“Caught in the toils of our own selfishness”: Paton’s exploration of causes of, and responses to, societal failings in Cry, The Beloved Country

Eleanor Evans, Politics and the Novel

January 2015



Throughout my essay I shall interpret Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country as a novel primarily concerned with presenting a critique of pre-apartheid South Africa and the way in which it discriminates against the black population. The novel has been heavily criticised by those who perceive Paton’s main focus to be on conveying the ills of the city and modernity. However I shall argue that Paton’s negative portrayal of urban areas does not derive from an opposition to modern development and values. Instead, Paton explores how the government’s policy of segregation is responsible for many social concerns.  Arthur Jarvis claims that white South Africans are “caught in the toils of our own selfishness” (Paton 127), substantially contributing to social inequality, yet unwilling to challenge how the government, and their own actions, disadvantage the majority of the population. I shall explore how Paton utilises Cry, The Beloved Country as a societal critique, opposing the ways in which the state and the white population disadvantage black South Africans. I will examine how the problems in the city, legal system, and rural areas of South Africa are presented by Paton as arising from such discrimination. Finally, I shall examine how Paton not only offers a critique of white privilege and the failures of the state, but also envisions the potential for progress in South Africa through collaboration.

Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country has received substantial criticism for being outmoded and backward, confirming Paton’s “anti-urbanism” (Baines 41). As Foley examines, the novel has been perceived as “naive, simplistic and irrelevant” (63). Those who hold this view tend to see the novel as primarily concerned with the detrimental effects of modernity. Steinberg, for instance, argues that one of its underlying assumptions is that “Nothing good can come of the modern era” (471). However, I shall challenge these critiques by arguing that Paton conveys racial discrimination, rather than modernisation, as the root cause of societal failings. Throughout Cry, The Beloved Country (henceforth, Cry), Paton presents an opposition to the racism that pervades the state and the behaviour of many white South Africans. Arthur Jarvis condemns white South Africans for being “Caught in the toils of our own selfishness” (Paton 127), substantially contributing to social inequality yet unwilling to challenge the way in which the government, and their own actions, disadvantage the black population. During the pre-apartheid era, when the novel was written, racial segregation permeated the “social, economic and political spheres” (Maylam 166). I will explore Paton’s examination of segregation’s implications, as he comments on the devastating effects of white privilege on the city, legal system, and rural areas of South Africa. Furthermore, rather than agreeing with Peck thatPaton evades politics throughout the novel (104), I will examine the ways in which Paton uses Cry as a means to explore his political vision, illustrating how collaborative action can address social concerns.

Firstly I shall examine how racial discrimination, rather than modernisation, is identified as the cause of social problems in the city. Steinberg perceives “the city” as the central vice presented by Paton throughout Cry (468). However, such a perspective fails to consider Paton’s assessment of the causes behind the city’s failings. Paton certainly conveys the city as having corruptive potential. This is evident early in the novel through the absence of Stephen Kumalo’s brother, sister and son, and through the fear that is evoked at the thought of Johannesburg. For instance, when Kumalo first travels to Johannesburg he is plagued by anxiety: “now the fear back again, the fear of the unknown, the fear of the great city” (Paton 15). Such fears are not presented as entirely irrational. When discussing the problem of native crime, Harrison discusses how “we’re scared stiff at the moment in Johannesburg”¦There are too many of these murders and robberies and brutal attacks” (Paton 122), thus confirming the validity of Kumalo’s apprehension. However, Paton provokes a discussion that goes beyond an observation of substantial crime, to an analysis of causality. Throughout the novel Paton stresses that crime in Johannesburg, and the fear that permeates characters’ understanding of the city, is a result of the racism inherent in society, and its harmful implications for black South Africans.

