Critical Essays Paton's Style


The language that Paton uses in his novel is extremely simple, except of course for the words in Zulu and Afrikaans (the Dutch-derived language of parts of South Africa) that he uses to help establish the scene. The simplicity of language is meant to help convey the fact that Stephen Kumalo is a simple man used to plain words and plain living and uncomplicated ideas. It also helps convey his religiousness, for the language, not just the words themselves, is that of the King James version of the Bible. Stephen's religion is simple; he obviously has read the Bible so many times that he thinks and speaks in its style. Partly this has come about because so many of the schools where Africans first learned English were missionary schools, where teaching religion was as important as teaching arithmetic, but Stephen has gone on to reinforce this Bible-like usage of language.

This use of Biblical style also fits in with the number of Biblical names in the novel, such names as Absalom, Peter, and John, and helps give them meaning. Besides being a reflection of Stephen's religiousness and simplicity, this Biblical style gives the novel an air of restraint and universality. It is a terrible and dramatic story that is told, the story of a family, a tribe, and a nation slipping into decline, crime, and murder. But the author does not want it to be just a melodrama that is good for a few hours of exciting reading. He prefers to play down the dramatic events and play up the feelings of its two principal participants, Stephen Kumalo and James Jarvis, so that the reader has a feeling not just of sympathy but of empathy with them. Empathy is the capacity to put yourself in someone else's place, to say, "What if this happened to me, or to my family, how would I feel then?" He wants his readers to suffer as Kumalo and Jarvis suffer so that something may be done to stop the situation he writes about. The novel could have been written as a murder mystery, dealing with the killing of Arthur Jarvis and the search for and conviction of his murderer, but this plot would have left the reader uninvolved.

As well as accomplishing this element through his use of restrained, Biblical language, Paton uses it also to strike another response in his readers. The Bible is regarded by many as the word of God, or at least a book worthy of respect. By using its style, Paton lifts his novel's theme and characters out of their South African setting and puts them into the mainstream of Westem religion and history.

Finally, the style suggests a relationship between Stephen Kumalo's story and the Bible, particularly a link with the story of Job, the Biblical character who was beset with every kind of loss yet who maintained his faith. Job lost his wealth, his children, his health, everything except his life, in an attempt by Satan to win him away from God, but Job maintained his faith and it brought his salvation. Stephen Kumalo, losing his son, his brother and sister, his money, his belief in the goodness of his society, and for one moment even his religion, is finally sustained by his faith in man and God and sees salvation around him in the acts of James Jarvis. Job's story is the archetypal story of human suffering; linking Stephen with Job makes Paton's story even more powerful.

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