This section contains 2,132 words
(approx. 6 pages at 400 words per page)
Stephen Kumalo is the protagonist of the novel, a sixty-year-old black village priest who goes on a physical and emotional journey to Johannesburg to find his son. He is fairly humorless, but kind and dignified within his limited sphere of influence. More than having a specific personality, Kumalo is an archetype of the passive and dutiful black man who quietly accepts his subservience to whites. He is a symbol of a bygone era, when black tribes in South Africa formed communities that lasted for generations in pastoral calm. As South Africa modernizes through the gold industry, Kumalo is left behind, losing much of his family and community to violent urban life.
Kumalo is also old-fashioned in his reliance on God and his faith to get him through troubling times. He does little to question or push back against the status quo. Yet despite his passive exterior, Kumalo lashes out in subtle ways against those in his life (Gertrude, Absalom, Absalom’s girl) who disappoint his strict moral values. This intentional cruelty may be a transmuted rage over his diminished station in life. He cannot even influence the people he loves to behave properly. Absalom’s fate renews Kumalo’s determination to keep his village Ndotsheni together as a united community. But, he is powerless to help them himself, except inadvertently through his gentle kindness. By treating James Jarvis and his grandson with compassion and benevolence, he is rewarded with their patronage in the village.
Msimangu is a black reverend living in Johannesburg who helps Kumalo on every step of his journey to find Absalom. Msimangu then assists with getting through Absalom’s trial. An older man like Kumalo, Msimangu has strict and old-fashioned views on morality. Although he is generous and kind, he has moments of judgment and disgust towards “sinners” like Absalom’s girl and the young black men who take advantage of girls like her. A gifted preacher, he uses his oratory talent to urge his flock to a passive acceptance of life’s suffering with the expectation of being rewarded in heaven, an attitude personified by Kumalo. Though he hopes for greater justice for blacks and more compassion and understanding between the races, he does not actively fight for these causes, or even support those who do. He fears violence between the races and would rather wait for whites to have a change of heart toward blacks than encourage blacks to take their rights through force. Like Kumalo, he represents a rapidly disappearing generation that idealizes a tribal past and fears what the urban future will mean for his community.
James Jarvis is a wealthy white farmer who lives above the valley where Ndotsheni rests. His land thrives on its higher ground. Before readers meet him, James is content to keep his mind occupied with his land and work. The murder of his son Arthur forces James to reevaluate his priorities. James didn’t understand his son Arthur's passions while he was alive; however, after his son's death, James makes the effort to read Arthur’s papers and understand why Arthur so vehemently fought for black civil rights.
James allows himself to be persuaded by Arthur’s logical and Christian arguments. He returns to the Natal province with a more outward and compassionate perspective, urged on further by his grandson who emulates his own father (Arthur). James recognizes his selfish obliviousness to the world around him. Though respectful to the blacks he encounters and employees, he has never gotten involved in politics or thought too much about the issues of blacks’ rights. It could be said that this has helped create the greater circumstances which allowed the murder of his own son. In his own small way, James continues Arthur’s work locally by dedicating himself to revitalizing the community of Ndotsheni. He has the most pronounced shift in perspective in the novel. Without his broadened mind and ability to act as a “deus ex machina” for Kumalo’s community, the blacks there would have no hope of saving themselves.
Absalom Kumalo is Stephen Kumalo’s teenage son who seeks better opportunities in Johannesburg and ends up being hung for the unintentional murder of a white man. Absalom acts without thinking, following the lead of others, despite his moral upbringing as the son of a reverend. He has difficulty taking responsibility for his crime because he didn’t “mean” to kill anyone. He cannot accept that simply by carrying a gun he was increasing his chances of getting into a violent situation. He also shows signs of laziness. Even when he thrives in the reformatory and gets a good factory job, he returns to the “bad company” that got him in trouble in the first place. He would rather steal money than to work for it. Absalom hardly accepts responsibility for his fate by the novel’s end, but he acts as nobly as he can by offering all the money he has to care for his unborn child.
Gertrude is Stephen Kumalo’s sister, 25 years younger than her brother. She represents that generational difference that Kumalo also experiences with his son. Her family symbolizes the crisis imposed upon tribal communities by the modern urban pull. She loses her husband when he goes to work in the gold mines. When she goes to Johannesburg to find him, she falls into moral ruin as a prostitute and liquor dealer. Gertrude has a “careless” and “idle” way of laughing and talking, especially to men who remain a temptation to her even after her brother saves her from herself. Gertrude wants life to be fun and easy, but she knows this is wrong. She is briefly inspired to join a convent in order to remove herself from such temptations. In the end, she is too weak and runs away to her morally questionable life, abandoning her son in the process.
John Kumalo is Stephen Kumalo’s younger brother, who moves to Johannesburg and gives up his religious beliefs in order to live as he pleases and try to consolidate a little power for himself. Though he talks disparagingly about having to cater to the whims of ignorant rural tribal chiefs, he is described as “fat like a chief.” His morality is questionable as he laughs off the fact that he cast aside his first wife in order to marry a second. A hypnotically gifted orator, John has joined the movement for greater black equality. Yet, he is a hypocrite who speaks out for black rights only so far as it gets him some notoriety and power in the black community. He is never so adamant that he will lose what little power and wealth he has obtained. John would rather be a big fish in his small pond than a martyr for the nation. Such motivations will do little for the greater good of his people.
