Summary: Chapter 1

In the hilly South African province of Natal, a lovely road winds its way up from the village of Ixopo to Carisbrooke, a journey of seven miles. This misty vantage point looks out over one of the fairest valleys of Africa, where the native birds sing and the grass is dense and green. The lush grass of the hills clings to the rain and mist, soaking up the moisture, which in turn feeds every stream. Although cattle graze here, their feeding has not destroyed the land, and the few fires that burn have not harmed the soil. As the hills roll down to the valley below, however, they become red and bare. The grass there has been destroyed by cattle and fire, and the streams have all run dry. When storms come, the red dirt runs like blood, and the crops are withered and puny. These valleys are the homes of the elderly, who scrape at the dirt for sustenance. Some mothers live here with their children, but all the able-bodied young people have long since moved away.

Summary: Chapter 2

The Reverend Stephen Kumalo, a native Zulu, sits in his house writing when a young girl appears with a letter. After sending the girl to the kitchen for some food, Kumalo wonders who may have sent the letter. It is from Johannesburg, but so many members of his family have been in the city for so long without word that it could be from any of them, and he cannot recognize the handwriting. Among others, Kumalo’s brother, John, lives in Johannesburg, as does their sister Gertrude, who is twenty-five years younger than Kumalo, and Kumalo’s son, Absalom, who went to the city in search of Gertrude and has never returned.

Apprehensive, Kumalo calls to his wife, who confirms that the letter is not from their son. Finally, Kumalo’s wife musters the courage to open the letter and reads it aloud in faltering English. It is from a minister in Johannesburg named Theophilus Msimangu, who reports that Gertrude is ill and who requests that Kumalo come to the Sophiatown section of Johannesburg.

Kumalo’s wife asks what Kumalo intends to do, and he reluctantly tells her to bring him the money they have saved for Absalom’s education at St. Chad’s, the local school. Kumalo’s resolve falters when he holds the money in his hand, but his wife comments that there is no longer any point in saving it—Absalom has gone to Johannesburg, and those who go there do not return. Kumalo reacts angrily to his wife’s suggestion that their son will never come back, and although she protests, saying that Kumalo is hurting himself, he continues to deny her claim angrily. When he realizes that his words are wounding his wife, however, Kumalo calms down and reconciles himself to the inevitable. He and his wife pool the St. Chad’s money with the rest of their savings, resignedly giving up the money they intended to spend on clothes and a new stove. Kumalo apologizes humbly to his wife for his unkindness, then heads off to his church to pray for guidance and forgiveness. His wife watches him through the window with a weariness born from years of suffering.

Summary: Chapter 3

Kumalo waits for the Johannesburg train at Carisbrooke. Generally, this journey is shrouded in mist, which some find to be an ominous sign and others find a mysterious prelude to adventure. Kumalo, however, pays little attention to his surroundings. He is anxious about his sister’s health, the potential costs of treating her illness, and the chaos of Johannesburg, where there are many buses and one can be killed just by crossing the street, as happened to a twelve-year-old boy who was an acquaintance of Kumalo’s. His gravest concern is his son.

The train arrives, and Kumalo bids farewell to the companion who has helped him bring his bags to the station. As Kumalo boards the train, his companion passes on a request from a man named Sibeko, whose daughter accompanied a white family to Johannesburg and has not written since. Kumalo says he will do what he can. He boards one of the train’s designated non-European carriages, where he searches in vain for a fellow passenger of the same social class as himself. He then goes to the window to say farewell to his friend and asks why Sibeko couldn’t make his request himself. His companion explains that Sibeko does not belong to Kumalo’s church, but Kumalo proclaims that they are all of the same people and should not hesitate to go to one another in times of trouble. He states grandiosely that he will check on Sibeko’s daughter, although he will be busy, as he always is when he is in Johannesburg. Since Kumalo has never been to Johannesburg before, this statement is a fib, but it has the desired effect of impressing Kumalo’s fellow passengers.

Once the train leaves the station, however, Kumalo’s old fears return. He worries about the city, about the fate of his family members, particularly his son, and about his intuition that he “lives in a world not made for him.” As the train rattles along toward Johannesburg, Kumalo takes refuge in his Bible, the only thing that brings him comfort in these troubled times.

Analysis: Book 1: Chapters 1–3

The opening chapters of Cry, The Beloved Country are built on a series of contrasts that underscore the sharp divisions plaguing South Africa. The most immediate and stark contrast is that between Natal’s lush hills and its barren valley, a contrast that plays out in the different ways the landscape affects the inhabitants’ lives. The different aesthetic qualities of these two areas reflect these areas’ differing abilities to be productive for their people. The grass of the hills is pleasing to bare feet, but even more important, it traps moisture and ensures that the soil will remain rich. In contrast, the coarse, ravaged land of the valley settlements is not only ugly, but can barely support human life.

The sharp contrasts in the landscape also underscore the unfairness and self-destructiveness of a segregated society. Although the first chapters of the novel do not make it explicit, the ugliness of the land is a result of the segregation policy pursued by the white rulers. White farms are symbolically located at the tops of the hills, where the land is green and fruitful. Black South Africans, however, are forced to tend their settlements at the bottom of the hills, in the unforgiving land of the valley. Overcrowding leads to overgrazing and over-farming, a vicious cycle that lessens the land’s productivity each year. Left to its own devices, Paton suggests, the earth is nurturing and benevolent, as can be seen in the prosperous areas. When subjected to the effects of segregation, however, the earth becomes cruel, barren, and uncooperative toward its tenants.

Another contrast exists between the comfortable dignity of Kumalo’s rural life and the urban chaos that is beginning to encroach upon it. In Natal, Kumalo’s life is orderly. His village holds him in high esteem, and the child who brings him his letter is awed by the comforts of his home. With the arrival of Msimangu’s letter from the city, however, comes discord. Until that moment, Kumalo and his wife have lived in relative harmony, and their careful budgeting and saving shows their organization and cooperation. The arrival of the letter, however, stands this simple order on its head, as Kumalo and his wife argue and are forced to squander their savings. In the station and among the simple country folk on the train, Kumalo is master of his domain, but every time he thinks of the city and its dangers, he becomes small and weak, an old man.

Kumalo’s numerous moments of weakness in the novel’s early chapters make him a more compelling character. He has an inconsistent temperament, for example, which he displays when he makes sure the girl who delivers him the message gets something to eat but then erupts furiously at his wife only a few moments later. Additionally, he can be overly proud, as when he is dismayed by the fact that there are only lower-class people in his carriage and makes a boastful, false statement about his familiarity with Johannesburg. Kumalo is embarking on an emotional exploration of his homeland, and by making him fallible rather than flawless, Paton ensures that we will be able to empathize with Kumalo’s experience.