Book One—Chapter Summaries
The opening chapter, which is almost a prose poem, introduces us to two adjacent country sides near the South African village of Ixopo—countrysides which represent the two worlds of the novel. Rich damp matted grass on the upland is an indication of the well-tended ground of a well-to-do white farmer. Desolate red soil in the valley, eroded and over-grazed and burned by many fires, is the context of the poor Africans living nearby. So poor has the soil become that most black people have moved away. The drama of the novel grows out of the co-existence of these two South Africas. In many parts of the novel, too, there is an underlying sense that a good use of the soil is related to the health of human society.
We are introduced to the Reverend Stephen Kumalo, the novel's main character. He is the priest of the impoverished parish at Ndotsheni, near Ixopo. A child brings from the storekeeper a letter from Johannesburg. A letter is something rare and momentous, and Stephen and his wife open it with trepidation: his brother John, his younger sister Gertrude, and, most important, their only child, Absalom, have all gone to the big city, and none of them has returned. The letter is from a fellow priest, Theophilus Msimangu, who says that Gertrude is "very sick"; he asks Stephen to come to Johannesburg quickly. Stephen does not know Msimangu and he has never been to Johannesburg. But, after moments of tension in which the pain of their son's absence flows to the surface, Stephen decides, partly prompted by his wife, that he must go at once. They scrape together what little money they have; much of it had been saved for the day—clearly never to occur—when Absalom would return home and go to high school. "All roads lead to Johannesburg." Stephen prays in his church and prepares for the long train journey. His wife endures it all, suffering in silence.
Stephen waits for the little train that will take him on the first leg of his journey. The narrator speaks of the beauty of the hills, the richness of the vegetation, and the sense of mystery conjured up by the mist (Paton was an ardent naturalist); but his chief concern is to take us inside the mind of Stephen, which is dwelling on very different matters: his worry about his sister and, more deeply, his son, and his anxiety about the big city of which he has heard so much. A friend asks Stephen to enquire after someone who had gone to Springs (near Johannesburg) but has ceased writing letters home—yet another instance of the way the big city seems to dismantle families. Stephen gets into the train, saying something—which will give people (who in any case respect the pastor, the 'umfundisi') a sense that he knows Johannesburg well. But beneath this little act of vanity, which he regrets, there are his deep fears of the unknown world he is about to enter, and his unformulated sense that the secure world that he knows is "is slipping away, dying". Humbly, he takes refuge in his "sacred book".
We go through his new experiences with Stephen: the two trains to Pietermaritzburg, then the mainline overnight train to Johannesburg. Those who share his compartment point out the sights to him as they approach the city: the mine dumps, the mines, the size and density of the city's buildings. Stephen is overawed. When they reach the station and the crowded streets, he is afraid and confused, and within a few minutes he has been conned by a young man who, pretending to buy him a bus ticket, pockets the pound that the innocent pastor gives him. He is then helped by another, kindly man, who offers to accompany him to the Mission House at Sophiatown, where Msimangu lives. (This pattern of a bad experience followed by a better one occurs frequently in the novel.) They make their way through the teeming city, by bus and then by foot. Msimangu, "a young tall man in clerical dress," welcomes Stephen warmly. Exhausted by his journey and his many new impressions, he is pleased for the time being to relax in Msimangu's company.
Stephen speaks at dinner with a group of priests. He talks of his home and of the way the traditional structures of African life are being broken down, and the others give him the Johannesburg end of the same story: a lack of social cohesion, and black crime, which frightens white citizens. Msimangu and Stephen then talk together. Msimangu tells him that Gertrude has become a prostitute and a shebeen queen. Stephen is deeply shocked. They will go tomorrow to see her. Stephen then brings out the story of Absalom; he feels all the more anxious about him after what he has just heard of the prevalence of crime. Msimangu says they will search for him together. They are both humble religious people, and wish to pray about these matters. Stephen then mentions his brother John. Msimangu knows him: he has given up the church and become a well-known politician. He then speaks about what in his view is happening in the country: the old structures are indeed breaking down; nothing can prevent that. But those whom it suited to break the structures, the white people, have made no attempt to build something in their place. Yet some white people care.
As Msimangu and Stephen make their way towards the run-down area of Claremont, where Gertrude lives, the former discusses some aspects of the racial and social situation in the country. Stephen goes in to see Gertrude by himself. There is a pained, awkward dialogue between them. He is appalled and embarrassed, but finally angry. She is contrite and also afraid, and bursts into sobbing. He asks if she wishes to come back with him, she and her child, and (to our surprise) she says she does, and weeps more uncontrollably. At this Stephen is overwhelmed with compassion: "God forgives us, he says. Who am I not to forgive? Let us pray." They are reconciled. Stephen then asks her about Absalom, and she is able to offer some help: Absalom has been a friend of the son of their brother John, whom Stephen now wishes to visit. Stephen then meets Gertrude's son, and is touched by him. Later in the day Gertrude, her son and her belongings are taken from the house in Claremont, and she comes to stay with the kindly Mrs. Lithebe, who is also putting Stephen up. He ends the day feeling that things are going well.
