Significant Themes in The Beloved Country By Alan Paton
Cry, The Beloved Country is written with honesty and true gravity. Its many themes arise from exploitation, division, humility, compassion, understanding, and reconciliation. In an essay which draws on the action, the relationships between characters, and the historical context of the novel, show how the themes are realized in each of the areas above.
Alan Paton’s novel, Cry, The Beloved Country, tells the story of a South African minister whose son is sentenced to death for killing a white man. Throughout the novel, themes of exploitation, division, humility, compassion, understanding, and reconciliation are present and supported by examples.
Exploitation arises from economic and racial inequality in a society. This is evident in the novel in several cases. However, one specific example of exploitation is the way that the whites have forced the blacks to work in the mines and leave their families. The whites have used their power to completely exploit the black race. This topic is discussed in the manuscript of Arthur Jarvis.
It was permissible when we discovered gold to bring labour to the mines. It was permissible to build compounds and to keep women and children away from the towns.. It was permissible as an experiment, in the light of what we knew. But in the light of what we know now, with certain exceptions, it is no longer permissible. It is not permissible for us to go on destroying fam- ily life when we know that we are destroying it. Arthur Jarvis acknowledges that what the whites are doing to the blacks is exploitation and it is not acceptable. The white race is aware of the damage that they are inflicting upon blacks, yet they continue because for the sake of keeping their power and wealth. This exploitation exists due to the inequality in South Africa between the whites and the blacks. The social and economic differences between the two groups of people puts the whites in the position to do these horrible things to the blacks, as they have power over the black race in the South African society.
In his manuscript, Arthur Jarvis explains that the treatment of the blacks is exploitation due to the fact that the whites know what they are doing and the negative effects they are causing. He says that in the beginning, when they didn’t know what they were doing, it was not terrible. However, it is the fact that they are aware and still continue that makes their actions so corrupt.
Such development has only one true name, and that is exploitation. It might have been permissible in the early days of our country, before we became aware of its cost, in the disintegration of native commu- nity life, in the deterioration of native family life, in poverty, slums and crime. But now that the cost is known, it is no longer permissible.
The historical context of the novel in terms of the racial exploitation of the blacks by the whites displays the theme of exploitation and how it arises from economic and racial inequality in society. Division arises from the racist ideals of a segregated society blinded by their ignorance. The division in the society is a big reason why the blacks are being exploited in South Africa. This division of blacks and whites is due to the newly established apartheid. This theme can be seen in the boycott of the buses by the blacks. As they are traveling to Alexandra to find Stephen Kumalo’s son Absalom, Stephen Kumalo and Msimangu are about to get onto a bus. However, Dubula stops them at the door and tells them about the boycott that is taking place. He tells them that the prices were raised and that the blacks were all refusing to ride the bus in protest. He persuades Kumalo and Msimangu to walk to Alexandra instead.
…a man came up to them and said to Msimangu, are you going to Alexandra, umfundisi? — Yes, my friend. — We are here to stop you, umfundisi. Not by force, you see — he pointed — the police are there to prevent that. But by per- suasion. If you use this bus you are weakening the cuase of the black people. We have determined not to use these buses until the fare is brought back again to fourpence. This boycott serves as an example of the racial division in the South African society. The division is shown by the actions of the whites as they raised the bus fare. The blacks then responded with a boycott, further demonstrating the theme of division in the novel as the two races are conflicting.
Another example of division in the novel is the division of the Kumalo family. There are four members of the Kumalo family that are included in the story; Stephen, Absalom, Gertrude, and John. Reverend Stephen Kumalo is the main character, Absalom Kumalo is his son, John Kumalo is his brother, and Gertrude Kumalo is his sister. Although these four characters are a family, they are never all together in the novel, showing that the family is divided. In addition, Stephen Kumalo is the only member family that still lives in the village of Ndotsheni while the other three left for Johannesburg. It is clear in the novel that Stephen Kumalo has lost contact with all three of these family members and that is why he is trying to find all of them in Johannesburg. He is ashamed to find out that his sister is a prostitute, his brother is a politician, and his son has killed a white man. His lack of knowledge about the lives of his family members shows that the family is truly divided. — I have a brother also, here in Johannesburg. He too does not write any more. John Kumalo, a carpenter. — Msimangu smiled. I know him, he said. He is too busy to write. He is one of our great politicians. — A politician? My brother? — Yes, he is a great man in politics. Msimangu paused. I hope I shall not hurt you further. Your brother has no use for the Church any more. He says that what God has not done for South Africa, man must do. That is what he says.
Stephen Kumalo is completely unaware of what his brother has been doing in Johannesburg and is shocked to discover that he is now a politician. This lack of communication is proof of the division in the Kumalo family. This same thing is true for the rest of the family members as well. The Kumalo family and the bus boycott both show the theme of division in the novel. Humility arises from an awareness of one’s personal faults and the ability to address these. This theme is present throughout the novel in the character of Reverend Msimangu. He is very humble throughout the entire novel and it is shown by his words and actions. One example of his humility comes from a conversation he had with Stephen Kumalo soon after Kumalo came to Johannesburg. Kumalo said humbly, maybe you will pray for me. — I shall do it gladly. My brother, I have of course my work to do, but so long as you are here, my hands are yours. — You are kind. Something in the humble voice must have touched Msimangu, for he said, I am not kind. I am a selfish and sinful man, but God put his hands on me, that is all.
