Cry, the Beloved Country has special significance because it is meant not just to entertain but to show in dramatic terms a situation to which the author objects, in order to make people think about this situation and do something to remedy it. It is a commentary on events happening yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Although the novel's setting is the Union of South Africa, which later became the Republic of South Africa, it concerns issues that belong to South Africa, the United Nations, and the world.
In 1948, Africa was composed almost entirely of colonies or protectorates of European countries. South Africa was surrounded by countries ruled by relatively friendly Europeans. Now the former colonies that have gained independence are ruled by their black majorities.
After Paton wrote this book, he and hundreds of other South Africans who opposed the policies of the government and who tried to change those policies by legal, democratic means were charged with treason and often jailed. Newspapers were closed down, and many foreign writers, magazines, books, and newspapers were banned from entering the country.
Cry, the Beloved Country is strongly influenced by the American novel The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, published in 1939. Like The Grapes of Wrath, Paton's novel uses the language of the Bible, has a number of parallels with the Biblical story of Job (Steinbeck's book deals with a family named Joad), and is what is called a "social protest novel."
Novels of this sort have existed almost as long as the novel form has existed. In fact, the book widely accepted as the first English novel, Samuel Richardson's Pamela, among other things points out certain evils in eighteenth-century English society. Two "social protest" novels that had a pronounced effect on society were Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast (which is about the unbearable conditions under which American sailors had to work and live more than a century ago) and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (about the terrible treatment of immigrants in the United States and the filthy conditions of the American meat packing industry at the start of the twentieth century). Both books stunned their readers and brought about many of the reforms their authors wanted. The rights of American seamen were strengthened and broadened as a result of Dana's book, and after Sinclair's book was published not only did thousands of people stop buying canned meat because they were afraid of being poisoned by it, but President Theodore Roosevelt ordered an investigation that resulted in the Pure Food Laws passed later that same year, 1906.
Cry, the Beloved Country staggered the book reviewers and almost all who read it. It showed a picture that people not only had ignored, but hadn't even realized was there at all — a picture of deprivation, exploitation, decay and brutality, of callousness, ignorance, fear and hatred. It brought a spotlight to focus on South Africa that has remained there ever since.
Social protest novels have sometimes had a Socialist or Communist slant to them. But although the charge of being a Communist has been leveled at Paton, his novel obviously proves this charge is false and slanderous, for it is undoubtedly a Christian novel.
Public opinion seldom is changed by great bulky books of statistics and figures, charts and graphs because the message does not reach most people, as Steinbeck pointed out concerning The Grapes of Wrath. The story of one man or of a small group of people has far more effect on people than any number of essays. The reader comes to understand and identify with this man and his problems, hopes, and dreams.