Stephen Kumalo is the protagonist and moral compass of Cry, the Beloved Country. He is a quiet, humble man, with a strong faith in God and a clear sense of right and wrong. An Anglican priest, Kumalo cares for his parishioners and presides over the modest church of the village he calls home. By village standards, Kumalo and his wife are middle-class, living in a house with several rooms. They struggle, however, to save money for their son’s schooling and for a new stove. Kumalo is not flawless, and he occasionally erupts in anger and tells lies. Praying to God, however, saves him from temptation, and he always repents when he speaks unfairly.
As the novel begins, Kumalo undertakes his first journey to the city of Johannesburg. He is intimidated and overwhelmed by the city, betraying his simple background. With the help of generous hosts, however, he is able to put his fear aside and search with determination for his son. As the search drags on, we become aware of Kumalo’s physical weaknesses—according to African tradition, he has reached the time in his life when his children should be caring for him. He is forced instead to search for his son. When it becomes clear that Absalom is in grave trouble, Kumalo’s body is further broken by his grief. His faith wavers, too, but he seeks the help of friends in the ministry, who support him and pray with him. By the time Kumalo leaves Johannesburg, he is deeply sad, but his faith is buoyed by the generosity of others. When he returns to his village, Kumalo works to improve the lives of his parishioners. In the end, he faces his son’s death with mourning, but also with a sense of peace.
James Jarvis undergoes a journey parallel to that of Kumalo, although he is never granted the chance to be reunited with his son, Arthur, physically. Jarvis is a white, English-speaking farmer who lives on a hill above Ndotsheni. When the novel begins, Jarvis is ignorant of or indifferent to the injustices of South Africa. He cares for his farm and his family, and he more or less takes for granted the political system in which he lives. Jarvis’s complacency is shattered when he learns that his son has been killed. He goes to stay with his son’s in-laws, the Harrisons, in Johannesburg, where he learns that Arthur had become a leader in the community, valued by people from all racial groups for his speeches on social justice. Jarvis here realizes that his son had become a stranger to him.
In an effort to understand his son better, Jarvis reads Arthur’s writings about the injustices he perceives in South Africa, and he is moved by his son’s language and ideas. Jarvis does not undergo a political conversion so much as a moral one—he is not interested, for example, by John Kumalo’s speech before the strike at the mines. Once he returns to Ndotsheni, however, he works hard to make things better for the people of the village. He donates milk to the young children and arranges to have a dam built to irrigate the soil better. Additionally, he hires an agricultural expert to teach the farmers to preserve the soil. When he suffers from a second tragedy—the death of his wife—he consoles himself by carrying out his wife’s wish that he build a new church for the community. Jarvis’s efforts require personal sacrifices, as it costs him both money and the respect of many of his peers. It is clear, however, that he has made a firm commitment to the villagers, and, though he is a man of few words, he expresses himself beautifully through his actions.
Msimangu is warm, generous, and humble young minister in Sophiatown. He guides both Kumalo and us through Johannesburg, explaining the political and socioeconomic difficulties that the black population faces and providing shrewd commentary on both blacks and whites. He assists Kumalo with great sensitivity, working to spare him pain when he can and arranging time for him to rest. In general, he makes Kumalo’s time in Johannesburg bearable.
Of all the characters in the novel, Msimangu has the clearest understanding of South Africa’s injustices, and he serves as Paton’s mouthpiece in suggesting a solution: Christian love. According to Msimangu, white South Africans oppress the blacks because they fear their numbers and their power. Msimangu believes that only selfless love can counter this fear. Msimangu’s own selflessness is affirmed at the novel’s close, when he gives his worldly possessions to Kumalo and joins a monastery.
Though Absalom is at the center of the plot of Cry, the Beloved Country, he is a somewhat mysterious figure. Having left home like most of the young people of Ndotsheni, Absalom finds work in Johannesburg. For reasons that are never made clear, however, he loses touch with his family and falls into a life of crime. Young and impressionable, Absalom carries a gun for protection, but when he fires the weapon in fear, he ends up killing Arthur Jarvis. Absalom’s basic innocence is affirmed when he confesses everything to the police, and even they seem to suspect his friend Johannes and not him for the murder. Nonetheless, the court holds Absalom solely responsible for the crime. He tries to communicate honestly with Kumalo, though no words can explain what he has done. Originally afraid to die, Absalom appears to reconcile himself to his impending execution and writes respectfully to his mother and father until the time of his death, demonstrating a newfound maturity that allows him to approach death gracefully.
Arthur Jarvis is murdered before we even hear of him, but his writings provide him with the opportunity to speak for himself. A staunch opponent of South Africa’s racial injustices, Arthur Jarvis spent his life at the center of the debates on racism and poverty, and his essays and articles provide answers to many of the novel’s questions. His motives are selfless; he works for change not because he seeks personal glory but because he is weary of the system’s contradictions and oppression. As much as Msimangu, Arthur Jarvis is the solution South Africa needs, and although he is murdered, some hope lives on in his young son.