Cry, the Beloved Country
Book II: Chapters 28–29
Summary — Chapter 28
The judge delivers his verdict on Absalom’s crime. While a Zulu interpreter translates, the judge explains that even though Arthur’s servant identified Johannes as having been present during the break-in, there is not enough proof to convict Johannes. Although he acknowledges that Absalom’s testimony is vivid and that it was corroborated by plenty of circumstantial evidence, the judge also wonders out loud whether Absalom named his accomplices to alleviate his own guilt. For these reasons, the judge declares Johannes and Matthew not guilty, although he hopes there will be further investigation into their previous criminal activities.
The judge turns his attention to Absalom. He agrees with many of Mr. Carmichael’s arguments regarding Absalom’s remorse, the honesty of his testimony, and his youth. He also mentions Carmichael’s argument that the destruction of tribal society and the conditions of native life in Johannesburg contributed to the crime. The judge explains, however, that he must uphold the law, even if that law was made by an unjust society. If Absalom had truly fired in fear, the judge says, the charge of murder would have to be dropped, but he says the fact that Absalom brought a loaded revolver into the house and that the servant was struck with an iron bar demonstrate an intention to kill. Therefore, he finds Absalom guilty of murder. The judge believes there are no special grounds for mercy, which means that Absalom is sentenced to hang. Only the governor-general-in-council can lessen Absalom’s sentence. The young man from the reformatory, who has attended the trial, crosses the color line that separates whites and blacks in the courtroom in order to help Kumalo exit.
Summary — Chapter 29
Father Vincent, Kumalo, Gertrude, Msimangu, and Absalom’s girlfriend go to the prison so that Absalom can be married. After the marriage, Absalom and his father have a final meeting. Absalom sends his remembrances to his mother and directs his father to his last savings and possessions, which will help with the upkeep of his son. Kumalo bitterly mentions that he finds it hard to forgive Matthew and Johannes for abandoning Absalom. The time comes for Absalom to be taken away, and he begins to weep because he is afraid of dying. Two guards have to pull Absalom from his father’s knees when it is time for Kumalo to leave. Outside, Absalom’s girlfriend joyfully greets Kumalo as her father, but he is too distracted to pay much attention to her.
Kumalo goes to say good-bye to his brother. After some tense pleasantries, John tells Kumalo that he intends to bring Matthew back to his shop once the trouble has passed. Kumalo asks John where his politics are taking him. John replies that Kumalo should not interfere with his politics since he does not interfere with Kumalo’s religion. Kumalo warns John that his words may get him in trouble with the police, and when he sees fear in his brother’s eyes, Kumalo presses further in order to hurt John. Kumalo lies and says that he has heard that a spy has come to John’s shop and has been reporting on the secret conversations John conducts there. When John shakes his head at the thought of being betrayed by a friend, Kumalo angrily cries out that his son had two such friends. John drives him from the store, and Kumalo walks away, distressed that he has failed in his mission to warn John against the corrupting influence of power.
The Jarvises bid their farewell to the Harrisons, who agree with the sentencing and wish the other two men had been convicted as well. Jarvis agrees. At the station, Jarvis slips John Harrison an envelope containing a check for a thousand pounds for the boys’ club that John and Arthur founded.
There is a farewell gathering for Kumalo at Mrs. Lithebe’s house. Msimangu tells Kumalo that he has decided to renounce all of his possessions and become a monk. He gives Kumalo his savings, over thirty-three pounds—more money than Kumalo has ever possessed. Kumalo falls to his knees in amazement and decides to send John a letter to apologize for his actions. The following morning, he wakes Absalom’s wife for the journey to Ndotsheni. In Gertrude’s room, however, he finds her son and her clothes neatly laid out, but Gertrude is gone.
Analysis — Book II: Chapters 28–29
The judge’s sentencing of Absalom demonstrates that white South Africa’s concern lies in self-preservation rather than in progress toward racial equality. Though he toys with the notion that the question of justice in Absalom’s case must take into account the condition of society as a whole, the judge ends up pinning responsibility for the crime on Absalom. By shifting his focus from the larger picture of how society influences individuals to the smaller picture of how Absalom acted in a particular instant, the judge reinforces a truth about the society in which he lives: reason and compassion cannot triumph over ingrained prejudice. The judge is sympathetic to Absalom’s situation, but he proves himself a slave to the legal system, stating that despite his feelings he must act in accordance with the laws. By acknowledging the potential unfairness of these laws but refusing to undermine them further, the judge dehumanizes black South Africans. Finally, he ignores the fact that white South Africa oppresses black South Africans when he argues that South Africa’s ability to abide by its laws in the face of social upheaval is a sign of hope for the country.
The novel spends little time dealing with the various characters’ reactions to Absalom’s sentence, suggesting that any debate over Absalom’s guilt is irrelevant. Absalom reacts as we expect someone in his situation would react—with fear. Kumalo barely even addresses the sentencing. The family members of the victim find solace in the conviction in proportion to their dislike of blacks: the more conservative Mr. Harrison is pleased but wishes the other two youths had been convicted as well, while the more moderate Jarvis limits his comments on the matter to agreeing with Harrison’s support of the sentencing. Paton mutes his characters’ reactions to Absalom’s sentence perhaps to show how little impact people can have on the South African system. No amount of individual emotion, it seems, can sway such institutionalized values.
The conflict between John and Kumalo is also exposed here, and though the brothers have grown distant over the years, in Chapter 29 their separation becomes final. In this scene, however, John is less despicable than in previous passages. He plans to welcome Matthew back into his house, and he draws an interesting comparison between his brother’s religion and his own politics. Perhaps, this chapter suggests, Kumalo’s religion is as offensive to John as John’s politics are to Kumalo. Although the novel has always depicted John as nothing more than a bull-necked rabble-rouser, for a fleeting instant we see the situation through his eyes: a man tired of the indignities suffered by his people, with no time for the meek protests of his brother. That the novel sides with Kumalo is clear, but its inherent sense of justice also compels us to look for a brief moment at a conflict from the offending party’s point of view.
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