Poor though he is, Stephen buys some new clothes for Gertrude and her son, who seem happy. Msimangu takes Stephen to visit John. Stephen chides his brother for having left his first wife and the church, but John, a passionate politician with a bull-like voice, tells Stephen that the old order is changing, and the center of this change is Johannesburg, which is a place of opportunity, since Africans are beginning to realize themselves, but a place of strife too, because blacks are unjustly treated by whites. Stephen then asks about Absalom; John can tell them a little, for his own son has left home. Msimangu and Stephen discuss what John has said. Msimangu agrees with much of it, but fears that a politician like John could easily become corrupt. He feels that the only hope for the country is if whites and blacks can learn to work together for the common good. Love is needed; but he says, "I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating." They then begin the search for Absalom, following leads, going from place to place.
Stephen and Msimangu, now firm friends, in their search for Absalom set off for Alexandra, eleven miles from the centre of Johannesburg. They encounter a bus boycott, mounted to object to a fare increase, and are persuaded to walk the distance; but after a while they are given a lift by a sympathetic white man. Msimangu speaks of the problems caused by crime, and of the varying white reactions to the issue. They then visit Mrs. Mkize, with whom Absalom and his cousin stayed a year or so ago. She is afraid, partly because she thinks they may come from the police. She does not know where the young men have gone, but in response to the pleas of Msimangu finally tells him that the two had obviously been engaging in theft. She puts Msimangu and Stephen on to a taxi-driver who had been friendly with Absalom and his cousin. He is afraid too, but suggests that they go to Shanty Town, the squatter settlement. They return by taxi to Johannesburg, passing the thousands of walking bus boycotters, and the sprinkling of white drivers irritating the police by offering their assistance to some of the walkers.
The novelist constantly offers, in dramatized form, salient relevant South African socio-political realities, with all their injustices and imbalances. Thus he gives his central story a representative edge, indeed makes it symbolic of the country's tragic and dangerous tensions. In this chapter, a series of vignettes highlight some of the social problems of African people in Johannesburg, into which more and more people are moving: poverty, overcrowding, a drastic shortage of housing and accommodation, bribery, a lack of privacy, the constant fear of sexual misdemeanors, theft, and other forms of crime. In a further series of vignettes—fictionalized, but close to the historical reality—we see homeless people getting together, forming a committee (headed by Dubula, who was also involved in the bus boycott), and building Shanty Town overnight, and, while all this happens, the grief of a mother as her young child sickens and dies. We see Shanty Town growing, and the white authorities attempting to deal with it as a new problem. The squatter settlement becomes famous overnight. But how will those living in shacks made of wooden poles, iron and sacking cope in the rain and in the winter?
Waiting for Msimangu, Stephen plays happily with his little nephew, with whom he is more relaxed than with Gertrude; but his joy evaporates when he remembers the lost Absalom; but then the memory of his wife, friends and home lifts his spirits somewhat. Paton ponders on the mysterious interplay between comfort and desolation. Stephen and Msimangu renew their search. They go first to Shanty Town, and learn that Absalom was taken by the police and later sent to the reformatory (a place where, in real life, Paton was principal). His father is devastated. They make their way to the reformatory, where they are told by a young white official that Absalom, who had said that he had no family, has been released, because he had behaved well, work had been found for him, and the girl he wished to marry was pregnant. The official drives them to Pimville where the couple is staying, but they are all appalled to discover from the young woman that Absalom has disappeared. The official feels a sense of failure, Stephen is overwhelmed with grief but sorry for the girl, Msimangu has a rare outburst of angry bitterness, for which he later apologizes to Stephen.
Feeling that Stephen needs a break, Msimangu suggests that before long they go together to visit Ezenzeleni, the Anglican mission to the blind: "It will lift your spirits." But that evening the headline of the evening paper tells of a murder in Saxonwold, one of the white suburbs. Arthur Jarvis, a young engineer and noted liberal, has been shot by intruders who are thought to be (in the white parlance of the time) "natives". Jarvis happens to come from the Ixopo district: his father, whom Stephen recognizes but has never spoken to, is the owner of a nearby farm; in fact Stephen dimly remembers the son as a young bright boy. The police are searching for the culprits; they hope that the domestic worker, knocked out by the intruders, will be able to help them when he recovers consciousness. All those in the Mission House are silenced, sad and anxious. "Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone...Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end." Stephen is deeply fearful, improbable though it is that Absalom could be involved. He tells Msimangu that his ability to pray has dried up.
"Have no doubt it is fear in the land." The first half of the chapter conjures up, through a series of vividly presented statements, conversations and speeches, the anxiety of white Johannesburgers, and the mixture of views that they put forward, ranging from the right wing to the liberal. They discuss not only crime, but race relations more generally, and education, and the organization of society. There are no easy solutions to society's problems, especially as the whites take their own privileged status for granted. "Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child who is the inheritor of our fear." We then swing back into the main storyline. Msimangu is informed that Absalom is being sought by the police. He tries to conceal this from Stephen, but fails, and the two of them set out by taxi to retrace their earlier steps. All the people they call on tell them that the police have come, looking for Absalom, and it seems very serious. Eventually they reach Absalom's girlfriend, who tells them that the police have just left. She is distraught and terrified. Meanwhile, as they return sadly home, Stephen is cold with anguish. Msimangu attempts to comfort him.
