of the novel’s two protagonists. Kumalo is an elderly Zulu priest
who has spent all of his life in the village of Ndotsheni. He is
a quiet, humble, and gentle man with a strong moral sense and an
abiding faith in God. He is not perfect, however, and occasionally
gives in to the temptation to hurt others with harsh words or lies.
The dignity and grace with which he accepts his suffering, however,
along with his determination to help his people in spite of his
limitations, make him the moral center of the novel.
in-depth analysis of Stephen Kumalo.
novel’s other protagonist, a white landowner whose farm overlooks
Ndotsheni. When he first appears in the novel, Jarvis is a relatively
conservative farmer and a man of few words. But the tragic news that
his only son, Arthur, has been murdered leads him to Johannesburg,
where he begins to rethink his opinions and his relationship to
the villagers that live below his farm.
in-depth analysis of James Jarvis.
- Stephen Kumalo’s host and guide in Johannesburg.
A tall, young minister at the Mission House in Sophiatown, Msimangu
has an acute understanding of the problems that face South Africa. He
helps Kumalo understand the people and places that they encounter,
and is unfailingly sympathetic to Kumalo, making Kumalo’s quest
his top priority. He sometimes speaks unkindly, but he quickly repents.
His eventual decision to enter a monastery is a final testament
to the depth of his faith and generosity.
in-depth analysis of Theophilus Msimangu.
Kumalo’s son. After fleeing home for Johannesburg, Absalom quickly
goes astray, but even after he commits murder, he is able to reclaim
his fundamental decency. His decision to move to Johannesburg is
part of a larger trend of young black people fleeing their villages
for the cities. Absalom’s story is a cautionary tale of the dangers
of this movement. Seeming to lack a reliable moral compass, he is
influenced by bad companions and begins a criminal career.
in-depth analysis of Absalom Kumalo.
Kumalo’s brother. Formerly a humble carpenter and a practicing Christian,
John Kumalo becomes a successful businessman and one of the three most
powerful black politicians in Johannesburg. He has a beautiful and
powerful voice, which he uses to speak out for the rights of black
South Africans, but his fear of punishment prevents him from pushing
for actual radical change, and he is considered by many to be without
Jarvis’s name first appears in the novel after he has been murdered,
but he is a powerful presence whose legacy hovers over the whole
novel. An engineer and fierce advocate for justice for black South
Africans, he is shot dead in his home by Absalom Kumalo.
in-depth analysis of Arthur Jarvis.
Kumalo’s strong-minded, supportive, and loving wife. Mrs. Kumalo
and her husband make household decisions as equals, and she bears
hardship gracefully. When Kumalo is inclined to brood, she rouses
him to action, and it is she who supplies the courage needed to
read the bad news that the mail brings from Johannesburg.
- Stephen Kumalo’s sister and the original reason for
his trip to Johannesburg. Gertrude, twenty-five years younger than
Kumalo and living in Johannesburg, is easily influenced. When Kumalo reminds
her of her Christian duties and obligations, she attempts to return
to them, but she lacks real determination.
nephew. He brings comfort to Kumalo during his troubles. He returns
with Kumalo to Ndotsheni, where Absalom’s wife raises him.
woman with whom Kumalo stays in Johannesburg. Mrs. Lithebe is an
Msutu woman who lives in Sophiatown and takes in boarders, especially priests.
She is a good and generous Christian who believes that helping others
is simply her duty.
The young man
young white man who works at the reformatory and attempts to reform
Absalom. Although he does, on one occasion, chastise Kumalo, he
does so because he cares much for his pupils, and the thought of
Absalom’s predicament pains him.
- An Anglican priest from England who stays at the Sophiatown
Mission and offers to help Kumalo with his troubles. Father Vincent
counsels Kumalo when he is brokenhearted over his son and presides
over the wedding between Absalom and Absalom’s girlfriend. He is
warm and understanding, and he possesses deep faith.
- The kindhearted and quiet sixteen-year-old girl
whom Absalom has impregnated. She has run away from her dysfunctional
family but still seeks a family structure and bonds. She is sexually
experienced but essentially innocent, obedient, and grateful for
- James Jarvis’s wife. Margaret takes the death of her
son very hard. She is a physically fragile and loving woman who
commiserates with and supports her husband through their grief.
She also shares in his plans to help Ndotsheni.
brother of Mary Jarvis, Arthur Jarvis’s wife. John is young and
quick-witted, and shares Arthur’s opinions about the rights of the
black population in South Africa. He provides companionship to James Jarvis
Jarvis’s father. Mr. Harrison has conservative political views and
blames black South Africans for the country’s problems. Though he
disagrees with Arthur, he admires Arthur’s courage.
only a child, Arthur’s son is very much like his father. He is curious,
intelligent, and generous. He treats black people with unusual courtesy
and pleases Kumalo by visiting him and practicing Zulu.
- The agricultural expert hired by James Jarvis to teach
better farming techniques to the people of Ndotsheni. A well-educated
middle-class black man, Letsitsi earns a good salary and is eager
to help build his country. Although grateful for the help of good white
men, he nonetheless looks forward to an Africa in which black people
will not rely on whites for their basic needs.
Kumalo’s son. We learn little about Matthew, but he is important
to the plot of the novel, as he is a good friend and eventual accomplice
of Absalom’s. Eventually, however, Matthew denies having been present
at the robbery, turning his back on his cousin and friend.
- The third young man present at the attempted robbery
of Arthur Jarvis’s house. According to Absalom’s testimony, Pafuri
is the ringleader of the group, deciding the time of the robbery
and having his weapon “blessed” to give them good luck.
- An acquaintance of Father Vincent’s who becomes Absalom’s
lawyer. Mr. Carmichael is a tall and serious man who carries himself
with an almost royal bearing. He takes Absalom’s case pro
judge who presides over Absalom’s case seems to be a fair-minded
man, but he is constrained by unjust laws and applies them strictly.
second in a trio of powerful black politicians in Johannesburg.
Dubula provides the heart to complement John Kumalo’s voice. The
bus boycott and the construction of Shanty Town are his handiwork.
third colleague of Dubula and John Kumalo. While not a great orator,
Tomlinson is considered the smartest of the three.
Jarvis’s wife. Mary takes her husband’s murder hard, but she remains
strong for her children. She shares her husband’s commitment to