Arthur Jarvis is a white reformer who advocates for justice and equality for the blacks of South Africa until he is murdered in his own home by Absalom Kumalo – an irony that everyone is aware of. Arthur wrote eloquently on the subject of justice, urging other whites to support the cause as Christians and compassionate human beings. He runs an organization within the black community to support their efforts at a better life. Ironically, despite having an estranged relationship with his father, Arthur’s writings influence James Jarvis more than anyone else to change his perspective and involvement with the causes of their nation.
Stephen Kumalo’s Wife
Stephen Kumalo’s wife is the unnamed woman who embodies the black concept of “mother.” She is an older woman who cares in a maternal way for her entire community. She embraces this role when she unquestioningly absorbs Gertrude’s son and Absalom’s wife as her own children. Her biggest ambition is to own a stove, but she is willing to sacrifice it when the money saved is needed for other purposes. She supports Kumalo’s work in a stereotypically gendered way, cooking and cleaning for the church.
Absalom’s Wife is a young, never named girl. She gets pregnant by Absalom and marries him before he is hanged for murder. Though Stephen Kumalo and Msimangu look down on her for sleeping with men at such a young age, her childhood was shaped by a father who abandoned her and an alcoholic mother. She was left with few opportunities to thrive. Her true innocence shines through in her genuine joy and contentment at moving to the rural community of Ndotsheni from Johannesburg and being a real part of the Kumalo family, with parents and responsibilities of her own.
Father Vincent is a white English reverend who has a compassionate and generous attitude toward blacks. He does everything in his power to assist Absalom in his murder trial. A deeply devout man, he shows signs of an enlightened attitude toward blacks similar to those of Arthur Jarvis.
The white reformatory worker
The white reformatory worker is a man, never named, who assists Absalom in getting back into society’s good graces after a few brushes with the law. He is devastated when Absalom returns to his illegal habits. The white reformatory worker takes an unhealthy pride in his work with the less fortunate blacks, which somewhat undermines his good intentions. He takes Absalom’s behavior personally. He learns a humbling lesson from this experience. He offers all the help he can to Kumalo and Absalom to keep Absalom from execution.
Arthur Jarvis’ son
Arthur Jarvis’ son is the young son of the murdered reformer who befriends Stephen Kumalo in Ndotsheni while he is staying with his grandparents. Arthur’s son is theoretically a small embodiment of his father. He is confident and compassionate. He wants to help Kumalo’s congregation when he learns of their suffering. The boy has an open mind which optimistically symbolizes the next generation. He is unaware of the customs which make Kumalo “less” than he is in life. He treats the old black reverend with respect and equality, eagerly learning what Kumalo can teach him.
John Harrison, Jr
John Harrison, Jr. is Arthur Jarvis’ brother-in-law. He has a progressive attitude toward blacks and works with Arthur to run an organization that supports blacks’ rights. He is another example of the generational class, as he and his father have opposing views on the political and social situation in South Africa.
John Harrison, Sr.
John Harrison, Sr.is Arthur Jarvis’ father-in-law, the personification of the older white generation that fears blacks and wants to keep them oppressed rather than give up any personal power or comfort. He refers to blacks as “niggers” and wishes that Absalom and his accomplices would hang for Arthur Jarvis’ murder. He represents a stubborn and unchanging perspective that will keep South Africa from moving forward. It will likely lead to violent clashes between the races.
Napoleon Letsitsi is the young black agricultural demonstrator hired by James Jarvis to revolutionize farming in the Ndotsheni community. Napoleon wants blacks to be self-sufficient. Even though Jarvis pays him a good salary to do this work in Ndotsheni, he is mildly resentful that the village must rely on the patronage of a white man. He represents the changing attitude of the younger black generation. They want reform and revolution rather than the continued oppression and subservience of blacks.
Mrs. Lithebe is an old woman who offers Kumalo room and board while he is in Johannesburg. She is a rigid moralist, preaching to Gertrude and Absalom’s girl not to talk or laugh “carelessly or idly.” She believes fully in the goodness of Kumalo and the other priests. She does her best to help him during his search for his son, including taking in his ever-increasing family.
Matthew Kumalo is John Kumalo’s son. Matthew turns to a criminal life, leading John to kick him out. Matthew is the ultimate passive troublemaker. Though he doesn’t plan the crime or carry any weapons, he goes along without putting up a fight. He has no qualms about lying in court to save himself, leaving his cousin to bear the consequences alone.
Johannes Pafuri is one of Absalom’s accomplices in the murder of Arthur Jarvis. Johannes is the main bad influence on Absalom in Johannesburg. He is the mastermind behind the plot, knowing which house to burglarize and when to do it. He carries an iron bar, indicating a violent nature. He has no qualms about beating the house servant. He has no moral character, as he sells out Absalom and then lies about his own involvement in the crime.
This section contains 2,132 words
(approx. 6 pages at 400 words per page)