Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton, is set in the tense and fragile society of South Africa. The degradation of the land causes both social and economic turmoil. Without control, the country is kept in a constant of fear and violence. The racial groups are divided and each has a desire for dominance. The author envisions that the only way for the country to strive is for all to work together. The act of love and compassion toward each other will overcome suffering and restore stability to the country. The author uses a unique style in order to draw out the themes of degradation and restoration.
Paton describes the two main cultures of South Africa, Natives and European, in order to bring out the degradation that has occurred within society. The unjust conditions sweep across the entire country and both urban and rural areas are affected. The novel begins in the countryside where Stephen Kumalo lives a quiet life as a priest. He is an old man who remembers that "the grass is rich and matted." He recollects the rich and fertile farmland that provided abundant crops. However, the land is now destroyed because "too many cattle feed upon the grass, and too many fires have burned it." The land cannot produce up to its potential and the yield is significantly smaller than in the past. Because of poor conditions in the countryside, many natives move to large cities where they can live a better life. Kumalo's idea of the traditional tribal life is no longer important to the people. The people recognize that "if the crops fail, there is work in Johannesburg. If there are taxes to be paid, there is work in Johannesburg." The belief is that the city offers new hope and provides answers to all problems. This idea occurs within Kumalo's family and his brother, sister, and son all choose to move. His brother delights in the new life because he is "a man of some importance, of some influence" in the city.