42 pages 1 hour read

Alan Paton

Cry, the Beloved Country

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1948

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Summary and Study Guide


Cry, the Beloved Country is a historical fiction novel by Alan Paton. Paton was a novelist and anti-apartheid activist in South Africa. The novel was published in February 1948, months before South Africa instituted apartheid. Cry, the Beloved Country explores the discrimination against Black South African citizens leading up to apartheid. It outlines the experience of Reverend Stephen Kumalo who travels to Johannesburg to help his sick sister. While in Johannesburg, Kumalo discovers his son Absalom murdered a white man, the son of a farmer near their village. The novel discusses grief and racial divides, as well as hope for a future free from discrimination.

This guide refers to the Scribner 2003 print edition.

Content Warning: Cry, the Beloved Country includes racism (including use of the n-word), violence (including murder), and child death.

Plot Summary

Reverend Stephen Kumalo receives a letter from Reverend Theophilus Msimangu about his sister’s illness. Kumalo leaves the village of Ndotsheni and takes a train to Johannesburg, hoping he can help his sister, as well as discover what happened to his son Absalom. When he arrives at Msimangu’s house, Msimangu tells him that his sister Gertrude has become a sex worker. Msimangu promises to help Kumalo find his son Absalom. Kumalo goes to see Gertrude and convinces her to come with him to Ndotsheni with her young son. Msimangu takes Kumalo to see his brother John, who has become an activist for equality for Black South African citizens. John gives them information about Absalom and his son Matthew, who started living together. Over the next few days, Msimangu and Kumalo discover Absalom was stealing from white people’s houses, and that he impregnated a girl who was waiting for him to marry her. Father Vincent, a white priest who is close with Msimangu, shows them a newspaper article about a white man named Arthur Jarvis who was murdered in his house. Arthur was a civil engineer fighting for equal rights for Black South African citizens. Meanwhile, Kumalo learns he is the son of the wealthy farmer and landowner James Jarvis, who lives in the hills above Ndotsheni. The next day, he receives word that the police arrested Absalom for the murder of Arthur.

Kumalo visits Absalom in prison. He feels angry because Absalom does not seem remorseful. Kumalo sees John in the prison because his son Matthew was an accomplice to Absalom. John tells Kumalo that the only reason his son is in prison is because Absalom said he was present at the crime, and he is going to hire a lawyer. Kumalo then visits Father Vincent, who counsels him through his depression and grief, and tells him to pray. He later brings Absalom’s partner to live with him until they are ready to leave for Ndotsheni. Father Vincent finds a white lawyer named Mr. Carmichael, who offers to defend Absalom for free.

After learning of his son Arthur’s murder, James travels to Johannesburg.

In the next few weeks, Absalom’s trial begins and he tries to convince the judge that he shot Arthur out of fear, not malice. Absalom’s trial comes to an end and the judge rules him guilty, sentencing him to death by hanging. Kumalo tries to comfort Absalom, but he is dragged away by the white wardens. Upset, Kumalo visits John and accuses Matthew of betraying Absalom. John becomes angry and kicks Kumalo out of his house. As Kumalo prepares to leave for Ndotsheni, Msimangu promises that if there is no mercy for Absalom, either he or Father Vincent will be with him when he dies. The next morning, Kumalo gets ready to leave with Absalom’s partner; meanwhile, his sister Gertrude leaves her young son behind.

Kumalo reunites with his wife in Ndotsheni and introduces her to Absalom’s partner and their nephew. Ndotsheni suffers from drought, and children are dying because there is not enough milk from cattle. James hears about the villagers’ suffering and sends Kumalo milk every week. The magistrate arrives in Ndotsheni, and James arranges a dam for the villagers. James hires an agricultural demonstrator to live in the village and teach the residents how to farm. Kumalo receives word that Absalom will not receive mercy, that he will be executed on the fifteenth of the month. On the 14th of the month, Kumalo decides to walk to a mountain and hold a vigil for his son. He crosses paths with James, who tells Kumalo that he will remember Absalom. Kumalo thanks him for his help. He climbs the mountain and thinks about his son as the sun rises on the day of his execution.

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