Alan Paton Writing Styles in Cry, the Beloved Country

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Point of View

Cry the Beloved Country is written from the perspective of a third person omniscient narrator, who mainly stays focused on the internal world of Stephen Kumalo. The narrator also dips into the minds of a variety of other characters, particularly James Jarvis beginning in Book Two. These two men are of the same generation, but they come from completely different worlds. The narrator uses his perspective to compare and contrast their thought processes. The author also occasionally uses a second person point of view, inviting the reader more fully into the story by the use of “you.” Though most of the novel is written in the past tense, the passages where the author steps out of the narrative to describe are presented in the present tense. This adds urgency to the circumstances. For example, life in the Orlando Shanty Town is a situation that needs to be changed very soon.

The author makes an effort to present some moral balance between whites and blacks in South Africa. He does not demonize or martyr either group, as he presents the flaws of each equally. However, the novel itself is a one-sided and impassioned plea aimed at white South Africans to stop living in fear and give blacks their equal rights. Alan Paton does not sit back and offer a simple objective portrait of life in South Africa as apartheid is beginning. He begs his readers to take action and follow their supposed Christian values. They should stop living in fear of change. As noted elsewhere, there is a focus on oratory in the novel. John Kumalo and Msimangu are both powerful speakers, and Arthur Jarvis is an eloquent rhetorical writer. Paton himself uses the novel to present his argument, set in a specific time and place (South Africa on the brink of apartheid) in as palatable and human a form as he can create, a technique he clearly hopes will appeal to the basic human decency and compassion of his fellow white South Africans. The writings of Arthur Jarvis are clearly Paton’s own ideas. While some passages read as little more than propagandist speeches, the story of the dignified black man who just wants to keep his family and community whole intertwines with the gradual enlightenment of an older white man. This gives the reader characters to latch onto and root for, and it offers the most persuasive argument for the need for change and justice in South Africa.


The novel is set in 1946, two years before racial segregation was fully legalized under apartheid. Writing in 1948 as these injustices were being codified, the author is clearly sending out an impassioned plea for his white compatriots to reconsider their racism. Though blacks are the majority in South Africa, the minority whites have worked to keep them in check by breaking up tribes and communities and subduing blacks with conversion to a passive Christianity. Blacks work in the gold mines that have made the nation rich, but they are underpaid for their labor, not receiving any part of the wealth they pull from the land. In addition, young black men traveling to the mines are leaving their rural communities and destroying the fabric of tribal life that has existed for centuries. Some blacks try to rouse their people to action and some educated whites have also joined the cause. The air in South Africa at this time in their history is thick with racial tension; everyone lives in fear of everyone else.

The novel sets up a straightforward dichotomy between the idyllic world of village life and the violent and harsh realities of the city. Despite the drought and destitution, Kumalo’s village of Ndotsheni is still preferable to the sinfulness of Johannesburg. People go to Johannesburg and forget their values. They live selfishly for their own individual gain. In Ndotsheni, the villagers rally around Kumalo despite his troubles when Absalom is convicted of murder. They pray as a community and celebrate as a community. The group effort of the confirmation of the village’s young people into the church is an example. They even have compassion as a community, creating a funeral wreath for James Jarvis’ dead wife. These tribal values are held up as ideal. There is something inherently moral about tribal life.

By contrast, John and Gertrude and Absalom all go to Johannesburg and forget their roots. John gives up his religious beliefs in order to gain a bit of power and money. Gertrude turns prostitution. Absalom gets involved with violent thieves and unthinkingly follows their lead, resulting in his own death sentence.

The novel implies that the rapidly changing world, driven by technology and greed, is heading in the wrong direction, as exemplified by city life. If villages had the proper access to education and agricultural advances, there would be no reason for young people to ever leave the villages again. Yet, even Kumalo, who is desperate to hold his community together, knows that isn’t quite true. He is the last of a dying culture, and he must find a way for his community to adapt. He must also accept that young people will always seek their fortunes elsewhere in this new world. The novel is an elegy for this ending era, but it is also a call to action as the new era begins. As things change, whites and blacks have a chance to redefine their relationship in a more positive and constructive way. The fact that apartheid becomes law even as the novel is written proves that the author’s hopes will not be realized for a long time to come.

