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.