A Lesson Before Dying

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The Tragedy that Brought About Change Depending on the conditions and circumstances under which one is raised, it is possible to have a one-way train of thought. This was so of James Jarvis, one of the characters in Alan Paton's Cry, The Beloved Country. Jarvis was a wealthy white man who lived at the top of the rolling hills of a city called Ixopo, South Africa. In him, the doctrine of black inferiority and Apartheid were instilled by his society. It is not until the death of his son, Arthur Jarvis, an advocate for black rights, that the reader is able to trace the change in James Jarvis, a man who was able to change the condition of an entire people.

At the opening of Cry, The Beloved Country, it is readily observed that although Jarvis loved his son, he did not agree with his views, and was not too close to him at all.

In fact, after his son's death, he recalls to his wife that "...you were always near to him than I was....You see, the things that he did, I've never had much to do with that sort of thing.

(p. 142)" "That sort of thing" Jarvis spoke of was his son's contribution to the black community, specifically the blacks of South Africa. Historically, it was unorthodox for a man that has come from a family of great prestige to make himself subject to the work and well-being of the "˜non-Europeans' of society, "for such a thing was not done lightly." However, Jarvis' interest in his son's work was sparked by him reading part of the book his son was in the process of writing. The excerpt details his opinion of the unfairness of South Africa's society. In part, his book states "It was permissible to use unskilled men for unskilled work. But it is not permissible to keep men unskilled for the sake of unskilled work. (p. 145)" In this, Arthur Jarvis is implying that society deemed it morally "˜ok' to use the unskilled as a source of labor, but Arthur pointed out to deprive them a chance for enhancing their education is denying them the right to better themselves. Little by little, Jarvis became more and more curious of his son's works, and began to spend more time reading parts of the incomplete book. "He looked at the hundreds of books, and slid aside the glass panel and took one of them out...and read it through carefully....and replaced the book in the case and shut the case. Then he opened the case again, and slipped the book in his pocket, and shut the case. (p. 147)" As the novel continues on, Jarvis wants "to understand his son, not to desire what was no more accessible to desire. (p. 153)" Arthur's book continues to discuss the propaganda in which the white society has lived by: We say we withhold education because the black child has not the intelligence to profit by it; we withhold opportunity to develop gifts because black people have no gifts; we justify our action by saying that it took us thousand of years to achieve our own advancement, and it would be foolish to suppose it would take the black man any lesser time and therefore there is no need for hurry. (p. 154)" Reading the remainder of the book, Jarvis actually felt like a changed man. His curiosity of Abraham Lincoln's philosophy grew and he looked up Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. When he finished reading that selection, he felt that there "...was a sudden lifting of the spirit....an increasing knowledge of a stranger. He began to understand why the picture of this man was in the house of his son...(p. 155)" Jarvis' first real act of generosity came from encouragement of his grandson the son of Arthur. "Inkosana," as the little boy is called, rode his horse to the parson's house, Stephen Kumalo. After asking for a glass of milk, Kumalo explains to the boy that they don't have milk because the people cannot afford it. He also explains that many children are dying from the lack of milk, and mentions one of the babies, the child of Kuluse. This child was to die because milk is the only thing that can save him, and is something the town does not have. The little "inkosana" leaves, solemnly. Not too much later that day, a messenger carries a letter from Jarvis addressed to Kumalo. The messenger reported that the child had rode up again, mentioned the child of Kuluse, and has brought cans of milk.

The messenger instructs that the milk is to be given to the small children only, and is to be distributed by Kumalo. "This will be done until the grass comes and we have milk again.

(p 237)" Kumalo knows the mindset of Jarvis, and can see his change of heart. On the way home, "...he laughed again that Kuluse's child might live and he laughed again at the thought of the stern silent man at High Place. (p.238)" For the next few weeks, the little "inkosana" visits with Kumalo, and learns the Zulu language, while they develop a good friendship. One day Kumalo sees white men sticking poles in the ground, and is curious to see what is going on. The men approach him, saying the poles are not to be disturbed or removed. Kumalo agrees, and lets the people know. As it begins to rain, Jarvis heads toward Kumalo, and asks him if he could sit in the church with him, until the storm settles down. Kumalo agrees, and the two sit in the church, dodging the leaks in the roof the majority of the time. The following day, after his daily lesson with "inkosana," Jarvis drives up, and drops off a young man. As he approaches Kumalo, he identifies himself as Napoleon Letsitsi, and was sent by the white man. He informs Kumalo that he is the new agriculture demonstrator, and he is going to help the people farm the land in the most efficient manner possible, first by building a dam.

Kumalo is pleased, and declares that the man "...is an angel from God. (p. 251)" Not only did Jarvis send a much needed resource to the black community, he sponsors the building of a new church for Kumalo. In their last meeting, Kumalo gratefully thanks Jarvis for all that he has done: the milk, the demonstrator, and the church. Jarvis responded that "I have seen a man...who was in darkness till you found him. If that is what you do, I give it willingly. (p.272)" From the beginning of the novel till the end, James Jarvis has become a changed man. He has read works of a man that he felt "failed" at giving his Gettysburg Address, and his eyes were opened through the writings of his dead son. Although he still lives in a society where he is expected to have a superior attitude towards blacks, he has humbled himself, and has become a better person in the end.