Summary — Chapter 16

Kumalo, who has begun to find his way around Johannesburg, goes to Pimville on his own to visit Absalom’s girlfriend. She has not heard the news about Absalom, and when Kumalo tells her, she is devastated. Kumalo asks Absalom’s girlfriend if she still wishes to marry Absalom, and though she says she does, she seems confused. Kumalo presses her further, and she explains that her father left her mother because her mother was always drunk. She disliked her mother’s new boyfriend, so she ran away from home. Even though Absalom’s girlfriend is still almost a child herself, she has had three lovers since she left home. Her lovers, whom she calls “husbands,” have all been arrested. Kumalo is angered by her promiscuity and harshly asks her if she would accept him as a lover. Frightened and confused, she says she would.

Shocked by her answer, Kumalo covers his face with his hands, and she begins crying and lamenting. Ashamed of his behavior, Kumalo comforts her and asks if she would like to come with him to Ndotsheni and live with his family as their daughter. She gratefully responds that she would and assures him that her only desire is a quiet life. Kumalo is surprised to find himself laughing with pleasure, and after making Absalom’s girlfriend promise to tell him if she ever regrets her decision, he goes off to find her a new place to stay.

Summary — Chapter 17

Although Gertrude and Mrs. Lithebe get along, Mrs. Lithebe worries that Gertrude has a strange carelessness about her and is too friendly with strange men. Still, Mrs. Lithebe admires and respects Kumalo, and she agrees to let Absalom’s girlfriend move in. Kumalo, ecstatic with Mrs. Lithebe’s reply, plays with his nephew. Absalom’s girlfriend moves in and behaves with appropriate modesty. One day, however, Mrs. Lithebe comes upon Gertrude and Absalom’s girlfriend laughing in a way she does not like. She calls Absalom’s girlfriend to her and tells her that she must not laugh in this way, and the girl immediately understands and agrees. Gertrude continues with her strange behavior, though she now leaves Absalom’s girlfriend alone.

Kumalo goes to visit Absalom, who tells him that Absalom’s friends are denying that they were in the house with Absalom. Absalom gradually comes to agree with his father that his companions are not true friends. Absalom is pleased, however, by the prospect of having a lawyer, and he promises Kumalo that he will tell the lawyer nothing but the truth. He is also happy with the arrangements Kumalo has made for Absalom’s girlfriend. On his way out, Kumalo passes Absalom’s lawyer, a dignified white man with the air of a “chief.”

Some time later, the lawyer, Mr. Carmichael, visits Kumalo at the mission house. Absalom’s defense will be based on the truth, he says, and he will need as much information about Absalom’s character as possible. After Mr. Carmichael leaves, Kumalo frets about the legal costs, but Father Vincent informs him that Mr. Carmichael will take the case pro deo, or “for God”—meaning he will take case for free.

Analysis — Book I: Chapters 16–17

Though their lives somewhat resemble each other’s, Absalom’s girlfriend and Gertrude represent two distinct models of womanhood in the novel. Whereas Gertrude, enmeshed in her seedy Johannesburg life of prostitution and liquor-selling, is cynical, Absalom’s girlfriend, who is young and unwise to the ways of the world, is optimistic. This difference in attitude is reflected in their different reactions to Kumalo’s invitation to return with him to Ndotsheni. Gertrude initially turns down Kumalo’s invitation because she considers herself too sinful. But Absalom’s girlfriend, who, like Gertrude, is promiscuous, immediately accepts Kumalo’s offer because she attributes much of her misfortune to the circumstances of her past and not to her own actions. Gertrude sees no hope for her situation, while Absalom’s girlfriend has complete faith, perhaps naïvely, that blessings such as marriage and family can rehabilitate her.