Cry, The Beloved Country
is an immensely complex novel; approaching it with a view toward a summing up and analysis is daunting, and frankly seems almost absurd, for this novel, in essence, calls men forth to share and discuss the human condition. Thus, the novel represents the beginning of thought and discussion for its readers. Discussion may follow any number of roads, for
The Beloved Country
is a political novel, a sociological novel, a psychological novel, a historical novel, a philosophical novel, a parable . . . An analysis of family and identity in
The beloved Country
represents only the beginning of what will be enlarged upon in broader class discussions.
I do feel compelled somehow to try to capture the tone of the novel before providing my analysis. So, I include below a portion of a student’s poem which I believe speaks eloquently of the vision of Alan Paton (although, in fact, it was not written in response to the novel.)
And behind all this darkness
yes, there is some light
small, wondrous, out of sight
It grows sometimes
and sometimes fades
falling into darkness, making shades
With love and hate
both at war
we hold together
but together we are no more
The world (is) flowing through
of yesterday, today, and tomorrow
bringing with it a game of
time, life, and death
The strongest of the strong
will surpass the ultimate
quest of power.
Family relationships play an important part in the individual’s quest for meaning and fulfillment in
The Beloved Country
. When Paton explains the breakup of the tribal culture through a spokesman, Msimangu, it is made clear that the annihilation of the family structure was a key factor. When adolescents left the village, they left important beliefs behind, but perhaps more important is the fact that they also left behind familial connections; such ties might have prevented their ultimate surrender to the abyss of the anti-cultural existence of so much of black Johannesburg. Msimangu states emphatically that the white minority has destroyed a culture without attempting to replace it. Though one might state that the act of destroying culture is most heinous, Paton’s book deals pragmatically with the need for building a new culture. At the center of this novel is the belief that no man is an island; man attains fulfillment only when he is connected to family, society, and, ultimately, God.
This novel finds its center in the beliefs of Christianity. Therefore its answers for philosophical, political,and sociological problems are always, in some sense, Christian. One can easily trace various biblical parables throughout the novel. Perhaps what needs to be underscored at this juncture, though, is man’s understanding of his relationship with (the Christian) God. It is the familial structure inherent in Christianity that provides man with a place and an understanding of the meaning of that place. Man is the son of God and brother of all other members of mankind. It seems to me that Paton’s cry for love, trust, and peace and the annihilation of hate, fear, and conflict can only be heard by those who understand and champion the relationships inherent in the family.
Though Paton provides many familial relationships among characters who are not blood-related, and thus illustrates the existence of a larger brotherhood of mankind, I believe it would prove worthwhile to discuss his examples of relationships between biological fathers and sons. These relationships are perhaps most germane to Paton’s exploration of the experience of family.
Paton implies parallelism in the two main father/ son relationships of Stephen and Absalom Kumalo and James and Arthur Jarvis. There are also additional father/ son relationships in the novel—relationships which include those of John and Matthew Kumalo and Col. and John Harrison. Each of these examples of father/son relationships offers an illustration of the conflict between generations and/or the legacy of the interaction of familial and societal forces.
Absalom Kumalo/ Stephen Kumalo
There are many religious overtones inherent in the relationship of Stephen and Absalom Kumalo. The name Absalom calls to mind the biblical Absalom who was tricked by friends who eventually caused his death. The name Stephen calls to mind St. Stephen, a Christian martyr. Stephen Kumalo has also been likened to Job, for like Job, Stephen finds his faith tested time and time again. The story of Absalom and Stephen Kumalo has much to do with forgiveness and the re-establishment of familial ties. In fact, the Christian values of faith and forgiveness are nearly lost by both Absalom and Stephen; it is the strength of their relationship that enables each to find acceptance (of life and himself) and ultimately, peace.
The loss of Absalom is most poignant, for his story illustrates how tenuous Christian values and beliefs can be in the face of cold and harsh society. When Absalom leaves home for Johannesburg he embodies a Christian upbringing. However, like so many who have left the valley before him, he is soon swallowed up in the teeming inhumanity of the city. Absalom is, in many ways, a victim. He is young—too young to be left in a Gomorrah without guidance or familial ties of any sort. In fact, Absalom loses his very humanity in this city, and like many others leads a thoughtless animal-like existence. Christian love is replaced by fear in this environment, and Absalom becomes only a reactive being. Thus the senseless and accidental shooting of Arthur Jarvis is made clear. Blind animal fear motivated Absalom to kill Jarvis. This incident leaves Absalom confused and all but shattered.
When Stephen first sees Absalom in jail, he is struck by a shell of a man who was once his son. Absalom’s hand is described as cold and lifeless. Stephen cannot reach his son. Indeed, there is little communication between parent and child on any level. Stephen is angered by the passivity of his son. He cannot understand why Absalom shows little emotion, and he especially cannot forgive Absalom’s apparent lack of remorse. At the same time, Absalom is consumed by fear and shame. The relationship between father and son is all but severed, for both are dulled by the enormity of the situation, and both are near despair.
Over time, and especially by the time of Absalom’s marriage, the relationship of father and son is gradually mended. Stephen learns to forgive Absalom, and Absalom is able to rely on his father to sustain him in his terror. Absalom is finally able to acknowledge his own guilt and yet forgive himself; ultimately, Absalom’s dignity and humanity are restored.
