Cry, the Beloved Country | Critical Essay by Orville Prescott

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Cry, the Beloved Country.
This section contains 868 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Orville Prescott

SOURCE: "Four Great Novels," in his In My Opinion: An Inquiry into the Contemporary Novel, Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1952, pp. 235-48.

In the following excerpt, Prescott opines that Cry, the Beloved Country is among the "great novels," praising Paton's artistic treatment of the story's themes.

The second modern novel which I dare call great is the finest I have ever read about the tragic plight of black-skinned people in a white man's world, Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton. Without any of the blind rage which has led so many writers on similar themes into bitterness and dogmatism, without any of the customary oversimplification and exaggerated melodrama, Mr. Paton wrote a beautiful and profoundly moving story, a story steeped in sadness and grief but radiant with hope and compassion. He contrived for it a special prose of his own which is both richly poetic and intensely emotional. Anyone who admires creative fiction of a high order, anyone who cares to see how a thesis novel can be written without sacrificing artistic integrity, should not miss this notable book.

Alan Paton is a South African and his novel is about that beautiful and unhappy land. For many years he was the principal of the Diepkloof Reformatory, a Johannesburg institution for delinquent African boys. He has lectured and written on the South African race problem, but this is his first book. He brought to it a rare technical skill as well as the contagion of his love for Africa and her tormented people. He is a man who can see evil and greed and cruelty and tragedy and not sink into despair. He knows that simple human goodness can still be found in a weary world.

Cry, The Beloved Country is the story of the progress of a Christian in whose path many lions stood. The Reverend Stephen Kumalo was an umfundisi, or parson, of St. Mark's Church at Ndotsheni high in the hills of Natal. He was an elderly Zulu, quite unacquainted with the dangers which lay in wait for his people when they left their hungry, eroded country for the great city of Johannesburg on the Witwatersrand. There segregation, poverty, a fantastic housing shortage, temptation and vice destroyed hordes of young men who sought a living in the gold mines. Their tribal society with its ancient laws and customs and moral traditions had been destroyed by the white people. And it had not been replaced by anything else save police and courts and jails.

Kumalo went to Johannesburg to hunt for his sister and his son who had disappeared there. His search was a tragic one. He found his sister first, and she had become a prostitute. He found traces of his son. As he plodded from address to address, finding graver news at each, Kumalo realized that Absalom, his son, had descended into a bottomless pit. So when the good white man who crusaded for native rights was murdered, Kumalo was appalled but not surprised to learn that Absalom was the murderer.

Kumalo's pitiful martyrdom was not all bitterness. His friend, Msimangu, a fellow preacher, proved to be an almost saintly man. The young white man from the reformatory where Absalom had been confined was hot-tempered, but earnest and kind. The white man who was the father of the murdered man was the source of unexpected comfort. The meeting of the two grief-stricken fathers, the proud, silent, conventional Englishman and the humble Zulu, is the high point of Cry, The Beloved Country. Then all the complicated social and personal threads of Mr. Paton's story meet and are entwined together in a powerful and extraordinarily touching climax.

Cry, The Beloved Country consists of an amazingly deft fusion of realistic detail and symbolical synthesis of various points of view and emotional reactions. As a picture of the fear and suspicion and hatred which haunt all South Africans, black or white, it is brilliant. The whites, who are so few, are frightened by the blacks, who are so many. Education, public health, social advancements of all kinds are dreaded for their capacity to make the Negroes more insistent in their demands and more conscious of their power. A minority of the disinterested and farsighted whites—and Mr. Paton pays them full tribute—are fighting for social justice. But they themselves are doubtful if they can persuade the whites to love soon enough—before the blacks learn to hate too well.

In conveying his message Mr. Paton never once damages his story, never once mounts a soapbox to orate at the expense of his novel as a work of fiction. His men and women are intensely real and sympathetic persons. Their conversations and their inner monologues are warm with the breath of life, in spite of the cadenced, lyrical quality which distinguishes them. Perhaps people don't really think or talk with such simple nobility of expression; but they never spoke in Shakespearean blank verse either. It is the truth of the spirit that counts, not stenographic reporting.

Current fiction, while often competent, interesting and provocative, rarely discusses an important and controversial subject with both creative artistry and generosity of mind. Because Cry, The Beloved Country is both so skillful and so generous it seems to me a great novel.

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This section contains 868 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Orville Prescott
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Critical Essay by Orville Prescott from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.