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 1: 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.

Both Kumalo and Msimangu reproach Absalom’s girlfriend for her lifestyle, but she in fact shares many of Kumalo’s values, including an emphasis on family. She runs away from her own family, but she does so not because she dislikes the mutual dependency involved with belonging to a family—having to depend on others and having others depend on her. Rather, she leaves home because her deteriorating family fails to offer nurturing relationships. She fulfills her need for such relationships by taking lovers, whom she calls “husbands,” a term that demonstrates her desire to interact with others on a meaningful level. Similarly, her unreserved willingness to give herself to Kumalo—as either a lover or a daughter (she is quick to call Kumalo her new “father”)—illustrates how desperate she is to be loved. Stripped of everything by her circumstances, Absalom’s girlfriend still craves the family structure that Kumalo considers so important, and she makes do with what pieces of it she can find.

Gertrude’s strange behavior marks a fundamental perversity in her character, and it signals the novel’s tendency to relegate native women to the domestic sphere. The arrival of Absalom’s girlfriend makes it clear that black South African women endure a second type of segregation by being confined to their homes. Although it is mentioned that women are seen on the streets, every female character that the novel portrays as respectable speaks from inside her home: Mrs. Mkize, Mrs. Ndlela, and Mrs. Lithebe. Clearly, there is little value in the violence and degradation of Gertrude’s old life, but it is not surprising that she chafes at the strict rules that govern her life at Mrs. Lithebe’s house. The novel, however, presents Gertrude’s resistance to strictly defined gender roles as if it were a sign of mental illness. The novel deals too often with forgiveness to condemn Gertrude’s actions explicitly, but the fact that nobody can quite describe her strange laughter and carelessness makes her seem deranged. What one might reasonably see as resistance to domestication is instead shown as borderline insanity.

Mr. Carmichael carries himself like a “chief,” a description that gives some credit to the cultural institutions of native South Africans. In earlier chapters, John Kumalo calls the chiefs ignorant, and he likens them to the white man’s dogs. Mr. Carmichael, however, is a man of dignity and respect, and, even though he is white, he is a great friend and leader of black South Africans. He is a man of integrity who exists above the dominant prejudice of his era. Since he is the novel’s first example of a chief, his position seems like it is one of great responsibility and wisdom, one of the offices in South Africa capable of crossing racial lines. This impression of Mr. Carmichael is only fleeting and the position of chief becomes much less glamorous in later chapters, but the figure of Mr. Carmichael demonstrates what the chief once was and suggests what the chief has the potential to become.