I Am Woman, Hear My Cry

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Humans have a unique ability to express themselves clearly and profoundly without speaking a word. The way a person sighs, cries, screams, or groans exposes his emotion and state of mind. It is a gift that all humans bear, this power to display emotion through instinctual sound. Novelist Alan Paton has a strong grasp on this aspect of the human condition, exemplifying this in his treatment of women in the novel Cry, the Beloved Country. In Paton’s stark, poetic prose, the mere manner in which a woman laughs or weeps symbolizes an entire volume of depth and feeling, providing the reader with a glimpse into the inner workings of gender roles in South African society. Through the laughter and the wailing in Cry, the Beloved Country, Paton enriches his searing portrayal of life in an apartheid nation by honestly depicting the struggles of South African women.

For the most part, the women of this novel are only secondary characters, bearing little significance or influence over the plot. Almost all of them have no first names: for example, Absalom’s girlfriend, Mrs. Lithebe, Mrs. Mkize, and Mrs. Ndlela. In another instance of female namelessness, Absalom tells his father, the minister Stephen Kumalo, that if his unborn child is a boy, he wishes him to be named Peter. But when asked about a daughter, Absalom says, “No, if it is a daughter, I have not thought of any name” (206). In this subtle but noticeable technique, Paton reveals that the native women of South Africa have no definition in themselves, but for the men in their lives, with one notable exception. This exception is a scarlet woman, a woman with a sullied reputation, a woman notorious for engaging in the forbidden “careless laughter” (119). She is Gertrude, Kumalo’s sis...

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...men in so little dialogue and description provides a powerful testament to his writing ability. When Kumalo thanks Mrs. Lithebe for her hospitality, compassion, and support, she replies, “For what else are we born?” (193) It is a simple response, but one brimming with deeper meaning. The native women are the glue that holds together the crumbling skeleton of South African society. Without the women, the men would be nothing. The careless laughter exposes the weakness and depravity that can destroy a woman, but the customary wailing also reveals a woman’s immense strength in the face of adversity. By refusing to reduce the minor female figures to a one-dimensional stereotype, and although it is a mere footnote to the main storyline, Paton crafts an authentic, well-rounded portrait of the lives of South African women.

Works Cited
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

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