not be extreme. Kumalo can hardly believe that this, which happens to one in a thousand, happened to him. Father Vincent, the white priest at Mission House, tells Stephen Kumalo that his anxiety has turned to fear and his fear into sorrow, but this sorrow is better than fear, for sorrow may enrich while fear always impoverishes. Kumalo cannot see how such a life can be amended, but Father Vincent says that he is a Christian and there was a thief upon the cross. Kumalo harshly says that his son was not a thief, and he cannot suppose it to be less than the greatest evil he has ever known. Father Vincent tells Kumalo to pray and rest.
The young man from the reformatory confirms what Paton suggested in the previous chapter: the fate of Absalom Kumalo is essentially sealed, since he has admitted his culpability in the matter, but the fate of the other two suspects is still flexible and John Kumalo will attempt to use Absalom's admission of guilt as a means to shift the blame from his son to Absalom.
This chapter returns to the religious themes that have been prevalent throughout Cry, the Beloved Country. This chapter focuses on the religious question of absolution and forgiveness; while Father Vincent suggests that Absalom Kumalo can still be saved, Stephen Kumalo remains in doubt whether his son may be forgiven for the worst imaginable sin. Father Vincent also suggests the religious theme of transformation through suffering. Paton thus suggests a sense of catharsis for Kumalo's travails; the sorrow that he now feels may enrich him.
Kumalo goes to Pimville the next day to see the girl who was pregnant by his son. He goes without Msimangu because he feels he can do this better alone. He tells her that Absalom is in prison for killing a white man, and she shouts at hearing this. He shows her the newspaper with the article about the killing, and asks why she wishes to marry Absalom. He tells her that he wants to know, because he does not wish to take her into his family if she is unwilling. She looks at him eagerly and says that she is willing. She tells him that she has had two husbands already, both of whom were caught. Stephen wishes to hurt her upon hearing this, and shouts that now the third is caught, asking if she has ever had a murderer before. She shrinks away crying, and he asks if she will now take a fourth. He asks her how old she is, and she thinks that she is sixteen. Stephen asks her if she could live at a quiet church, but she says that quietness is what she desires. She tells him that she is from the Church of England, and he laughs at her simplicity. He insists that if she repents of this plan, she must tell them and not run away as she did from her mother.
Although the young pregnant girl never emerges as a fully realized character in Cry, the Beloved Country, it is in this chapter that Alan Paton best suggests the various dimensions in her personality. This chapter serves as a test for the young girl in which Kumalo presents her with Absalom's situation in order to ensure that she is prepared to become part of his family. Throughout this test, the young girl emerges as a parallel to Absalom; like the father of her unborn child, the girl is simple and unaffected, unaware of even her own age, capable of improper behavior but likely incapable of premeditated malice. She has had lovers before Absalom, but does not deny the fact.
The parallels between the young girl and Absalom Kumalo thus shift the question of redemption to some degree away from the imprisoned son to his pregnant wife. The redemption of the girl through marriage and life in rural Ndotsheni will serve to some extent as a proxy for the redemption of Absalom. This is part of the rationale behind Kumalo's test of the young girl; he uses this test to find whether she is worthy of redemption and capable of receiving it.
Mrs. Lithebe is one of the few people who does not rent rooms, for she has enough money. She admires Kumalo for saving Gertrude and the child, and finds it pleasant to have Gertrude and the child around the house, even if she does speak too easily to strangers. Kumalo asks Mrs. Lithebe if the girl from Pimville can stay with them, but she says that there is no bed for her and she would have to sleep on the floor. The new girl is not like Gertrude, for she is openly glad to be in the house. Mrs. Lithebe criticizes the girl for her careless laughter, and warns her not to hurt Stephen Kumalo with her carelessness.
Stephen visits the prison, and attempts to arrange the marriage between his son and the girl. Absalom tells Kumalo that the two other men involved cursed him in front of the police, placing all the blame on him. Kumalo tells him to maintain courage and not forget that there is a lawyer who will come soon.
Father Vincent introduces Kumalo to the lawyer, Mr. Carmichael, who will take the case pro deo. He says that it is a simple case, for the boy says that he fired because he was afraid, and it will depend entirely on the judge and his assessors and not for a jury. Father Vincent assures Kumalo that Carmichael is a great man, one of the greatest lawyers in South Africa and one of the greatest friends to the blacks in South Africa.
The lawyer defending Absalom Kumalo, Mr. Carmichael, continues the pattern of benevolent white South Africans who pervade Cry, the Beloved Country. Like the worker at the reformatory, Paton portrays him as a hero for helping Stephen Kumalo, thus inordinately shifting the focus of the novel from the proper protagonists to secondary characters. The lawyer is extraordinarily benevolent, insisting on working on the controversial case for no fee and risking ostracism for taking part in this racially charged trial. This is yet another example of Paton's exaltation of the white characters at the expense of the black protagonists, and reveals the bias that taints the novel. The lawyer merely confirms the suspicions of the reformatory worker: Absalom's admission of guilt severely limits his options, and the only question remaining regarding his legal fate is whether he will receive some limited mercy or will be sentenced to death for the crime. This chapter also confirms that the strategy of John Kumalo will be to shift the blame from his son to Absalom alone. Paton thus sets up Absalom Kumalo to be a martyr, still guilty of the crime but not to the extent to which John Kumalo suggests.
The introduction of the girl from Pimvlle into Mrs. Lithebe's household places her in contrast to Gertrude; while both women have suffered from similar hardships and even have similar character defects (Mrs. Lithebe chastises both for a lighthearted manner), there remains some possibility for redemption for the young girl. While the girl accepts Kumalo's kindness and help, Gertrude remains bitter and jaded. This emphasizes the redemptive role that the young girl plays in the novel. While the fates of Gertrude and Absalom Kumalo are already decided to a great extent, the young girl still has a possibility of redeeming herself for her sins.
Cry, the Beloved Country Essays and Related Content
- Cry, the Beloved Country: Major Themes
- Cry, the Beloved Country: Essays
- Cry, the Beloved Country: Questions
- Cry, the Beloved Country: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Alan Paton: Biography
- Cry, the Beloved Country Summary
- About Cry, the Beloved Country
- Character List
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Book I, Chapters 1-6
- Summary and Analysis of Book I, Chapters 7-12
- Summary and Analysis of Book I, Chapters 13-17
- Summary and Analysis of Book II, Chapters 18-24
- Summary and Analysis of Book II, Chapters 25-29
- Summary and Analysis of Book III, Chapters 30-36
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