Summary and Analysis
Book 1: Chapters 6-10
In Chapter 6, Kumalo sees for the first time the black section of the city where the neglected children play in the streets amid poverty and filth. It is also his first confrontation with a degrading type of life filled with vices of all kinds.
The confrontation with Gertrude is significant because when Kumalo first meets her, he takes a hand that is cold and dead. Symbolically, Gertrude is spiritually dead, but gradually, through the warmth and sincere devotion of Kumalo, she begins to come alive. She continues until there is a scene of sincere repentance on her part; then she confesses that she is sick and wishes to return home. The large city has made her sick; a general sickness abounds throughout Johannesburg. We also see a change in Kumalo in that at first he judges his sister harshly before he slowly begins to sympathize with her and ultimately forgives her.
The chapter ends on the hope that the tribe will be rebuilt and that Stephen's house will be restored. But as the search for Absalom will prove, the house is destined to undergo greater tragedy before it can be rebuilt.
The note introduced in Chapter 6 indicating that a gap exists between two sides of the black population is made clearer by John's words. He says that a large element of the population is glad the tribal society is breaking down, and he cannot explain the nature of the new force that will replace the tribe, the chief, and the church because the motivations are highly ambiguous.
John represents a different way of life in that he has broken with the church and with the tribe and is now living with a new wife. He has shed all the old tribal values and has adopted the more impersonal ways of the city. This outlook stands in direct contrast to Stephen, who has adhered strongly to the old values embedded in the tribe and church. Furthermore, John is glad to be away from the domination of the chief because now he can assert his own importance. We must also realize that he is being used by the party solely because of the strength of his voice; in other words, he has become a voice without heart or morals.
When Kumalo brings Gertrude and the child from the slum area, he immediately buys them new outfits. Symbolically, he is preparing them to accept a new way of life as expressed by the discarding of the old clothes and accepting the new ones.
Throughout the novel, Msimangu is the spokesman for the author; it is he who identifies one of the principal evils of society: the white man has power and the black man wants this same power so as to be like the white man. At first the black man says he wants power so that he can correct injustice and the wrongs of the society. But the tragedy lies in the fact that as soon as the black man receives power, he uses it as badly as does the white man; that is, he is content to enjoy all the rewards of power and forgets about correcting the injustices.
Chapter 8 begins the search for Absalom — a search that will lead Stephen Kumalo through a series of new experiences and new revelations. The first of these is the encounter with the bus boycott when he meets Dubula. Msimangu then explains more about the leaders and the new movement. Stephen's brother John has the voice, Tomlinson has the brains, but Dubula has the heart. Thus, in contrast to John, who may be working partly for self-interest, Dubula's work involves great suffering and great dedication and sacrifice. John sits like a chief and talks of vague ideas, but Dubula is quiet, humble, hard-working, and extremely effective, for he works with one small but practical area, an area of immediate concern to his people. Consequently, the government, according to Msimangu, is more afraid of Dubula, because he wants nothing personal out of his dedication and therefore cannot be easily corrupted.
Even if the boycott does not succeed in reducing the bus fares, it has done a great deal of good because it has shown the solidity of the natives and has aroused the conscience of many whites. Both of these factors are important in the novel because they illustrate that the situation is not hopeless and that the issue is not purely a racial one of whites versus blacks. It is a matter of right and wrong, and many whites are on the side of the right. In the action of the whites giving the blacks a ride, we see a foreshadowing of the action that Jarvis will later undertake. These small actions then lead to greater acts of justice on the part of the whites.
In the search for Absalom, the basic response to Kumalo's questions is fear. The landlady sends them to the taxi driver but is afraid to say anything that will incriminate her. Furthermore, Msimangu tells several stories about young natives committing various crimes. These stories function as a kind of omen as to the ultimate fate of young Absalom.
Chapter 9 interrupts the main story in order to show, in short staccato scenes, some of the suffering of the natives in Shanty Town. The physical needs of these people leave them little time to devote themselves to campaigns for justice. They barely have the energy and money to keep themselves alive, and their human sufferings are actually more effective as a social message than all of the loud talking by John Kumalo.
The voices in this chapter serve as a chorus to broaden the area of the book and as a reminder that, although the story of Stephen and Absalom is in the foreground, it is only part of a far larger story. This chapter illuminates the symbolism of the novel's first chapter, for this is the erosion of the raw, red earth, now in terms of human suffering and blood. The underplaying of the mother's grief over her child's death is effective; first, because a more maudlin scene would have less effect, and second, because it shows how little she can do.
Notice the parallel between the bus boycott and Shanty Town. Both are visible displays of suffering that embarrass and arouse the conscience of the whites. Violence would breed more repression, but quiet suffering appeals to the best that is in the whites and makes them act in a positive way.
In the beginning of Chapter 10, Kumalo still feels that there is a great gulf separating him and his sister. He will have this same feeling when he meets his son. However, Kumalo feels some relief by his response to Gertrude's son and sees in the young boy a hope for the future. But at the same time that Kumalo is seeing all types of suffering and despair, he himself feels helpless. Throughout these chapters, he contemplates more and more about the basic value and nature of life.
The picture of the reformatory and the staff member reinforces the idea that there are white men of goodwill in South Africa who want to be constructive, creative, and kind, although the odds are overwhelmingly against them. The young director of the reformatory represents the frustration of continual disappointment when working with the natives. Absalom, as we hear, had been a paragon of virtue and one of the best inmates, suggesting that he is still redeemable, but when Absalom fails again in the outside world, the young director becomes rather bitter and disillusioned. Furthermore, the good Reverend Msimangu loses control of himself and expresses some bitter thoughts about the girl Absalom has deserted. Thus when even Msimangu and the director resort to bitterness and disillusionment, the situation must be desperate. The girl, though, has long ago given up hope, if indeed she ever had any. She is a Johannesburg girl, born and reared there, and her fate is simply to exist like a vegetable, without a trace of human dignity or happiness.