Language and Meaning

The language of the narrator is full of rhetorical devices – repetition of the descriptive passages that open books one and two, impassioned arguments for change using a Greek choral structure of commenting on the action, and direct address to the reader. The author is trying to make the novel feel personal; he is putting a human face on the South African blacks most South African whites fear or ignore or oppress, and he is openly asking them to acknowledge the great injustices of the nation and to work towards righting these wrongs before the situation turns violent. The formality in the language and rhetoric makes chunks of the novel seem like a speech – readers could imagine the words spoken out loud for an audience.

There is also a formality in the dialogue of the black characters, because English is not their first language. Though the novel is written in English, readers learn in Stephen Kumalo’s first encounter with his brother John that the characters are actually speaking Zulu because John asks to switch to English (another way he is renouncing the traditions and values of his village life). The syntax of their spoken English is slightly unnatural, giving readers the sense that they are not entirely comfortable with this foreign language, as when John says, “my own brother, the son of our mother” (Page 37). They adapt their traditional greetings into English; instead of saying “goodbye” at the end of a conversation, there is a customary wish to “stay well” and “go well.” These Zulu characters refer to their problems as “heavy” instead of difficult, giving a literal weight to the burden of their hardships. This metaphorical passage also illuminates the key to the Zulu language: “‘When the storm threatens, a man is afraid for his house,’ said Father Vincent in that symbolic language that is like the Zulu tongue. ‘But when the house is destroyed, there is something to do. About a storm he can do nothing, but he can rebuild a house’” (Page 102). Zulu is an image and symbolic-based language, and these metaphors are peppered throughout the book, giving readers a flavor of the Zulu they are not actually reading.

Since the book is set in 1946, much of the language is old-fashioned for modern readers: for example, characters say “must needs” which is a verb form that is no longer used. They also use words innocuously that have much more weighted meanings today, such as “fondled,” “queer,” and “gay.” Readers must adapt to the archaic meanings of words that are used differently today. However, the outdated language isn’t difficult to follow, and there is little in the grammar and syntax that will trip readers up. Since the author's style of penning dialogue does not tag who is speaking and how the words are being spoken, it may be slightly difficult to follow who is talking.


The novel is divided into three books. Book One consists of seventeen chapters and covers Kumalo’s journey to find his son up to the beginning of Absalom’s trial for murder. Book Two, with twelve chapters, backtracks and retells part of the story from the perspective of James Jarvis at the time right before he learns of Arthur’s murder, and carries forward as his story intersects with Kumalo’s at the house of his kinswoman near Johannesburg. Book Two then covers the trial and sentencing of Absalom, showing the reactions of both Kumalo and Jarvis. Book Three consists of seven chapters that recount life for Kumalo and Jarvis back in Natal province. It tells how their lives become inextricably linked after the loss of their two sons. Jarvis makes the choice to follow his son’s lead and support the local black community. Kumalo’s village life is saved through this intervention.

Within these books, there are also interludes that step slightly outside the main narrative. These offer snapshots of the greater world surrounding Kumalo and Jarvis. For example, there is a chapter telling the hardships of an anonymous black woman living in Orlando’s Shanty Town. Another chapter tells about the public meetings where whites address the issues of black violence. There are passages that directly address the reader with pleas to consider the future of Africa as a whole and to examine how systemic racial oppression is bad for everyone on the continent. These sections and chapters that step out of the main plot can be slightly confusing to the reader, as there are no authorial signposts to indicate Paton is going on a tangent. But, overall the pieces are woven together to form a tapestry for the reader, a big picture vision of the troubles and hardships of life in South Africa at a particular moment in history. The novel acts as a historical document for the modern reader who can look at the full history of apartheid and understand the prescience of Paton’s stirring novel.

This section contains 1,766 words
(approx. 5 pages at 400 words per page)
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