Throughout the novel, Paton examines the cause of the city’s failings. Paton reflects upon the harmful impact of the Smut government’s policy of segregation which, as Baines explicates, “articulated the view that the black man’s place was in the countryside and that he was only a sojourner in the ‘white man’s city’” (37). This was entrenched through Acts such as the 1936 Native Trust and Land Act, which legally restricted the non-white population to certain areas (Alexander 150). Throughout Cry, Paton explores the damaging consequences of such policies. For instance, through the writing of Arthur Jarvis he stresses the unfairness of setting “aside one-tenth of the land for four-fifths of the people” (Paton 127). Thus, through Cry, Paton challenges the government’s enhancement of the position of white South Africans at the expense of the black population. This is not only the case with land but also with wealth, which Paton makes evident through an exploration of exploitative development. In response to the new discovery of gold in the Orange Free State, Paton’s omniscient narrator reflects poignantly that “No second Johannesburg is needed upon the earth. One is enough” (Paton 149). This perception arises from an awareness of the uneven development which will inevitably follow. As John reflects, the white population:

go mad when new gold is found. They bring more of us to live in the compounds, to dig under the ground for three shillings a day. They do not think, here is a chance to pay more for our labour. They think only, here is a chance to build a bigger house and buy a bigger car (Paton 34).

Through John’s words, Paton comments on the realities of capitalist development in pre-apartheid South Africa, which enabled only a minority to benefit from such discoveries. The mining industry is depicted as fuelling white materialism, whilst ensuring the endurance of black poverty. In 1946 black miners had struck against their poor wages, to which the government responded with force (Alexander 200). Paton is therefore addressing contemporary issues and provoking a challenge to the outcomes of development. This is further apparent through a series of rhetorical questions posed by John: “what is it worth, this mining industry?...They say it makes the country rich, but what do we see of these riches? Is it we that must be kept poor so that others may stay rich?” (Paton 159). Here, Paton portrays white South Africans as utilising the black population as a means to sustain their wealth, regardless of its harmful ramifications. Paton therefore opposes the particular character of modernity; inequitable capitalist development which leads to social disaster.

Through an examination of crime in Johannesburg, Paton explores the social disaster that occurs as a result of such uneven development. Peck claims that the issues explored in Cry are shown to have “arisen without anyone’s being responsible” (96). However, throughout the novel Paton emphasises the importance of white South Africans accepting their role in contributing to social inequality. For instance, Paton presents the view of an individual who is presumably a white liberal politician, who laments that native crime will always be prominent until the native population “have worthy purposes to inspire them and worthy goals to work for”¦ it is only because they see neither purpose nor goal that they turn to drink and crime and prostitution” (Paton 68). These views are later reaffirmed through the writing of Arthur Jarvis, who explores native crime as the product of the “impact of our own civilization” (Paton 127). Paton’s discussion of white responsibility indicates that the crimes in the novel can be interpreted as arising from societal failures, and the way in which the black population are denied the opportunities accessible to white individuals. The fact that Kumalo’s sister turns to prostitution (Paton 23), and his son resorts to theft (Paton 45) can therefore be understood as a response to the injustice endemic in society and the economy, rather than a result of the corruptive forces of the city.  Dubow reflects how at the time, urban areas were “commonly described as the site of vice and immortality” (155). Although Paton does not contradict this perception through Cry, he indicates that the root cause of such depravity lies outside the city.

Through an analysis of the legal system, Paton explores how racism influences how crimes are resolved, as well as caused. Absalom’s use of a revolver as he was “frightened” when committing theft causes the death of Arthur Jarvis (Paton 139). Paton utilises this case to critique the prejudices of the legal system, and the way in which it contributes to social problems in South Africa. Regarding Paton’s depiction of Absalom’s case, Lenta argues that it is unclear whether the narrative voice can be “identified with Paton’s own” and whether Paton’s exploration of the legal system is “normative rather than simply descriptive” (55). However, Paton’s language and tone when discussing the case suggests that he is critical, opposing the discrimination that characterises the legal system. The judge considers the anomalies of Absalom’s case, including how he is “shocked and overwhelmed and stricken by his act” (Paton 171). However the judge asserts that the law must be complied with:

it is one of the most monumental achievements of this defective society that it has made a Law, and has sat judges to administer it, and has freed those judges from any obligation whatsoever but to administer the Law”¦a Judge cannot, must not, dare not allow the existing defects of society to influence him to do anything but administer the Law (Paton 171).

