Cry, the Beloved Country Themes

This Study Guide consists of approximately 13 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of Cry, the Beloved Country.
This section contains 1,194 words
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Racial Inequality

Life during the 1940’s in South Africa is rife with racial inequality. Though blacks are the majority race in the country, they are subjugated by the white minority who will not let them ascend to positions of power or have a piece of the country’s gold mining wealth. Blacks live on land that is too poor to farm. They have little education. Families and tribes are broken apart because of the gold mines, which draw young black men to live in faraway,basic compounds for low wages. Everyone lives in fear. The blacks live in fear of angering or offending whites and suffering reprisals. The whites live in fear that the blacks will rise up against the injustice in their lives and try to take back power of the country.

Each character in the novel deals with the issue of racial inequality in a different way. Stephen Kumalo essentially accepts reality. He works to improve conditions in his small village but only through passive channels. When the little Jarvis boy raises his hat to Kumalo, Kumalo is surprised by the sign of respect to an elder and reverend. As a black man, he expects no such honor. Similarly, Msimangu, the reverend who helps Kumalo in Johannesburg, subscribes to a passive religious attitude – bear this world’s suffering to receive rewards in the next. Kumalo’s brother John, who has done relatively well for himself in Johannesburg, has a powerful rhetorical style and could potentially rouse the black masses to action. Yet, he hangs back,too. He only protests slightly for a bigger piece of the gold industry and better wages for black miners. He fears losing what little power and wealth he has in life. The black political leader Dubula leads a bus boycott in protest against a fare hike, which seems moderately successful as an active tactic for change. Yet, the blacks are also reliant on whites who offer them rides from the distant suburbs of Johannesburg. The novel indicates that change in this pattern of injustice will only come through changing the attitudes of white people. Arthur Jarvis argued that if whites considered themselves Christian, they must end the inequality because they know it is wrong. Also, fear is not an acceptable motivation. After his death, his work does change the attitude of his father James, who dedicates himself to Arthur’s work in place of his son. Kumalo’s village, through James’ patronage, begins to regenerate with new farming technology and education. The message is that if whites do not change their behavior, the alternative will be violence, as symbolized by Absalom’s unfortunate murder of Arthur.

Relationships between Fathers and Sons

Stephen Kumalo and James Jarvis both experience a generational clash with their sons. Neither man understands the motivation and goals of his offspring. Kumalo is distressed that all the young people in his dying village move to the city and fall into criminal lives. As a priest, he has a hard time believing it has happened to his own son. While visiting Absalom in jail, all he can ask is “why?” over and over. He is angry with Absalom for acting carelessly about the company he keeps and renouncing the help he received at the reformatory. Kumalo is happy to live in his valley, though he mourns the loss of tribal life in the face of the gold mining industry. He does not want to admit the world is changing, but his son’s actions force him to accept that there has to be a new way forward rather than seeking comfort in the past. He cannot save his son’s life, but he decides to take a more active role in saving his village and the children of his community (though his active desire to bring about change is ultimately passive, as he is reliant on the help of James Jarvis and the weather, which he would attribute to God’s grace.

James Jarvis is also at a loss to understand his son’s actions. Arthur’s passionate agitating for the rights of blacks has never made sense of James. He was content to live prosperously above the valley where the blacks struggled, never taking the time to think about their plight. His son’s death forces him to reconsider his indifference. Reading his son’s papers, James must contend with the gross injustices of his country for the first time. As a way of creating meaning from Arthur’s death, he takes up his son’s cause, doing his small part to heal the broken land and people by adopting the valley and doing everything in his power to regenerate it. James is further stimulated to action by his grandson, who takes after his father’s curiosity and generosity of spirit. James lost his son but honors his work through his own actions.

James and Kumalo were each content to live in the “old” world, reluctant to embrace modern trends and attitudes. Each man loses a son and it changes his perspective. Though there might not have been understanding across the generations, there is always love, and these two fathers both seek to make the world better in honor of their sons’ untimely deaths.

The Significance of Intention

Throughout the novel, the author gives special note to people’s intentions when they speak and act. It is frequently noted when a character, such as Kumalo or Msimangu, acts cruelly for no reason. Kumalo often finds himself wanting to hurt those he interacts with, whether it is his brother John, Absalom, or Absalom’s young girl. He immediately recognizes the inherent immorality of these actions and seeks forgiveness for his wrong-headedness. He is desperate to know the “why” of Absalom’s actions – why he allowed himself to get caught up in behavior he knew was wrong. Absalom’s defense tries to build a case around intention – Absalom didn’t mean to kill Arthur Jarvis, it was a reaction out of fear. Absalom’s conviction and sentencing to death proves intentions don’t necessarily matter if a crime is committed. Kumalo, as a religious man, is more than aware of this, which is why he so frequently calls himself out for acting with bad intentions.

Other characters have dubious intentions: John Kumalo uses his power to keep his power, rather than to affect positive change in his community. He uses his gift for oratory to take his people only so far, because he fears the repercussions of going further and leading an insurrection against whites. James Jarvis discovers he has been living without intention for many years, unthinkingly doing what he has always done. His son’s death forces him to reevaluate his lifestyle, and he starts to live with the intention that John Kumalo lacks: to make the greater community that he is a part of better. The novel makes the point that acting thoughtlessly, with no eye to the consequences, is almost worse than acting with bad intentions. Bad intentions can be overcome with forgiveness, but no intention makes one an accomplice to the bad intentions of the people with whom one associates.

This section contains 1,194 words
(approx. 3 pages at 400 words per page)
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