The city of Johannesburg can turn the most learned men into metaphorical children. Its nuances require a new and different kind of understanding. Without that understanding, Stephen—the most knowledgeable man in his community—is robbed within minutes of arriving in the city. But knowledge has a special kind of power: you can pass it on to others. Stephen feels revived when he plays with Gertrude’s son. He tells him stories about where he came from, and feels satisfied giving this understanding and history to his nephew. And when Stephen returns home from the city, he is also able to pass what he knows to James Jarvis’ grandson, the late Arthur’s son, and also will be able to do the same to his unborn grandchild, in the future. The establishment or re-establishment of these lines of knowledge are important because they reinforce the tribe, and families. One of the reasons that Johannesburg is so toxic is that it disrupts families and disrupts these lines of understanding, history, and knowledge. In one of his manuscripts, Arthur writes that if you know nothing of South Africa, you cannot truly love it, because without understanding, there is no love.
Ultimately, the future of the country of South Africa is unknown to both the characters of the novel, and to Alan Paton its author. The novel was written at the very beginning of apartheid. Paton did not know what his country would look like decades later. The final line of the novel explicitly addresses this lack of knowledge: “But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.” And so the characters of the novel have to be satisfied with a limited knowledge, and the ability to pass that knowledge one from the other, and to build the families and communities strong enough to reach that unknown day.
Understanding/Knowledge vs. Ignorance/Naiveté ThemeTracker
Understanding/Knowledge vs. Ignorance/Naiveté Quotes in Cry, the Beloved Country
The journey had begun. And now the fear back again, the fear of the unknown, the fear of the great city where boys were killed crossing the street, the fear of Gertrude’s sickness. Deep down the fear for his son. Deep down the fear of a man who lives in a world not made for him, whose own world is slipping away, dying, being destroyed, beyond any recall.
We do not know, we do not know. We shall live from day to day, and put more locks on the doors, and get a fine fierce dog when the fine fierce bitch next door has pups, and hold on to our handbags more tenaciously; and the beauty of the trees by night, and the raptures of lovers under the stars, these things we shall forego. We shall forego the coming home drunken through the midnight streets, and the evening walk over the star-lit veld. We shall be careful, and knock this off our lives, and knock that off our lives, and hedge ourselves about with safety and precaution. And our lives will shrink, but they shall be the lives of superior beings; and we shall live with fear, but at least it will not be a fear of the unknown.
One can read, as I read when I was a boy, the brochures about lovely South Africa, that land of sun and beauty sheltered from the storms of the world, and feel pride in it and love for it, and yet know nothing about it at all. It is only as one grows up that one learns that there are other things here than sun and gold and oranges. It is only then that one learns of the hates and fears of our country. It is only then that one's love grows deep and passionate, as a man may love a woman who is true, false, cold, loving, cruel and afraid.
In the deserted harbor there is yet water that laps against the quays. In the dark and silent forest there is a leaf that falls. Behind the polished paneling the white ant eats away the wood. Nothing is ever quiet, except for fools.
The great valley of the Umzimkulu is still in darkness, but the light will come there. Ndotsheni is still in darkness, but the light will come there also. For it is the dawn that has come, as it has come for a thousand centuries, never failing. But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.