The central problem of the novel is stated by Msimangu: it is the problem of a people caught between two worlds. The old world of ritual and tribal adherence, of respect for the chief, and of tradition has been destroyed, but nothing has been offered in its place. The white man has disrupted the old ways but refuses to accept the native in the new world. Currently the natives live in an unstructured world where there are no values and no order to adhere to. This idea is represented in the novel by Absalom and Gertrude, who lose their old values and become part of the lawless life in Johannesburg.
The damaging result of this change is fear. As soon as the tribe is broken, the people live in fear because they have no place to turn. Some white spokesmen recognize this fact. Arthur Jarvis was working on plans that would give the native a sense of direction and worth, but his life was cut short by the very forces that he was working to improve.
The novel is not only a study of social problems but also a study in human relationships. Kumalo, interested at first only in reuniting his own family, comes to understand the greater problems facing his race. In such a novel as this, the absorbing social message must be realized by vivid, human characters in order to make the theme memorable.
Many of the ideas of the novel are presented through the suffering of Kumalo. In fact, through suffering, several persons undergo a significant change. James Jarvis, through the suffering he undergoes as a result of the death of his son, learns to understand his son, whom he had not previously really known. Furthermore, he comes to a better understanding of his own self, and finally he develops an understanding of the social situation of the entire country. As a result of this suffering and consequent understanding, he becomes a reformed man and continues the work begun by his deceased son by contributing to projects intended to improve the state of the natives.
Likewise, Kumalo undergoes tremendous suffering through the death of his son, Absalom. He is disillusioned by finding his sister and then his son in desperate and degenerate conditions; still later he has to face the death of his son, a shattering experience which brings him to understand many more of the complexities of life. He realizes that man cannot live simply by the old values; instead, he has to work toward creating new and different values of equal importance. Thus, he returns to his village with a flew understanding of life and of the basic nature of the change taking place in South Africa.
Embedded in these ideas is the contrast between the old and the new generations. In the Harrison family, the old man will never change. But with Kumalo and Jarvis, we see both undergoing a tremendous change as a result of the change that took place in each one's son. Furthermore, Kumalo recognizes that if there is to be a permanent change, it must come through the new generation, and he places all his hopes on Gertrude's boy and the child that is to be born to Absalom's wife.
At the beginning of the novel, most of the problems are attributed to the fact that man is separated from the land and that the land is becoming a waste land. This is partly represented by the fact that the new generation leaves the native land for the city. At the end of the novel, there is hope that humanity can rediscover the land and make it into a new Canaan.