“A beautiful novel…its writing is so fresh, its projection of character so immediate and full, its events so compelling, and its understanding so compassionate that to read the book is to share intimately, even to the point of catharsis, in the grave human experience.” —The New York Times
An Oprah Book Club selection, Cry, the Beloved Country, was an immediate worldwide bestseller when it was published in 1948. Alan Paton’s impassioned novel about a black man’s country under white man’s law is a work of searing beauty.
Cry, the Beloved Country, is the deeply moving story of the Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son, Absalom, set against the background of a land and a people riven by racial injustice. Remarkable for its lyricism, unforgettable for character and incident, Cry, the Beloved Country is a classic work of love and hope, courage and endurance, born of the dignity of man.
About the Author
Date of Birth:January 11, 1903
Date of Death:April 12, 1988
Place of Birth:Pietermaritzburg, Natal, South Africa
Place of Death:Durban, Natal, South Africa
Education:Maritzburg College, 1918; B.S., Natal University College, 1924
Read an Excerpt
Cry, the Beloved Country
By Alan Paton
Amereon LimitedCopyright © 1920 Alan Paton
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThere is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa. About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the forlorn crying of the titihoya, one of the birds of the veld. Below you is the valley of the Umzimkulu, on its journey from the Drakensberg to the sea; and beyond and behind the river, great hill after great hill; and beyond and behind them, the mountains of Ingeli and East Griqualand.
The grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. It holds the rain and the mist, and they seep into the ground, feeding the streams in every kloof. It is well-tended, and not too many cattle feed upon it; not too many fires burn it, laying bare the soil. Stand unshod upon it, for the ground is holy, being even as it came from the Creator. Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men, cares for men. Destroy it and man is destroyed.
Where you stand the grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. But the rich green hills break down. They fall to the valley below, and falling, change their nature. For they grow red and bare; they cannot hold the rain and mist, and the streams are dry in the kloofs. Too many cattle feed upon the grass, and too many fires have burned it. Stand shod upon it, for it is coarse and sharp, and the stones cut under the feet. It is not kept, or guarded, or cared for, it no longer keeps men, guards men, cares for men. The titihoya does not cry here any more.
The great red hills stand desolate, and the earth has torn away like flesh. The lightning flashes over them, the clouds pour down upon them, the dead streams come to life, full of the red blood of the earth. Down in the valleys women scratch the soil that is left, and the maize hardly reaches the height of a man. They are valleys of old men and old women, of mothers and children. The men are away, the young men and the girls are away. The soil cannot keep them any more.
Excerpted from Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton Copyright © 1920 by Alan Paton.
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Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Discussion Points
- How is Cry, the Beloved Country part story, part prophecy, and part psalm? How does the story resemble the biblical parable of the prodigal son? How does it mirror another biblical parable, Absalom? What is the significance of Kumalo's son being named Absalom? Where else does the Bible inform the story?
- There are many paradoxes in this novel: a priest's son commits murder; a white man who fights for the dignity of South African blacks is senselessly murdered; the father of the murdered son helps the father of the son who murdered to keep a disintegrating native tribe together. How do you reconcile these paradoxes? How do they contribute to the richness of the story? Why might Paton have made this choice?
- Msimangu says, "I see only one hope for our country, and that is when white men and black men, desiring neither power or money, but desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it." The book was written in 1948. Some forty-odd years later, has Msimangu's prophecy come to pass? If so, in what ways? If not, why?
- How does apartheid manifest itself in Cry, the Beloved Country? Describe or characterize the separate worlds inhabited by blacks and whites. Where do black and white lives touch?
- Jarvis is unable to physically comfort Kumalo. Paton writes, "And because he spoke with compassion, the old man wept, and Jarvis sat embarrassed on his horse. Indeed he might have come down from it, but such a thing is not lightly done." But yet, when the people of Ndotsheni are in grave trouble, Jarvis provides milk and irrigation vital to their survival, and later a new church. Why is he capable of one and not the other? Exactly what is it that is not lightly done? How and why does such duality exist? What do you feel about such codes of behavior?
- Cry, the Beloved Country is, in part, a story about those who stayed and those who left. What happens to the people who stayed in the tribal villages? What happens to those who left and went to Johannesburg? What is Paton's point of view of this mass migration? Does he feel it was necessary? Inevitable? What is your opinion?
- Arthur Jarvis says "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 permissible to watch its destruction, and to replace it with nothing, or by so little, that a whole people deteriorates, physically and morally." What events in the novel illustrate the breakup of the tribal system? How is the tribal system destroyed? What is done to replace it?
- An unidentified white person in the novel offers, "Which do we suffer, a law-abiding, industrious and purposeful native people, or a lawless, idle and purposeless people? The truth is, that we do not know, for we fear them both." What is it that the white man fears in both instances? Which does the white man suffer in this novel? What might be Paton's point of view? What is your opinion and why?
- Throughout the story, Kumalo experiences the absence of God and momentary losses of faith. He suffers through periods where it feels as if God has deserted him. What other characters experience the absence of God? Does Kumalo ever experience the presence of God? If so, when? Is God basically absent or present in Paton's novel? If so, in what way does God manifest Himself?
- Describe the role of faith in the novel. How does it serve Kumalo and Msimangu, the people of Ndotsheni? Was it faith that inspired Arthur Jarvis, and hence his father? What about Absalom? Is there any indication that faith impedes or injures any of the characters?
- There is much mention of secrets in this novel, secrets with no answers. Father Vincent tells Kumalo, "Yes, I said pray and rest. Even if it is only words that you pray, and even if your resting is only a lying on the bed. And do not pray for yourself, and do not pray to understand the ways of God. For they are a secret. Who knows what life is, for life is a secret." How does this notion of secret permeate the novel? What does it give the novel? What effect do Father Vincent's words have on Kumalo? How do they affect you?
- Although Kumalo is a priest and often has the highest intentions, he sometimes does things which are contrary. For example, when he visits his son's wife-to-be, in his efforts to hurt her, he asks if she would take him if he desired her. Where else do we see Kumalo falter? How do you reconcile these two sides of Kumalo? How do you relate to him? Do any of the other characters falter? If so, who? What is it that makes Paton's characters so realistic?
- Kumalo and the demonstrator have very different opinions about the white man. Kumalo says, "Where would we be without the white man's milk? Where would we be without all that this white man has done for us? Where would you be also? Would you be working for him here?" And the demonstrator answers, "It was the white man who gave us so little land, it was the white man who took us away from the land to go to work. And we were ignorant also. It is all these things together that have made this valley desolate. Therefore, what this good white man does is only repayment." How do Kumalo and the demonstrator reconcile their different points of view? How might the other characters in the book feel? What is your point of view?
- The last few sentences Arthur Jarvis wrote before his death are: "The truth is that our civilization is not Christian; it is a tragic compound of great ideal and fearful practice, of high assurance and desperate anxiety, of loving charity and fearful clutching of possessions." Where in this novel do we see a split between high ideals and narrow self-interest? Do the characters embody one or the other, or are they morally mixed? Do you think what Jarvis feels applies to present-day South Africa? If so, how? If not, how have things changed?
- What is Paton's vision of the world? Does he express the view that human beings are immutable or capable of transformation? Are we left with any kind of message, any vision for mankind? If so, what is it?
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Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison
The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
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The Wall of Plague, Andre Brink
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The Ways of White Folks, Langston Hughes
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