They pay their visit to Ezenzeleni, but Stephen has no heart for sightseeing, and is left to meditate. He broods unhappily. Some thoughts console him, he has momentary visions of a reconstituted family at Ndotsheni; but he is deeply oppressed by his fear for Absalom, and his anxiety about the destruction of the traditional African social order. He ends up in despair, but Msimangu, as a fellow priest, chides him, and he accepts the admonition. We then get a glimpse of the creative work that is done for and with blind people at the mission. Then Msimangu preaches. He speaks particularly to those with "blind eyes", but it soon becomes clear to Stephen that he is speaking to him too, encouraging his audience with the message of God's bounty and his ability to turn darkness into light. Msimangu speaks eloquently. Stephen is moved, and his faith is renewed. But there is a final twist: some say that Msimangu, without realising it, is helping the white government, as "he touches people at the hearts, and sends them marching to heaven instead of to Pretoria". So the enigma of how best to approach the South African problem remains.
Stephen seeks some solace with Mrs. Lithebe, Gertrude and her son; but Msimangu and the young white reformatory official arrive with very grim news. Stephen's worst fears are realized: Absalom, his cousin and another have been arrested for the murder of Jarvis; it was Absalom who fired the shot. Stephen is stunned by the blow: he behaves erratically, and seems suddenly aged. They go to his brother John, who, having greeted them jovially, is shocked by the news. Then they all go off to the great prison, where the brothers meet their sons in separate rooms. Stephen's encounter with Absalom is deeply unsatisfactory. The father overwhelms the son with questions, but the latter has very little to say by way of answer or explanation. They torture each other; we are shown something of Absalom's pained bewilderment as well as that of his father. Absalom does say, however, that he wishes to marry the girl. After the interview Stephen speaks to John, who suggests that he'll employ a lawyer to argue that his son wasn't present at the scene of the crime. It is now the turn of the official, in his grieving frustration, to behave oddly. It is a bleak situation.
The young official comes to Stephen to apologize for his irrational outburst. He thinks Stephen should engage a lawyer, and the two of them go to Father Vincent, a sympathetic priest from England, who knows of a good advocate whom they can approach. The two priests are then alone, and Stephen pours out his distress. Father Vincent is moved and overwhelmed, and tries to offer some consolation. Stephen describes the pain of his journey, the suspense, the final revelation of Absalom's crime, and his sense that this horror had been building for so long. Father Vincent says, tentatively and gently, "Fear is a journey, a terrible journey, but sorrow is at least an arriving." But Stephen, who is appalled by his son's act—murdering a generous and talented young husband and father—and by his apparent incapacity to understand or to feel remorse, is inconsolable. Father Vincent then speaks to him as a priest, tells him to rest, and offers him a way of getting things into some perspective and directing his prayers: one has to try to accept God's incomprehensibility, and there are many things to pray about, and also things to be grateful for. Stephen accepts all this.
Stephen goes by himself to visit Absalom's girlfriend. He tells her of Absalom's imprisonment, and then of his crime. She is aghast. He asks her if she wants to marry Absalom. She says yes, but in a listless, unemphatic way rather reminiscent of Absalom's replies to his father's questions in their prison encounter. Stephen questions her further, about her family background, her difficult life, and her rather lax and blurred moral values. He is then angered by her and feels a strange desire to be hurtful. He asks if she will take another lover, and then, wildly, if she would accept him as a lover. She is very confused by this, but then says that she "could be willing". He covers his face with his hands; she weeps; and he is ashamed "for his cruelty, not her compliance". He apologizes. This moment brings them closer together. He asks her if she would like to marry Absalom, then come with her child to Ndotsheni and become his daughter, and she says yes with real feeling. They are both suddenly happy; and Stephen feels that some of his pain has been lifted from him. He remembers that Father Vincent is praying for him.
The kind Mrs. Lithebe observes those staying in her house: the good but suffering Stephen Kumalo, the child who at time brightens his mood, and his mother Gertrude, who is pleasant but whose laughter is sometimes "careless". Stephen humbly asks Mrs. Lithebe if Absalom's girl can come and stay there too. She says yes, and the girl comes, and, unlike Gertrude, is warmly grateful and accepts Mrs. Lithebe's tutelage. Stephen visits his son again, and finds him depressed. Absalom knows now that his two accomplices will deny that they were present at the murder scene, and he is relieved to learn that he is to have a lawyer. His father gets angry with him again, but then relents, seeing his son's distress. After this they feel closer. Stephen tells him that Father Vincent is arranging the marriage and that his wife-to-be will be coming back to Ndotsheni. Absalom is pleased. The advocate, Mr. Carmichael, then speaks to Absalom, and later explains to Stephen how he will approach the case. Stephen is anxious about the cost of the lawyer, but is told that Carmichael will take the case pro deo (without payment, literally "for God"). Stephen is grateful and moved.