Cry, the Beloved Country - Book One, Chapters 1-5 Summary & Analysis

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This section contains 1,153 words
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Summary

In September 1946, Reverend Stephen Kumalo receives a letter from a fellow reverend in Johannesburg, Theophilus Msimangu. The letter asks him to come to the city to care for Kumalo’s sick sister, Gertrude. Though Kumalo and his wife have been saving money to send their son Absalom to a good school, they realize they will have to use the money for Kumalo’s trip. It is a moot point because Absalom is also in Johannesburg, supposedly looking for Gertrude. They have not heard from him in a year. Kumalo and his wife lament the loss of so much family to the city, including Kumalo’s carpenter brother, John. They haven’t heard from any relatives for a long time. The couple is tense about their lost family, and they bicker.

Kumalo travels to the train station with a friend, who asks Kumalo to also look for another local, the daughter of a man named Sibeko, who went to Johannesburg as a servant to a white family. The train trip to Johannesburg is long. Kumalo is anxious because he does not like the enormity and anonymity of the city. The train passes through the gold mines and into the vast urban expanse of Johannesburg. Arriving in Johannesburg, Kumalo is nervous about finding the proper bus to Sophiatown, where the reverend Msimangu’s mission is, and accepts the help of a friendly Zulu man. The man offers to buy Kumalo’s bus ticket while Kumalo waits in line to board. He soon realizes the man has disappeared with his money. Another man, one who knows Msimangu personally, escorts him to the mission.

Msimangu has arranged a cheap room in the house of an old woman, Mrs. Lithebe. He feeds Kumalo and tells him Gertrude, who came to the city with her young son to look for her missing husband, has turned to selling alcohol and prostituting herself. Kumalo reveals his anxiety over his son Absalom. The letters that Kumalo and his wife write to Absalom are sent back. Msimangu promises help find Absalom as well. Kumalo is surprised to learn Msimangu knows his brother John, who is now a local politician and has given up his religious roots. Msimangu takes Kumalo to his room at Mrs. Lithebe’s, and they decide to start their quest for Kumalo’s family the following day.

Analysis

The novel opens with a long descriptive passage setting the scene in the valleys of rural South Africa. The themes are immediately made clear in this passage as the author writes, “Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men, cares for men. Destroy it and man is destroyed" (Page 11). The fate of people and nature are intertwined. The description of the natural world goes on to lament the disrepair of the land. Readers can foreshadow that if the land is so ill-used and dead, the people who live upon it must be suffering as well. The author also draws the reader directly into the scene by using the second person narrative voice for the opening sequence: he describes if “you” stand here “you” will see some particular views or landmarks. The use of “you” is unusual in novels, and the author uses it to force the reader to imagine what life is like in the destroyed landscape of the Umzimkulu valley and to fully grasp the ramifications of using the land poorly. The problem is not just that of those who live there but of all who live in the word with compassion for their fellow man.

The novel shifts into the voice of a third person omniscient narrator to tell the story of Stephen Kumalo, and the ominous foreshadowing continues with the inciting incident, the letter from Johannesburg. Before Kumalo even opens it, he is filled with dread: “He was reluctant to open it, for once such a thing is opened, it cannot be shut again” (Page13). The tone is immediately set for tragedy. Readers should not expect this to be a comedic novel; opening the letter invites hardship beyond Kumalo’s control into his life. Readers should note his essentially passive character, swept up into events that are much bigger than his small village life.

Kumalo is a reverend at a Christian church (St. Mark’s) but descends from the Zulu tribe. The uneasy fusion of a former way of life with the outside influence of foreign entities is evident when he prays to God but uses a tribal word to refer to him: “Tixo.” The clash of cultures, ancient customs versus modern technology, rural versus urban living (the Kumalos have a great unease about Johannesburg, which absorbs family without ever sending them home again), all come to the fore in this first section, and , keen readers will note how these themes are threaded throughout the text.

The tone is further set by the use of language. There is a formality about the use of words that indicates two things. First, the characters are not native English speakers; they take more care with words then a native speaker accustomed to the idioms and slang of English. Second, there is an old-fashioned quality to the words that grounds the reader in 1946 South Africa. The use of phrases like “must needs” and the lack of contractions in the dialogue are a reminder that these characters live in a different world from the beginning of the twenty-first century, and should not be judged according to modern values and norms. Kumalo, his wife, and the author believe in the mystical power of words, as when Kumalo chides his wife, “You have said it. It is said now” (Page 15). They rely on the respect and power bestowed by titles; everyone calls Kumalo “umfundisi,” which means “parson” or “reverend,” and all older adult women are referred to as “Mother,” underscoring women’s main role and value. The author uses repetition of phrases to reinforce the power of language. The aforementioned passage, “Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men, cares for men. Destroy it and man is destroyed” (Page 11) demonstrates this repetition which is then echoed further down the same page as the author laments that the land is “not kept, or guarded, or cared for.”

The theme of racial inequality is also quickly evident, as the priests discuss the “broken” black tribes and the responsibility of whites to rebuild what they had destroyed. There is also a class hierarchy within the black community, however, demonstrated when Kumalo rides the train to Johannesburg and has no one to talk to because “there was no one who appeared of that class” (Page 19). White suppression of blacks in South Africa has not only made them poor and powerless, but it has divided them from themselves. This lack of unity highlights the fact that the tribal lifestyle has been obliterated.

Vocabulary

prelude, intimation, alight

This section contains 1,153 words
(approx. 3 pages at 400 words per page)
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