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The setting begins in a small village in South Africa where Reverend Stephen Kumalo receives a letter asking him to go to Johannesburg to help his ill sister. Kumalo gets together all their savings and takes a train hoping to find not only his sister but also his son who left and never returned. In the city he finds the pastor who sent this letter who welcomes him and helps him find his sister. To his surprise, his sister was not ill but instead she had become a prostitute and was selling liquor. After persuading her to come back to the village with her son, she helps him find their brother, John.
John has become a successful businessman and politician, and he directs them to the factory where his son and Absalom once worked together. After tracking him down from place to place, Kumalo finally discovers that his son has spent time in a reformatory and that he has gotten a girl pregnant. Absalom is later arrested for the murder of Arthur Jarvis, a important white crusader for racial justice.
Despite Kumalo’s attempt to help his son, Absalom is sentenced to death. He claims it was unintentional and had help from John Kumalo’s son. Reverend Kumalo then arranges for his son to marry the girl he had gotten pregnant and for her to come back with him. In addition, he meets with Arthur Jarvis’s father, and together they grieve for the death of their sons.
Eventually Kumalo goes home with his new daughter-in-law, and Jarvis gets involved helping him keep his village together; he helps with agricultural techniques and offers to build the congregation a new church. The novel ends as Kumalo weeps over his son’s death on the valley, awaiting his execution.
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This novel takes place shortly after the Second World War, and is suffering from the effects of the age of imperialism and the industrial revolution. One of the effects the industrial revolution had was the growth of the cities; everyone moved into the cities in search of job opportunities.
“All roads lead to Johannesburg. If you are white or if you are black they lead to Johannesburg. If the crops fail, there is work in Johannesburg. If there are taxes to be paid, there is work in Johannesburg…” (83).
Here we can see how all the population was leaving their tribes and villages to go to this big city because they had no other choice; it was their only option to get a job. During this time the population in the cities was doubling every thirty years, and therefore, there was not enough housing.
“They way we must get together the planks and the sacks and the tins and the poles, and all move together. They say we must all pay a shilling a week to the Committee, and they will move all our rubbish and put up lavatories for us, so that there is no sickness. But what of the rain and the winter?” (86).
Here we see the conditions the people were living in; they began to build houses with planks and sacks because they had nowhere else to go.
Just like in England, the capitalists were taking everything over and using the people’s desperation to their advantage; they worked the people long hours with very low salaries. At one point the people boycott against high fares for the buses; if the capitalists raised the fare many workers would not be able to afford it any longer. “We are determined not to use the buses until the fare is brought back again to four pence,” (73). This meant that many people had to walk eleven miles to work, “And women, and some that are sick, and some crippled and children. They start walking at four in the morning, and they do not get back till eight at night,” (74). Here we can see the extreme conditions these people were willing to work in, and they only received thirty-five to forty shillings a week.
During this time, Imperialism was taking place, and England had taken over South Africa. Kumalo first noticed this when he came into the city, “As all country trains in South Africa are, it was full of black travelers. On this train indeed there were not many others, for the Europeans of this district all have their cars…” (43). John Kumalo was a business man in Johannesburg and he explains this to the reverend,
“This wonderful hospital for Europeans, the biggest hospital south of the Equator, built with the gold from the mines… Go to our hospital, he said, and see our people lying on the floors. They lie so close you cannot step over them. But it is they who dig the gold.” (67).
Here we see the inequality of classes; the Europeans took over South Africa and are taking all the benefits the people work so hard for. The English control all the economic and political decisions, therefore, they receive all the benefits and all the best services while they ignore the needs of the working class.
I have found that even in this day and age, we still suffer from some of the same effects the industrial revolution had in the early twentieth century. We are currently living in a capitalist country with unequal pay and benefits. Although the government has intervened with the capitalists, by making a minimum wage a setting a limited amount of hours, workers are still not being treated equally. We often see actors or athletes being paid unreasonably high salaries for mere entertainment, in contrast to nurses or garbage collectors who work to better our society for very low wages.
Paton does an excellent job depicting the image of what life was like in those times. Through Reverend Kumalo’s journey to Johannesburg, the readers are able to understand some of the consequences of the industrial revolution and the age of imperialism. This is captivating novel because the problems Paton discuses do not only make the reader aware of the situation during the moment, but he is able to relate to current problems of this age and time.