Perhaps what saves both Stephen and Absalom and their relationship is the existence of Absalom’s unborn child. The unborn child provides father and son with a new beginning—a way to maintain a bond even after Absalom’s death. Both Stephen and Absalom learn that the meaning of life is a mystery, yet together they resolve to believe in and work for the sanctity of life. Stephen, like James Jarvis, will carry out part of the legacy he learned by way of his son’s experience. If a new generation is composed of men like Jarvis’ grandson (the “bright one”) and Stephen’s grandson, Peter (named for the founder of the Church), there is hope for the spiritual evolution of mankind and meaningful existence.
Arthur Jarvis/ James Jarvis
Arthur Jarvis has been likened to Christ because he is sacrificed during his quest for the betterment of mankind. Indeed, Arthur appears to have modeled his life on great men of vision (Christ, Lincoln) leaders who displayed concern not only for upright men but for sinners or enemies as well. Some critics have taken this Christian analogy one step further to liken James to God. Thus Arthur left the heaven of his father’s high land to teach those below the meaning of love and Christian charity. I feel, however, that this extension of the analogy does not work, for James is not God-like or all-knowing but is rather just the opposite (at least initially). Though one might discover many Christian lessons in the story of Arthur and James, it is primarily an illustration of the “son as father.”
James is the white counterpart of Stephen Kumalo. Both fathers are initially ignorant of Johannesburg and all it stands for. Neither man comprehends the spiritual and moral decay of his beloved country until he is confronted personally with it through the death of his son. Both men lose their sons, but gain, as a result, a truer vision of the world and their responsibilities toward the world; both men develop a more active and charitable view toward all men.
The relationship between Arthur and his father, James, is in many ways ironic. James must lose Arthur before he can “gain” him. That is, it is only through Arthur’s death that James can be led to discover and embrace his son’s philosophy. It is curious that James comes to know his son only after he is dead. The spirit of Arthur is essentially conveyed to James through Arthur’s writings. We learn then that while interpersonal communication failed to unite father and son, Arthur’s public declaration of beliefs (in speeches read by his father) enabled a personal understanding and acceptance to develop.It is perhaps important to note that James needed to accept Arthur as a man before he could entirely embrace him as a son.
One of the questions that James asks himself and his wife repeatedly is “Where did Arthur learn to become what he was?” It is ironic that James is unable to attribute any of Arthur’s achievements to his own parenting, for the reader sees much of James in Arthur. It is clear that the basic foundation of Arthur’s beliefs was learned at home. This explains why James never contemplates revenge for the death of his son and why James is immediately ready to learn about his country and broaden his acts of kindness. It is clear that this kindness was ever-present in James and needed only to be redirected. Thus, during the course of the novel, we see the further development of James, the man, rather than the redeeming of a soul. James has always understood the dignity of mankind; his treatment of Stephen (and eventually all of Stephen’s people) is intuitive rather than learned. By the end of the book James and Arthur are truly united. James carries on the spirit of his son through works of generosity and thoughtfulness. Because of Arthur’s legacy, James’ familial concern is no longer limited, but belongs to all of mankind.
Matthew Kumalo/ John Kumalo
The relationship between John and Matthew Kumalo provides a stark contrast to those of the main characters discussed above. Though John Kumalo manages to procure a lawyer for Matthew and thereby save his son from punishment, his motive for doing so is more selfish than paternalistic. One suspects that John saves his son only in order to preserve his own status. It is made clear time and again that John is apathetic to his son’s deeds and even his whereabouts. Indeed, John is apathetic generally to the needs and concerns of others. He abandons his first wife, he turns his back on Stephen and Absalom, and at every turn he shamelessly steps on his own people in order to attain a better vantage point for himself.
John Kumalo represents those who are consumed by a need for self-aggrandizement. Though he scoffs at the tribal chiefs and sees religion simply as an opiate for the masses, John is never able to articulate or for that matter envision a replacement for the old values and social structures. He has neither the intellect nor the soul to put his powerful voice to use for the good of mankind. Thus John Kumalo is lost. More important, the legacy he leaves for his son and his son’s sons is one of fear, nihilism, and ultimate destruction.
And yet, it must be stated that John Kumalo and those like him are victimized by a ruthless state which strips man of his dignity and worth. Though one cannot condone the actions of the John Kumalos of this world, one can certainly understand the process of their victimization.
John Harrison/ Col. Harrison
The relationship between John Harrison and his father is in some ways similar to that of Matthew and John Kumalo, for Col. Harrison is like John Kumalo in his limited view of the world, and like John Kumalo, he exerts at least a limited influence over his son. Col. Harrison has been likened to the stock character of Col. Blimp. He believes in the supremacy of Englishmen, and this belief relieves him of the responsibility of thought or action. That John Harrison disagrees with his father and admires Arthur Jarvis is not surprising. John’s position in South African society affords him the luxury of thought. Unfortunately, John Harrison is capable
of echoing Arthur’s thoughts; he cannot translate thought to action and thus, ironically, is no more a force for good than is his father.
It seems to me that the relationship of Col. and John Harrison underscores the importance of familial values. Though John Harrison may be able to adopt a value system other than that of his father, he seems to be missing the background which would enable him to put his newly formed values to good use. Though forces in society allow John some growth, he, like Matthew Kumalo, will to some extent bear the legacy of his father’s mistakes. Also important is the fact that John may never be able to acknowledge his father in himself.