Since this novel is essentially poetic, the opening chapter is not a narrative but instead sets a certain mood and atmosphere. And as with Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, there will be numerous intercalary chapters interspersed throughout the novel. Thus, we hear first about Ixopo, the town nearest Stephen Kumalo's village of Ndotsheni, on the east coast of South Africa, forty miles from the Indian Ocean and fifty miles from the border of Basutoland. It lies on a ridge of land between the Umkomaas River and the Umzimkulu River, which flow from the mountains of Basutoland into the sea.
Intimated in this first chapter is a strong reverence for the soil, which reminds one of Steinbeck's treatment of the land in certain passages in Grapes of Wrath. The emphasis on the difference between the shod and the unshod infers that the shod condition divorces humanity from the soil. Thus later, we find that many of the natives are leaving the land because they have lost their basic contact with it. Only old men and old women are left to tend the dry valley. The young have left for the city, a place that will be developed as being somewhat evil; therefore, one of the great needs is to restore the native to an appreciation of the land.
One of the outstanding features of this novel is the style, which is based on very simple sentences with short parallel phrases. There are virtually no complex sentences in the entire book. The simplicity of the style blends with the author's purpose of presenting the basic problems of the natives of the region.
Some critics have seen this first chapter as being symbolic of the relative positions of the whites and the natives. That is, geographically, the whites live above the natives on the best land; the natives live below on the barren land. Besides the possible symbolism of the relative positions and qualities of the lands owned by whites and blacks, there is another source of symbolism in this chapter: when the soil of the hills is red and is washed into the rivers through erosion, it colors the rivers blood red, as if the land were one great open wound. Africa bleeds because of this unjust distribution of land and human rights.
The picture given of the disintegration of Stephen's family (his loss of contact with his sister Gertrude, his brother John, and his son Absalom) shows the erosion of African society, the erosion symbolized in Chapter 1 by the erosion of the land.
The names of the characters have an importance in themselves. Stephen, the first name of this African minister, is also the name of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, who was stoned to death after being convicted of blasphemy. Absalom is the name of King David's son, who rebelled against his father. Absalom, in trying to escape, was caught in the branches of an oak tree and found there by Joab, who drove three darts into Absalom's heart. When King David heard of his son's death, even though that son had betrayed him, he was heartbroken and uttered the famous cry: "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee" (II Samuel 18:9-33). John, a cousin of Jesus, was the prophet of Christ's coming. In later chapters, the significance of these name parallels will be discussed.
The reader should be aware of the technique of the dialogue. Throughout the novel, there are virtually no long passages of dialogue; instead, there is the short pithy statement expressed with almost poetic overtones.
The nature of this society and the basic nature of the main character are captured in the dramatic scene involving the opening of the letter. There is a long delay before either Kumalo or his wife can face the task of opening this letter. In such a society, a letter occasions great news or bad news, and thus a ritual is connected with its opening.
In this chapter, we see how deeply sensitive Kumalo is. He feels strongly the disintegration of his family, and even though he does not express it in eloquent words, his repressing his emotions gives us an indication of how deeply he feels things. At the end of the chapter, when he thinks that he might have hurt his wife, he is repentant and apologetic.