Summary: Chapter 13

Kumalo and Msimangu travel to Ezenzeleni, a colony where white South Africans care for blind black South Africans. Msimangu has work to do here, so Kumalo sits by himself for some time and meditates. The thoughts of his grandson being born out of wedlock, his son’s thievery, and the murder bring him to despair, but he takes heart at the thought of returning to Ndotsheni with new humility. Kumalo’s newfound high spirits evaporate as he admits to himself that the ways of the tribe have been lost forever. When Msimangu returns and finds Kumalo in despair, Msimangu reminds Kumalo that despair is a sin.

Kumalo is comforted by the help given to the blind in Ezenzeleni and especially by Msimangu’s rousing sermon to the blind. He knows that Msimangu speaks to him when he says God will not forsake humankind. Some people criticize Msimangu for using his preaching gifts to teach patience while so many of his people die, but Kumalo feels spiritually refreshed.

Summary: Chapter 14

Gertrude’s furniture, the final remnants of her past, are sold at a great profit, but Kumalo feels only fear when he sees Msimangu approach Mrs. Lithebe’s house with the young man from the reformatory. The man tells him that his fears have been justified, that Absalom is in jail for the murder of Arthur Jarvis and that Absalom fired the shot. John’s son was with Absalom during the crime, and Kumalo goes to break the news to his brother. Devastated by the news, John goes with Kumalo to the mission, where Father Vincent offers them help, and the young man from the reformatory leads them to the prison.

In the prison’s visiting room, Kumalo and Absalom are finally reunited, but Absalom cannot look his father in the eye. He shifts and squirms and blames his condition on bad company and the devil, to Kumalo’s disgust, and tears up when the young man reproaches him for rejecting the lessons of the reformatory. Absalom states that he shot Jarvis, but he explains that he fired only because he was afraid, and maintains that he still wants to marry his girlfriend.

At the prison gates, Kumalo meets John again, but John is no longer in despair. He will get his son a lawyer, he says, adding that there is no proof that his son was even present at the time of the murder. Kumalo, John cruelly states, will not need a lawyer—his son is guilty and cannot be saved. The young man, embittered by his disappointment with Absalom, refuses to advise Kumalo and defiantly asserts that his work at the reformatory is important. He drives off, John leaves on foot, and Kumalo is left alone. Father Vincent, he decides, is his only hope.

Summary: Chapter 15

Before Kumalo can seek out Father Vincent, the man from the reformatory returns to apologize for his harsh language. He advises Kumalo that he will need a lawyer because John is untrustworthy. He says they need someone who will make sure John’s claim that his son was not there does not hurt Absalom, and who will argue that Absalom fired because he was afraid.

Kumalo and the young man go to see Father Vincent, and he tells them that he has a lawyer in mind and that he will also help with Absalom’s marriage. The young man leaves, and Kumalo speaks about his grief to Father Vincent. He is especially upset that he and his wife had no idea what was happening to their son in Johannesburg and that he has only found out now that it is too late. He is also wounded by his son’s apparent lack of remorse. Father Vincent is pained by Kumalo’s statements, but he reminds Kumalo that at least his sorrow has replaced his fear and that his son may well still be able to repent for his great evil. Kumalo allows himself a rare moment of bitterness, but Father Vincent refuses to let him remain cynical, insisting that Kumalo keep up the rituals of his religion in order to make true faith return.

Analysis: Book 1: Chapters 13–15

In these chapters, which form the climax of the novel, the Kumalo family becomes a model for coping with great suffering, and Paton uses Kumalo’s experiences to show how grief can prompt a range of emotional responses. At times, we see Kumalo so smitten by sorrow that he is unable to function and simply shuts down. Kumalo, rendered completely mute and unable to do anything but nod, temporarily comes to a complete halt when he first hears the news about his son, and he seems to have great difficulty holding on to his sanity. Absalom is similarly unable to function. Pressed for answers in the prison’s visiting room, he mostly nods, cries, or says he doesn’t know. In these instances, Kumalo and his son epitomize grief as a kind of paralysis, during which even the everyday functions of the body, like talking or moving, are impossible.

On the other hand, the novel suggests various ways that individuals can derive meaning from sorrow and find solace in it. Christianity plays an important role in this process. Both Msimangu and Father Vincent comfort Kumalo with words from the Bible. Father Vincent reminds him that the ways of God are secret and suggests to him that he must find meaning by showing his compassion for others, rather than by trying to understand why Absalom has gone astray. The ability to accept the idea that there is a divine plan for the universe leads to a sense of order that provides refuge when everyday life seems disorderly or cruel. Comforting others provides a similar refuge. Kumalo has always gotten strength from helping others, as evidenced by his rejuvenation when he finds and rescues Gertrude. In Chapter 15, Father Vincent confirms the idea that helping others can bring relief to one’s own soul. Kumalo’s suffering is so unbearable for Father Vincent to see that he wonders when the old man’s painful ruminations will cease, looks away, and can barely sit still. Father Vincent also has his moment of paralysis while the two men sit together in silence, but he recovers his sense of well-being by reminding Kumalo of God’s mercy and helping him keep his faith and find solace.

Throughout these three chapters, Kumalo is frequently left alone, and the scenes paint a somewhat negative portrait of solitude. In Ezenzeleni’s garden, Kumalo is unable to remain hopeful, even at the prospect of returning with his newfound knowledge of ways to heal Ndotsheni. In the mission, he rejects Father Vincent’s suggestion that he pray, dismissing it so bitterly that Father Vincent is forced to sit the old parson down for a priestly intervention. Most poignant of all is Kumalo’s abandonment at the prison gates. The scene is set with great drama, with the young man driving off angrily in one direction and John setting off in another, leaving Kumalo conspicuously alone.