Book One—Discussion Questions
2. In Chapter 12 an unnamed speaker asks: "Which do we prefer, a law-abiding, industrious and purposeful native people, or a lawless, idle and purposeless people? The truth is that we do not know, for we fear them both." In the context of the novel this appears to be an enlightened statement; but note how both alternatives fail to posit the autonomy of African people. Comment on this issue.
3. What in your view is the significance of the visit to Ezenzeleni, the mission to the blind, in Chapter 13?
4. In Chapter 15 Father Vincent says: "But sorrow is better than fear. For fear impoverishes always, while sorrow may enrich." To this Stephen replies: "I do not know that I am enriched." Consider what exactly Father Vincent means. Why is Stephen unable to respond to what Father Vincent says? Do we feel that Stephen is in the end enriched by his sorrow? Try to elaborate.
5. Also in Chapter 15 Stephen complains to Father Vincent about Absalom: "He is a stranger," he said. "I cannot touch him, I cannot reach him." Give your interpretation of Absalom's state of mind and feeling.
6. At different times in Book One we see Stephen, Msimangu, and the young white reformatory official behaving strangely under the influence of grief and disappointment. Look carefully at these passages. What do you think the author is suggesting in them?
7. Paton's belief that God is or may be mysteriously at work in human affairs is suggested at a number of points. Give examples of some of the places in the novel where he advances this suggestion. How does he do it? Do you think this aspect of the novel is successful?
8. The subtitle of the novel is "A Story of Comfort in Desolation". We are constantly made aware, particularly through the experiences of Stephen, that comfort and desolation are subtly interwoven. Comment on this issue in whatever way you would like.
10. The great journey from the country, with its problems, to the great city, Johannesburg, with its problems. John Kumalo, Gertrude and Absalom have made the journey. We see Stephen Kumalo making it. In his own way Alan Paton made it when he moved from being a schoolteacher in Natal to becoming a principal of a reformatory for young African offenders in 1935. Comment on whatever aspects of the journey, the transition, seem to you most significant—geographical, social, political, economic, and psychological.
11. Are the novel, and the South African situation that it evokes, so particular that it would be difficult to generalize from the experiences that we as readers undergo? Or could one argue that the movement offered here from country to town, from one set of problems to another, is the story of human civilization?
12. In 2 Samuel 13-19 in the Old Testament, Absalom, David's son, rebelled against his father, and was later killed by David's general. David lamented his son with the words: "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!" (2 Samuel 18:33) How important do you think it is to know this episode and to bear it in mind while reading of Stephen Kumalo and his son Absalom?
13. What in your view are the chief similarities and differences between Gertrude and Absalom's girlfriend?
14. Comment on the role, in Book One, of Msimangu.
15. What in your view is the significance in the novel of (a) Father Vincent and (b) Mrs. Lithebe?
16. Some critics and readers have felt that Paton's treatment of John Kumalo is unfair, and that the possibly implied link between his political views and the dishonest way in which he approaches Absalom's trial is not really justifiable. What do you think?