Analysis — Book III: Chapters 34–36

In their final encounters, Kumalo and Jarvis become the closest they have ever been. They have slowly begun to understand each other’s customs and to communicate through gestures and words that each can understand. When Margaret Jarvis dies, Kumalo’s congregation mourns the death with the European custom of crafting a wreath. When Jarvis meets Kumalo as he climbs to a place of solitude, he greets the information with a solemn statement of understanding. Until now, the two men have been armed with good intentions but have failed to cross the lines into each other’s world. The imbalanced power dynamic between whites and blacks is still very much in play: Jarvis sits atop his horse while Kumalo humbly thanks him. Nevertheless, the intense moment of understanding and compassion that they share is perhaps a slight step toward bridging the country’s enormous racial divide.

Absalom too comes to embody this idea that sometimes understanding one’s situation is enough. The last time we encounter Absalom, in Chapter 29, he is groveling in the prison in front of his father, being drawn away to his cell on death row without any trace of dignity. His letters from prison since Kumalo’s departure, however, reflect an increasing peace that comes with his understanding his circumstances. He does not protest against his fate; rather, he deals with it as maturely as possible, perhaps taking solace in the notion that he is but a small part of a large universe that works in mysterious ways. It is not clear that Absalom is entirely reconciled to his fate—Kumalo wonders if his son can sleep and if he will enjoy his last meal—but Absalom’s letters imply a newfound peace of mind, which is something valuable in the turbulence of the times.

The final paragraph ends with the breaking of the dawn, but in many ways the novel ends with a sunset. Absalom, Arthur Jarvis, and Margaret Jarvis are all dead, and neither James Jarvis nor Kumalo will live much longer. Paton implies that their legacy of peace will not endure. A newer, more fiery school of thought is on the rise, and the redemption present in the novel’s conclusion will not prevent this radical approach from eventually dominating the country. Napoleon Letsitsi is not as corrupt as John Kumalo, but he still argues fiercely for black self-sufficiency and views Jarvis’s last gestures toward Ndotsheni as the payment of a debt rather than an act of generosity. As Kumalo stands outside his house, gazing at the stars, he becomes aware that this change is inevitable and that history may even view him as an impediment to this change. He does take some consolation, however, in knowing that his life has been the only kind he could possibly have led and hopes that the changes for the better will outpace the changes for the worse.