Cry, the Beloved Country

Cry, the Beloved Country

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Understanding/Knowledge vs. Ignorance/Naiveté Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Land and the Tribe Theme Icon
Racism and Apartheid Theme Icon
The City vs. Nature Theme Icon
Christian Faith Theme Icon
Fathers, Sons, and Families Theme Icon
Understanding/Knowledge vs. Ignorance/Naiveté Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Cry, the Beloved Country, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Understanding/Knowledge vs. Ignorance/Naiveté Theme Icon

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. Stephen 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.

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Understanding/Knowledge vs. Ignorance/Naiveté Quotes in Cry, the Beloved Country

Below you will find the important quotes in Cry, the Beloved Country related to the theme of Understanding/Knowledge vs. Ignorance/Naiveté.
Book I, Chapter 3 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Stephen Kumalo, Absalom Kumalo, Gertrude Kumalo
Related Symbols: Johannesburg
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has described the train journey to Johannesburg; the train goes through the hills, and beautiful plants grow along the side of the tracks. Stephen has arrived for the train an hour early, feeling anxious about the trip. In this passage, the narrator describes Stephen's fears about Johannesburg, Gertrude, and Absalom. To some extent, these fears are concrete, based on the knowledge that Gertrude is sick, and that in the city traffic is so dangerous people are killed simply by crossing the street. However, Stephen's anxiety is also more fundamental and abstract. At this stage, he doesn't know what has become of Absalom, but (correctly) assumes that all is not well. 

Meanwhile, the narrator's comment that Stephen is "a man who lives in a world not made for him, whose own world is slipping away" highlights the fact that his worries pertain to something deeper than this specific trip to Johannesburg. Colonization and modernization have ushered in a new South Africa, one that is hostile to Stephen and, ultimately, to black South Africans in general. The narrator's words foreshadow the coming apartheid regime, which––although it has not yet been established––seems to be contained under the surface of the existing landscape of the country. 


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Book I, Chapter 12 Quotes

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.

Related Symbols: Money/Gold
Page Number: 100-101
Explanation and Analysis:

Following the murder of Arthur Jarvis, a town hall meeting is taking place to discuss the problem of crime. Among the courses of action proposed is the apartheid system, in which white and black people live and work separately. The narrator raises the question of what would happen given the fact that there are more black South Africans than white, yet whites hold the majority of money and power. In this passage, a chorus of voices responds "we don't know." At the same time, the chorus suggests that what will happen is that white people will become more fearful, increasing the security apparatus in their homes and avoiding going out at night.

Although the chorus speaks with an anonymous "we," it is clear the voices are those of white South Africans, due to clues such as the use of the Afrikaans word "veld" (meaning "field"). This passage illustrates how a culture of fear negatively impacts everyone in society, no matter how wealthy and powerful. As the chorus states, "our lives will shrink, but they shall be the lives of superior beings." What this sentence demonstrates is the subtle, contradictory logic of white supremacy––although white people are negatively impacted by racism, they also benefit in many ways, as racist structures secure their position of power in monetary, social, political, and even psychological terms. 

Book I, Chapter 15 Quotes

Sorrow is better than fear… Fear is a journey, a terrible journey, but sorrow is at least an arriving.

Related Characters: Father Vincent (speaker)
Page Number: 130
Explanation and Analysis:

The young man from the reform school has advised Stephen to get a lawyer, in order to emphasize to the judge that Absalom did not intend to shoot Arthur Jarvis. The two go to see Father Vincent, who agrees with the young man's advice. Stephen confesses to Father Vincent that he is in a state of shock about what has happened; he expresses immense sorrow at the fact that so many young men lose themselves in Johannesburg. Father Vincent replies that "sorrow is better than fear." These words of wisdom cohere with other parts of the novel that describe the destructive potential of fear. Within the world of the novel, fear leads to disastrous consequences because of its relationship to the unknown. 

Indeed, by presenting fear as "a journey," Father Vincent implies that nothing good can ever come of fear by itself, but that people experiencing fear must reach "an arriving" that allows them to be at peace with their feelings and put them to productive use. This conflicts with the advice of Msimangu, who warns Stephen that despair is sinful. On the other hand, it is also possible that there is an important distinction between sorrow and hopeless despair. 

Book II, Chapter 24 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Arthur Jarvis (speaker)
Related Symbols: Earth/Land
Page Number: 197
Explanation and Analysis:

James has returned to Arthur's house to read again from the manuscript his son was writing when he was killed. He has reread the exact passage Arthur was composing when he was shot, before turning to another essay Arthur had previously written. In this essay, Arthur describes his childhood naïveté about South Africa. He writes that children are shown only a very narrow view of the country, one that emphasizes its natural beauty but ignores the social strife and other problems that plague the nation. Somewhat surprisingly, Arthur then argues that it is only after discovering these harsh facts about South Africa that is possible to truly love the country. 

This passage suggests that Arthur is the kind of person who Msimangu described as representing hope for South Africa's future––someone who is not motivated by the desire for money or power, but rather by a deep, honest love for the country. On the other hand, Arthur's description of his love of South Africa does seem particular to a white South African experience. Stephen's love of his country, for example, does seem to dwell much more in the natural landscape and tribal system that existed before European colonization. Unlike in Arthur's case, this love does not emerge from childhood naïveté, but from the fact that this is the version of South Africa with which Stephen and his ancestors are familiar. 

Book III, Chapter 36 Quotes

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.

Related Symbols: Earth/Land
Page Number: 304
Explanation and Analysis:

The day before Absalom is due to be executed, Stephen decides to go up the mountain. He has done this three times before, all at moments of crisis, when he was in need of spiritual guidance and strength. Having arrived at his destination, Stephen confesses his sins and gives thanks before falling asleep. He awakes just before dawn, and in this passage the narrator describes the natural landscape at the hour just before it is illuminated by the sunrise. The narrator emphasizes the contrast between the predictable cycle of sunlight that has been the same "for a thousand centuries" and the unknowability of the future. This refers both to the specific fate of Absalom, as well as to the broader fate of South Africa as a whole.

The passage contains a clear sense of hope that this metaphorical dawn will come (just as the literal dawn eventually comes even to valleys that are "still in darkness"), bringing the "emancipation" of the people from "the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear." This last phrase represents the two oppressive states of existence experienced by black and white South Africans, respectively. The black community, who have suffered from colonialism, exploitation, racism, and poverty, live under "the fear of bondage"; meanwhile, Afrikaners are paralyzed by "the bondage of fear," which inhibits their empathy for black people and leads them to perpetuate racist violence. The hope for change within the passage is strong, but also tentative. The narrator seems sure that the "dawn will come," but how long it will take remains completely unknown.