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 I: 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.
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