I would disagree with Lenta by arguing that here Paton directly challenges the legal system and the duty of the judge. Through this passage, Paton seems to parody the strictness of the law. His repetition of “Law” creates the sense of the legal system as an alien institution, which is further evident when Paton emphasises how Absalom has played no part in the law’s construction. The narrator asserts that “If justice be not just” blame is to be placed upon the white population, “for it is the White People that make the Law” (Paton 136-137). This reflects the substantial restrictions encroaching upon the political influence of the non-white population (Alexander 150).  The law is therefore conveyed as reflecting the view of a minority. The way in which this detrimentally impinges upon the legal system is apparent through Paton’s characterisation of the judge. Although Paton stresses the judge’s impartiality, as he must “administer the law” (Paton 171), he indicates that the judge’s verdict is influenced by his own prejudices. Lenta declares that “Paton’s narrator seems resigned to the necessity of Absalom’s guilt” (56). However, Paton’s exploration of the lack of clarity in Absalom’s case problematizes this judgement. The judge states that “An intention to kill”¦is an essential element in murder” (Paton 172), however at no point in the novel is Absalom proved guilty of murder. Absalom insists that he fired the revolver as he was “afraid”, yet “never meant to shoot him” (Paton 140). The strict sentence of the death penalty can therefore be interpreted as a further example of how state institutions have failed the non-white population. The judge uses his discretion to implement the harshest sentence, regardless of the ambiguity of Absalom’s case, thus indicating a racial bias in the court.

Paton makes it clear that social inequality does not affect the city alone. One of the significant ways Paton has been criticised is for presenting a dichotomy between the urban and rural parts of South Africa, contrasting the flaws of the city with the ideals of rural life.  Samuelson, for instance, claims that Paton sets out the “moral degeneration of urban life against the pristine promise of the rural realm” (64). However, Paton does not appear to suggest that rural South Africa is exempt from the perils of white privilege. Paton’s initial image of the countryside is certainly idyllic. He expresses how “There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it” (Paton 7). However, as Alexander asserts, here Paton is examining the “beauty of the white farmlands” (198). Such beauty is juxtaposed with the land of the black population, which is plagued by “sickness” (Paton 21). Kumalo bemoans the condition of their lands: “how the grass had disappeared”¦how the maize grew barely to the height of a man” (Paton 21).  Paton therefore does not glorify rural South Africa, but rather illustrates that it is no exception to the government’s harmful agenda. As Blair argues, Paton “documents”¦the rural degradation that ensures urbanisation” (482). The 1940s constituted a significant rise in black urbanisation (Maylam 160). Through imagery highlighting the limited growth of rural areas, Paton explains why the black population turned to the city as a place of opportunity. Thus, through Cry, Paton conveys a harmful cycle through which rural impoverishment drives black South Africans to the city, whilst inequitable development and limited opportunities in urban areas further prevent their advancement.

 However, encompassed within the novel is not only an observation of the plight of black South Africans, but also an exploration of means to address such concerns. Steinberg argues that the implication of Cry is that “the reservoirs of value all lie in the past” (471). However, Paton promotes the necessity of moving beyond outmoded values. For instance, through Msimangu he claims that "The white man has broken the tribe. And it is my belief”¦that it cannot be mended again (Paton 25). Thus whilst Paton critiques white culpability for black deprivation, he also advocates that social progress is necessary to address this concern.  This notion is reiterated through the transformative effect that Johannesburg has on Paton’s protagonist. Kumalo reflects how “The great city had opened his eyes to something that had begun and must now be continued. For there in Johannesburg things were happening that had nothing to do with any chief” (Paton 196). This further discredits the argument that the city is shown to be entirely destructive, as here Paton presents Johannesburg as a means to greater awareness and understanding. Kumalo considers that “something might be built”¦that would take the place of the tribal law and custom” (Paton 79). This demonstrates the modes of progression and modernisation that Paton supports, not simply looking backward but rather creating a vision for the future of South Africa.

