When the land and tribe are corrupted, and the city and the country are pitted against one another, it follows that families will break apart. Throughout the novel, families are torn to pieces, particularly fathers and sons. In particular, the novel explores two significant father/son relationships: that of Stephen Kumalo and his son Absalom Kumalo, and that of James Jarvis, and his son Arthur Jarvis. Both sons vanish to Johannesburg, and their fathers come to find them only after something terrible has happened – Arthur is shot dead in a house invasion, and Absalom is his killer. Both fathers, then, seek to understand something about their sons and their sons’ circumstances. Stephen struggles to come to terms with his child killing another person, and, by extension, what has happened to his country and the brutal cycle in which they are all trapped. James attempts to get to know his son through his son’s papers and library, things he did not know about him before his death. Both fathers grieve, and their losses are only truly reconciled when James helps Stephen rebuild his church, and Stephen befriends the late Arthur’s young son. The city of Johannesburg tore both of their families apart, but outside of the city's borders, broken families can heal.
Absalom is Kumalo's only child, and he's also one of the main reasons that Kumalo arrives in Johannesburg in the first place: Kumalo wants to track down the son who has stopped writing home to Ndotsheni.
Of course, Kumalo is horrified to find that his son started robbing people, that he impregnated a girl outside of marriage, that he ditched a job provided for him by his reform school/juvenile detention center, and, of course, that he accidentally shot and killed Arthur Jarvis while he was trying to burgle the man's house.
But what really makes Kumalo angry is Absalom's total inability to explain how he came to do all of these bad things. When Kumalo goes to see Absalom at the prison, they have a conversation that tragically reveals how little Absalom understands about himself:
— Why did you do this terrible thing, my child?
The young white man stirs watchfully, the white warder makes no sign, perhaps he does not know this tongue. There is a moisture in the boy's eyes, he turns his head from side to side, and makes no answer.
— Answer me, my child.
— I do not know, he says. (1.14.69-72)
(The "young white man" is the person who runs Absalom's old reform school; the "white warder" is a prison guard.) First of all, the narrator calls Absalom a "boy," not a man. He can't take the responsibility of a grown man because he cannot explain anything that he has done. He is clearly upset by his wrongdoings—he tears up in this passage, and he weeps with regret when his father leaves him at the prison for the last time in Book 2 of the novel. But it's like someone else stepped in and made all of his choices for him, he seems so distanced from his own actions.
So we can see that Absalom is a deeply passive character. We know that he's got bad friends—his cousin, Matthew Kumalo, and this guy Johannes Pafuri, who planned the burglary in the first place. These friends have encouraged Absalom to lie, cheat, steal, and carry an illegal gun. They also leave Absalom to take the entire blame for the burglary and the murder, and he has no proof to show otherwise.
Absalom is a classic victim of peer pressure: he doesn't mean to do anything wrong, he might even know better, but he goes along with whatever the crowd wants to do. And eventually, this tendency leads him into trouble he can't get out of.
Why Absalom Is the Perfect Criminal (For Cry, the Beloved Country, At Least)
Cry, the Beloved Country paints a (sort of) sympathetic portrait of why some black people in South Africa fall into stealing and smuggling. Paton explains these crimes using social causes like lack of education and employment. Indeed, Arthur Jarvis expresses real-life Alan Paton's logic best, in the manuscript that his father finds sitting on his desk after his death:
Our natives today produce criminals and prostitutes and drunkards, not simply because it is their nature to do so, but because their simple system of order and tradition and convention has been destroyed. (1.21.15)
Leaving aside for now the incredibly condescending language of "our natives" that Arthur uses here (which we talk about in our "Character Analysis" of Arthur Jarvis), this essay within the novel explains Paton's view that crime is on the rise not because black Africans are by "nature" criminal—which a lot of racist, bigoted white South Africans might believe.
There is rising crime by black people against white South Africans because, increasingly, they see no other options: their traditional systems of moral order have been destroyed thanks to the oppression of European settlers, and nothing has been put in place of these lost tribal structures.
In other words, Paton is trying to show through his novel that black crime doesn't happen because the criminals are wicked or anything like that. He wants to show that crime is all social in nature: it's a symptom of larger injustices in South African society. Which means that Paton doesn't want to build his novel around a criminal mastermind who actively schemes to destroy the law—such a purposefully evil character would ruin his point.
What the novel requires instead is a wishy-washy character who is a perfect sponge for the bad social influences Paton wants to demonstrate—someone soft and totally passive. That sounds like Absalom Kumalo to Shmoop. Absalom is a perfect victim for Paton: yes, he is a criminal, but only because the legalized racism of South Africa undeniably made him that way. Even his shooting of Arthur Jarvis happens by accident and out of his control, when Arthur startles him as he's holding a loaded gun. Absalom is probably the most purposeless killer we have ever heard of, which makes his execution seem even more pointless and tragic.
Where Does a Guy Get an Awesome Name Like "Absalom," Anyway?
We mentioned that there are a lot of Christian themes in Cry, the Beloved Country, right? Well, then it makes sense that one of our main characters has an unusual—and significant—Biblical name.
Absalom is one of the sons of King David in the Book of Samuel. He is famous for murdering his half-brother, Amnon, in revenge for Amnon's rape of Absalom's sister Tamar. At first, King David cannot forgive Absalom for murdering Amnon, but after several years, he eventually admits that Absalom's revenge was justified.
But things don't end there: Absalom raises up an army to rebel against King David. In the fighting, Absalom is killed. And even though his son tried to overthrow him, King David is still desperately sad over Absalom's death (source).
Like the Bible's Absalom, our Absalom kills someone, but he's not entirely to blame for it (at least, according to the novel). Now, Arthur Jarvis is certainly a good man, unlike Amnon, but our Absalom doesn't mean to shoot him. His death is a horrible accident, which means that Absalom's responsibility for it is at least somewhat in question. And like the Bible's Absalom, our Absalom has been a disappointment to his father. Kumalo and King David both dearly love their sons, even though they have done wrong. And in fact, the regret and guilt that each father feels for his particular Absalom makes each Absalom's death all the more tragic.
Sure, the parallels between the Biblical Absalom and Cry, the Beloved Country's Absalom aren't exact, but there are some interesting similarities. The general outline of a beloved son who commits murder and who then dies violently, to the great sorrow of the father sounds spot-on to us.