Often known throughout the novel as "umfundisi," which is a Zulu title of respect, Stephen Kumalo is highly respected as the native African pastor of St. Mark's Church in the village of Ndotsheni and also as an upstanding, moral, strong member of the native South African community. Yet despite his good heart and soul, Kumalo has a terrible cross to bear—the tragedy of his son's truancy and the justice that is meted out upon has family as a result. Beyond that, he is also watching the dissolution of the rural way of life he has always lived and championed. Throughout the novel, Kumalo acts as a moral compass, the glue that holds his family together—but he also represents more than that. He represents a man who has made mistakes in his life, who has regrets and grief yet finds the strength to go on anyway. He is the very definition of survival.
Never given a first name by Paton, Stephen's wife plays her role of gentle pastor's wife with grace and confidence. Despite the fact that she doesn't have a strong identity, its clear that she not only loves but also understands her husband—she is able to help steer him in the right direction when he questions his fate or the fate of his family.
Lured from his home village of Ndotsheni with the hope of building a bigger, more fruitful life for himself, Absalom finds himself caught between the rock and hard place that many young men in Johannesburg struggle to overcome: with few economic opportunities or advantages, he struggles to make ends meet. Caving into social pressure from his peers, Absalom chooses what looks like an easier road only to find it has trapped him in tragic circumstances. His father's son, he owns up to his part in his crime and pays the consequences—not only the lost of his life, but everything that comes with it: loss of future, family and hope.
Unnamed girlfriend of Absalom Kumalo. Though she has been living for a while in Johannesburg, she takes the opportunity Stephen gives her to return home and raise her child as part of his family following Absalom's death.
A full generation younger than Stephen—a result of their parents having a child late in life—Gertrude falls into many of the same traps that Stephen's son does in moving to the big city. Originally leaving Ndotsheni in search of her missing husband, Gertrude is drawn in by the fast pace and seedy lifestyle of Johannesburg and gives up much of her dignity and freedom as a result. Though she appears to have a change of heart in the course of the novel, Paton doesn't wrap her story up completely and we are never sure what her final choice is.
Stephen's brother John moved to Johannesburg to start a carpentry business, only to be drawn into the politics of his volatile country. In contrast to Stephen, John is savvy about politics and is actively advocating for the rights of his fellow blacks. He acts as a good advisor to Stephen and something of a foil for Arthur Jarvis, who was also very politically active and astute.
Gertrude's son Matthew provides a stark contrast to Stephen's son Absalom—while both of them stray from the morality of their upbringing, Matthew compounds his sins by lying about his crimes and using Absalom as a scapegoat. Raised half-heartedly by Gertrude and not at all by his father, a mineworker who pulled a disappearing act, he lacks the moral compass imparted to Absalom by his father.
A man of strong convictions, Msimangu helps Kumalo—not only to sort out his family's woes at the beginning of the novel, but also to come to terms with the loss of his son at the end. A young, native Anglican priest also referred to as "umfundisi," he lives a very philanthropic life but is also is skeptical about the world in which he lives. In fact, he becomes so disillusioned by the future of Johannesburg that by the end of the novel he has decided to give up all worldly possessions and join a strict religious community.
When Absalom Kumalo decides to marry the mother of his soon-to-be-born child, it is to Father Vincent, a white priest at the Mission House in Sophiatown, that the Kumalos turn to. The young priest also acts as a confident for Kumalo while he is searching for his family and fearing the worst has befallen them.
Kumalo finds Mrs. Lethebe and the room she rents him during his stay in Sophiatown through Msimangu's congregation. She provides him comfortable, safe lodging and also solace during a very difficult time.
An affluent white farmer in Carisbrooke, a town near Kumalo's village of Ndotsheni, James Jarvis undergoes a profound transformation as the novel unfolds. When we first meet him and his wife, he represents a prototypical white South African—confused about his son's decision to forgo his place in society to be an activist and generally disengaged in the political struggles of the native people in his homeland. In dealing with his son's death, he finds a wellspring of character and fortuitousness that allows him not only to honor his son's legacy but also to forgive the black man who killed him and begin reaching out in his community. In many ways, James Jarvis signifies Paton's hope for white South Africans—and his country as a whole.
Wife of James, mother of Arthur. Like James, Margaret is confused about her son's profession as an activist and generally believes he should be making different choices with his life. In the end, she joins her husband in the belief that by helping black South Africans, they are joining a worthy cause.
Mother and father of Mary Harrison Jarvis, wife of activist Arthur Jarvis. They are contemporaries of James and Margaret Jarvis, and like them represent the more traditional view held by white South Africans about race relations.
Younger brother of Mary Harrison Jarvis. Though a white South African, John represents a younger generation of politically active people who are in support of the work done by men like Arthur Jarvis to bring racial equality to the country.
It is through the ideals of Arthur Jarvis that Paton makes his strongest statement about the brotherly love he hopes will come to South Africa. Though the slain activist doesn't make an appearance in the novel, his death changes all the other character's lives profoundly. Trained as an engineer and heir to his father's farm, Jarvis lives by his convictions in fighting for human rights and racial equality. Especially profound is his bookshelf—which contains many of the same texts found in Paton's library, especially the writings of Abraham Lincoln. Paton scholars generally agree that Arthur Jarvis is the most autobiographical character in Cry, the Beloved Country
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Wife of Arthur Jarvis. In general, she was very supportive of her husband's choices. Also, mother to their two small children, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Harrison and sister to John, her politically conscious brother.
The niece of Margaret Jarvis, Barbara is strategic to the plot of the novel—during a visit to her house, Margaret and James Jarvis meet Stephen Kumalo for the first time.
Unnamed in the novel, Arthur and Mary have a nine-year-old son and a five-year-old daughter.