An integral part of the progression that Paton envisions through Cry is a change in relations between the black and white populations of South Africa. A fundamental part of this change is forcing white readers to confront their prejudices, and their role in racial discrimination. This is particularly evident in Arthur Jarvis’s writing, asserting that “We believe in the brotherhood of man, but we do not want it in South Africa”¦We believe in help for the underdog, but we want him to stay under” (Paton 134). Here, Paton confronts the hypocrisy of white South Africans who contribute to a system which fundamentally disadvantages a large proportion of South African society. He exposes the motives behind such insincerity, as ensuring that black South Africans “stay under” enables their own gain, as examined earlier.  Thus, as Foley asserts, through Arthur’s writing Paton promotes the view that white individuals have a duty to “make appropriate reparation for the harm they have wrought on African society” (72). Paton advocates not only recognition of responsibility, but also action to make amends. Through an exploration of kindness, Paton illustrates the ways in which white South African’s can promote positive change.

Throughout Cry Paton examines how white South Africans can provoke a turning point in race relations in both urban and rural areas. As Morphet elucidates, in the beginning of the novel Kumalo and James Jarvis are presented as “aliens living together” (54). On hearing about the death of Arthur Jarvis, Kumalo states that “I know the father”¦I mean I know him well by sight and name, but we have never spoken” (Paton 65). Paton conveys the possibility of overcoming such alienation through collective action. James Jarvis responds to the needs arising out of black destitution; he offers financial assistance with the church (Paton 223), and also funds an agricultural demonstrator to “teach farming” (Paton 214). Similarly, white South Africans are depicted as showing solidarity with the boycott opposing the rising costs of public transport in Johannesburg: “Many of the white people stopped their cars, and took in the black people, to help them on their journey” (Paton 41). Thus Paton stresses the transformative effect of collaboration. Such actions have been criticised for their paternalism, and for granting black individuals no role “beyond that of supplicant” (Peck 96). However, Paton makes it clear that white South Africans have been empowered financially by the discriminatory system. For instance, the fact that James Jarvis is in a position to assist Kumalo reflects contemporary power dimensions in rural areas, which were characterised by “white domination and privilege” due to state policies (Maylam 157). Paton is calling not just for white philanthropy, but for a radical restructuring of race relations. The way in which white South Africans cross racial boundaries to offer assistance is an integral part of the political liberalism which Foley perceives as underpinning “the fundamental meaning of the novel as a whole” (64). Hjula and Mdangayib state that a “common criticism” of Cry is that it “advocates nothing politically” (23). However, the novel appears to strongly promote the liberal values which Paton himself held. As a member of the liberal party, Paton had a vision of “South Africa undivided” (Alexander 167). One can therefore align his views closely with that of Msimangu’s when he expresses that there is “only one hope for our country, and that is when white men and black men”¦desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it” (Paton 37). This ideal is supported throughout the novel through an examination of the implications of cooperation across racial boundaries.

I would reaffirm Van der Vlies’ perception that Paton’s novel is “more complex than is often credited” (24). Rather than juxtaposing the vices of modernity against the virtues of past values, Paton’s message in Cry appears to be how imperative it is to confront and challenge the prejudices of the present. As Msimangu ascertains, “The tragedy is not that things are broken. The tragedy is that they are not mended again” (Paton 25). Through Cry, Paton highlights the detrimental effects of white domination in terms of economic inequality, the legal system, and race relations in the country and city, whilst exploring the ways in which such concerns can be addressed. Thus I would endorse the view of Hjula and Mdangayib, who argue that Paton’s message through Cry is that there is “hope in the face of adversity” (21).  Through a depiction of collaborative action between white and black South Africans in the novel, Paton explores his aspirations for the future of South Africa, in which racial boundaries are traversed with the intention of moving towards a state that serves the interests of the majority rather than the few.

This article forms part of the SAHO and the University of York Partnership Project


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