Msimangu has an awareness for his faults as he describes himself as unkind, selfish, and sinful. This awareness means that Msimangu is humble. His humility is also evident at the end of the novel. Msimangu announces that he is going away to become a monk and therefore is giving away all of his possessions. This action shows great humility from him as it is very difficult to give up all possessions and dedicate your life to prayer. In addition to this, Msimangu decides to give his money to Stephen Kumalo to help him with his unfortune, showing great kindness and selfnessness. Msimangu said, I am forsaking the world and all possessions, but I have saved a little money. I have no father or mother to depend on me, and I have the permission of the Church to give this to you, my friend, to help you with all the money you have spent in Johannesburg, and all the new duties you have taken up. This book is in your name.
Msimangu’s humility, shown by his words and actions, is an example of the theme of humility in the novel. His kind actions can also be used as an example of the next theme, compassion. Compassion stems from a desire to ease the suffering in other’s lives. In the novel, James Jarvis serves as a good example of this theme. After the death of his son, Arthur Jarvis, James Jarvis reads his son’s manuscripts and views the world differently as a result. He then makes an effort to better society. He takes action to improve the soil in the village of Ndotsheni by hiring a teacher. These actions show that he is thoughtful of the people in the village and the hardships that they face every day. His compassion is what drove him to spend his money to help other people. Who sent you to me? — Why, the white man who brought me. — uJarvis, was that the name? — I do not know the name, umfundisi, but it is the white man who has just gone. — Yes, that is uJarvis. Now tell me all. — I am come here to teach farming, umfundisi.
Another example of the compassion possessed by James Jarvis is his decision to build a church in the village of Ndotsheni, fulfilling his wife’s wish. His wife, Margaret Jarvis, always wanted to build a new church in Ndotsheni to benefit the community there. Upon her death, James Jarvis takes initiative and decides to construct a church in the village in memory of his son. This choice shows immense amounts of compassion from James Jarvis, both to the community of Ndotsheni and to his wife, Margaret. He decides to put his own money and effort into getting a new church so that the community can thrive and so that his wife’s wish can be fulfilled. This is a selfless act that truly shows his compassion. Umfundisi: I thank you for your message of sympathy, and for the prom- ise of the prayers of your church. You are right, my wife knew of the things that are being done, and had the greatest part in it. These things we did in memory of our beloved son. It was one of her last wishes that a new church should be built at Ndotsheni, and I shall come to discuss it with you. Yours truly, James Jarvis This letter from James Jarvis to Reverend Stephen Kumalo shows a great amount of compassion from James Jarvis as he takes it upon himself to construct a new church. This as well as his efforts to improve the soil in Ndotsheni are proof of James Jarvis’ compassion, and a prime example of the theme in the novel.
Understanding arises from a clear-eyed view of another culture’s situation. This theme is exemplified in the novel by the character relationship between James Jarvis and Stephen Kumalo. Although Stephen Kumalo’s son shot and killed James Jarvis’ son, they maintain a good, friendly relationship between each other as they are both very understanding of the other’s situation. Stephen Kumalo understands that James Jarvis is grieving over the loss of his son and has the right to be angry towards Kumalo. James Jarvis, on the other hand, understands that Stephen Kumalo is also grieving over the actions of his own son and the death sentence that he received. He understands that Kumalo feels awful about what happened and that he doesn’t need to be mad at him. Kumalo visits James Jarvis at his house and tells Jarvis that his son Absalom was the one who killed Arthur Jarvis. Even upon hearing this news, James Jarvis is not angry with Stephen Kumalo, showing his understanding. — It was my son that killed your son, said the old man. So they were silent. Jarvis left him and walked out into the trees of the garden. He stood at the wall and looked out over the veld, out to the great white dumps of the mines, like hills under the sun. When he turned to come back, he saw that the old man had risen, his hat in one hand, his stick in the other, his head bowed, his eyes on the ground. He went back to him. — I have heard you, he said. I understand what I did not understand. There is no anger in me.
The fact that James Jarvis was able to not become angry upon hearing this news from Stephen Kumalo shows a very high level of understanding and maturity. The same is true the other way in that Kumalo understands James Jarvis and they are able to have a good relationship despite the fact that Kumalo’s son killed Jarvis’ son. Another example of the high level of understanding in the relationship between James Jarvis and Stephen Kumalo is a conversation in which Kumalo thanks Jarvis. Kumalo thanks him for donating milk, helping to improve the village’s soil, and building a new church. The conversation shows that both men are completely understanding and able to prevent the past events from affecting their relationship. — Do not go before I have thanked you. For the young man, and the milk. And now for the church. — I have seen a man, said Jarvis with a kind of grim gaiety, who was in darkness till you found him. If that is what you do, I give it willingly.
Both Stephen Kumalo and James Jarvis are examples of the theme of understanding in the novel. Understanding is similar to the final theme examined in the novel, which is reconciliation. Reconciliation takes place through a thorough understanding of another’s point of view. This is an important theme in the novel and can be seen in Arthur Jarvis’ understanding of the South African society and the exploitation of the black race. Although he is a white man, he is able to understand the point of view of the blacks and see things from their perspective. In his manuscript, he explained that whites make excuses to suppress the blacks and that it is wrong that they are exploiting people. It was permissible to allow the destruction of a tribal system that impeded the growth of the country. It was permissible to believe that its destruction was inevitable. But it is not permissi- be to watch its destruction, and to replace it by nothing, or by so little, that a whole people deteriorates, physically and morally.
Arthur Jarvis’ ability to view society from the point of view of a black man is a prime example of the novel’s theme of reconciliation. It is evident from his writing that he has a complete understanding of the situation and he understands what it would be like to be a black being suppressed by the whites. The novel, Cry, The Beloved Country, by Alan Paton contains themes of exploitation, division, humility, compassion, understanding, and reconciliation. Each of the individual themes are represented in the novel by plot, character relationships, or historical context and can be displayed through several examples.
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