The plot of Cry, the Beloved Country largely concerns the efforts of Stephen Kumalo to reunite his family by bringing back his sister Gertrude and his son Absalom to Ixopo. However, this theme takes on larger dimensions when one considers it in reference to the events that develop throughout the novel. A major theme that Paton develops is that family life in South Africa is broken; he illustrates this primarily through the Kumalo family itself, but then enlarges it to encompass family life in South Africa in general. The novel contains numerous instances in which families are broken apart by migration to Johannesburg, such as the family of Sibeko, and the cumulative effect of this, as Kumalo realizes, is that villages such as Ixopo and the nation of South Africa in general is one of families that need to be reunited. The shift of the plot during the third segment of the novel from reuniting the family in South Africa to reuniting village life in Ndotsheni reflects this theme and enlarges it. Furthermore, Paton shows the theme of reuniting family and nation through the writings of Arthur Jarvis concerning a South African national identity. A major reason that Arthur Jarvis worked for social justice, according to his works, is to unite the nation as one cohesive whole, instead of a nation of various disparate ethnic groups.
Christian Values of Kindness
A major theme that Paton develops throughout Cry, the Beloved Country is the importance of always acting with a sense of kindness. There is a specifically Christian connotation to this value, as demonstrated by the dominant Christian influence of the characters, most specifically the pastors Stephen Kumalo and Theophilus Msimangu. Paton promotes the idea that adhering to this simple sense of kindness is at least a partial solution to the problems in South Africa; it is the reciprocal kindness between Jarvis and Kumalo that causes the bond between them to develop, while it is Kumalo's kindness to the small white boy that is the impetus for Jarvis to work on behalf of South Africa by donating milk to work against the drought and by arranging for the placement of new farming methods in Ndotsheni.
The Tension Between Urban and Rural Society
Alan Paton uses the conflict between urban and rural society and the various qualities they represent as a major theme of the novel. For Paton, rural life is best exemplified by Stephen Kumalo and his personality, while urban life is best exemplified by John Kumalo. Paton clearly places his sympathy on the qualities of rural life: rural society comes to represent family, religion, morality and stability, while the chaotic urban life that Paton describes represents the breaking up of families, hedonism, and atheism. Paton also illustrates this theme through the development of several characters in the novel: the literal move of characters such as the pregnant girl to rural life in Ndotsheni represents a change to a greater moral sense, while the most corrupt character in the novel, John Kumalo, is fully enmeshed in urban Johannesburg society.
References and allusions to the emancipation movement in the United States abound in Cry, the Beloved Country along with figurative comparisons to the quest for freedom. The most obvious use of emancipation imagery regards Arthur Jarvis, who idolized Abraham Lincoln and draws on Lincoln's work to free the slaves during his own quest for social justice. Paton uses this to elucidate the comparison between the antebellum United States and his contemporary South Africa, both societies in which the quest for justice for blacks is paramount. Paton does not use the theme of emancipation merely for its literal context, however; the major question of the novel at its conclusion is when freedom from fear, poverty and bondage will occur.
The Public Significance of Actions
An assumption that Alan Paton makes throughout Cry, the Beloved Country is that numerous actions are significant not in themselves but in what they represent. This is most clearly demonstrated through two separate events, the first in the journey from Alexandra back to Johannesburg and the second at the end of the trial of Absalom Kumalo. In both instances, a white man shows his allegiance to the blacks of South Africa: in the first, a white man carries black men in his car in support of a strike, while in the second the young man from the reformatory exits the courtroom with the blacks. Paton uses this theme in order to show that public declarations of support are an important step in gaining justice in South Africa by demonstrating allegiances and loyalty.
Cry, the Beloved Country Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Cry, the Beloved Country is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
GradeSaver has an entire page dedicated to the themes of Cry the Beloved Country readily available for your use. Simply follow the direct link to the study guide and choose "Themes" on the laft hand side of the page.