Summary and Analysis
The news of Absalom's crime causes Kumalo, like his namesake, St. Stephen, to suffer and endure intense agony. He feels almost martyred by the events transpiring around him. Stephen feels betrayed by his son, for Absalom has indeed betrayed all of Stephen's beliefs and teachings, just as the Biblical Absalom betrayed his father. At the beginning of Chapter 16, we see that the weight of these new experiences is beginning to age Stephen. He does not have the strength of the young to compensate for the heaviness of the ordeals he must undergo.
In his interview with Father Vincent, Kumalo is once again the recipient of help from an unselfish man. From Father Vincent, he is promised aid and advice in obtaining a lawyer and in arranging for the marriage of Absalom to the young pregnant girl. Furthermore, Father Vincent reminds Kumalo that fear has now been replaced by sorrow, which is an important step for a human being to make.
The girl's story is that of a child from the Johannesburg slums. The amount of crime produced by the slums is shown by the fact that all three of her lovers have gone to prison, yet she does not seem to be the criminal type, only a girl nobody ever cared about. Consequently she could find someone to be kind to her only through giving herself sexually.
This chapter is a crucial one as far as Stephen's development is concerned. With the girl, he performs his cruelest act. He has seen so much degradation and corruption that he feels that he must test the girl and in doing so hurts her deeply. He is very harsh and bitter toward the young girl when he forces her to say that she would be willing to go to bed with him. For a girl from the slums, there seems to be no other way to obtain temporary security. As soon as he has been cruel to her, Kumalo realizes that she is a victim of her society who is not agreeing to the sexual act out of any desire or immorality but because she has no other way to face life. Then Stephen is able to feel remorse for his cruelty and develops a deep compassion for the girl. From this point on, Stephen vows never to commit another cruel act.
Chapter 17 is divided into several sections: first, we listen to the thoughts of Mrs. Lithebe as she reviews the situation and states how sympathetic she is toward Stephen. She views Kumalo as an example of silent suffering and realizes that he has fallen into a "mold of suffering." This idea of suffering emphasizes again the relationship between Stephen and St. Stephen, his namesake. Next, we see a contrast between two wanton women — Gertrude and the young girl. Mrs. Lithebe, who respects Stephen so much, rebukes Gertrude for so much bad laughter and then tells the young girl that she must do nothing that would hurt Stephen. The girl is still young enough to be molded into a respectable member of society and takes Mrs. Lithebe's advice seriously.
Stephen undergoes another crucial experience when he meets with his son Absalom again. The scene is similar to the first scene in which the father spoke to Absalom and the son answered reluctantly. The relationship is at first very strained and distant, but by the end of the interview, there is some hint of communication and the relationship begins to deepen. By the end of the scene, he has given his son some hope. As he takes his son's hand, there is a feeling of some spark of life. This situation is the same type that occurred between Gertrude and Stephen in their first meeting; that is, at first Gertrude was cold and distant, but when Stephen took her hand, there was the beginning of communication.
Again a man of charity and goodness — this time Mr. Carmichael — is presented from among the whites of South Africa. His concern, as well as that of Father Vincent and the young man from the reformatory, shows us once more that there is a great deal of decency, concern, and constructiveness among the whites, but it is often overshadowed by the government's attitude.