July’s People (1981)

By Nadine Gordimer

Note: The following was written for a graduate seminar on Postcolonial literature, but, aside from the first few paragraphs, it is a fairly straight-forward reading of what might just be my favorite novel.

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How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known.
— Kate Chopin, The Awakening

Nadine Gordimer prefaces July’s People with a passage from Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.” The line serves as both a warning — preparing the reader for the disorienting journey he or she is about to begin — and as the thesis of the novel. In a 1987 interview, Gordimer addressed those readers whom she felt had “misread” her work. “People always say that July’s People is about what happens after revolution in South Africa. But it isn’t. . . . it is during. . . .it’s about a time of civil war” (Bazin, 294). July’s People inhabits a world where traditionally assumed roles and rules are in a state of flux, where relationships and stations have become undefined, where everything, even vocabulary and language, has come into question. The novel is rife with the “morbid symptoms” of post-colonial nationalism: miscommunication, alienation, anger, and, ultimately, violence.

In “Dissemination: Time, Narrative and the Margins of the Modern Nation”, Homi Bhabha discusses the Western nation as the “locality of culture”, which he describes as being “more around temporality than about historicity” (140). He contends that the space of the modern nation-people is never horizontal — a simple, linear sequence of determining events — and in doing so, he deconstructs political, social, and literary terminology. Bhabha’s representation of the nation as a temporal process assumes a form of living that is:

more complex than ‘community’; more symbolic than ‘society’; more connotative than ‘country’; less patriotic than patrie; more rhetorical than the reason of State; more mythological than ideology; less homogeneous than hegemony; less centered than citizen; more collective than the ‘subject’; more psychic than civility; more hybrid than can be represented in any hierarchical or binary structuring of social antagonism. (14)

Like Gramsci and Gordimer, Bhabha views people/nations as being constantly between the dying old and the new which cannot be born. He describes the struggle as a “contested conceptual territory” where people must be both “objects” of the past — stereotypes based on a nationalist pedagogy — and “subjects” of the present — proof of a nation’s vitality (145). “It is through this process of splitting,” writes Bhabha, “that the conceptual ambivalence of modern society becomes the site of writing the nation” (146).

The ambivalence of the South Africa that Gordimer writes in July’s People is jarring. The first voice we hear belongs to July, a servant beginning his day “for them as his kind has always done for their kind” (1). However, the narrative does not allow us to settle comfortably into a world of established roles and easily recognizable caricatures. Instead, we are given four pages of unidentified pronouns, names without faces, and a setting that only slowly begins to come into focus. As if gradually waking us from a nightmare-filled sleep, the narrator forces us to struggle as we order our reality. Past and present. Here and there. Us and them. Binary oppositions are compressed, making us question their significance.

The first paragraph of the second chapter, a description of an automobile which sounds as if it were cut and pasted from a tourist’s South African Cultural Guide, grounds the reader in fact. It is in the second chapter that the narration provides some of the back story. We learn that Bam Smales, a successful white Johannesburg architect, his wife, Maureen, and their three children have been rescued from violent revolution by their servant of fifteen years, a black man named July. In order to escape the burning, looting, and killing in the city, the six huddled together inside the Smales’s “bakkie” and rode dirt roads into the bush. The journey, lasting three days and covering more than 600 kilometers, ended at July’s home, the home of his people, the home he had been allowed to visit only every other year.

Gordimer devotes most of July’s People‘s 160 pages to the development of the relationship between Maureen and July. Early in the novel, July comes to the Smales’s hut to fetch their clothes for his women to wash. The scene, which is the first to feature private interaction between July and Maureen, establishes the complexity of their association. Maureen, a woman who prides herself on her liberal beliefs and conscientious treatment of others, first responds by taking responsibility. “I can do it myself,” she says (27). July, a proud man who has served in order to provide for his family, denies her. Their conversation quickly becomes one of payment for services provided. A mutual, though unspoken, agreement is made: both will attempt to maintain their familiar roles. The result is an awkward moment when both realize July’s practicality and foresight, both understand that he is their savior. Despite her progressive politics, Maureen gives him the clothes, agrees to pay, and then seems surprised to find the villagers carrying their crumpled money with them; surprised, actually, to learn that they are “able to make the connection between the abstract and the concrete” (28).

The narration of July’s People speaks most often from Maureen’s perspective. As the novel begins, she imagines a bond between July and herself; “he and she understood each other well,” she thinks (13). But time in the bush strips away all certainties. Reading a novel, a past-time of hers, becomes impossible: “She was already not what she was. No fiction could compete” (29). She admits to looting (38). She chides herself for the superficiality of her experience: “Fangalo would have made more sense than ballet,” she tells Bam (45). Finally, Maureen rises one night, literally strips herself of all that belonged to her past, and stands nude in the rain. In this baptism, Maureen is described as being close to the night, her body the same temperature as the rain, as if she had been transformed into a living representation of South Africa’s confused present (48).

But like Bhabha’s deconstruction of terminology, Gordimer’s baptism reveals the complexities of the archetype. Maureen is transformed — made new — but she is not awarded the assumed salvation. Instead, she becomes only more aware of her past self. Soon after Maureen’s re-birth, the narration becomes one with her, offering the reader Maureen’s “humane creed” (64). “[It] depended on validities staked on a belief in the absolute nature of intimate relationships between human beings. If people don’t all experience emotional satisfaction and deprivation in the same way, what claim can there be for equality of need?” (64-65). This creed, however, is problematized by Maureen’s new awareness. “The absolute nature she and her kind were scrupulously just in granting to everybody,” she realizes, “was no more than the price of the master bedroom and the clandestine hotel tariff” (65). Her roles — wife, mother, master — are suddenly as arbitrary and predetermined as that which she had assigned to July.

It is interesting to note that Maureen’s thoughts about her creed are brought on by her preoccupation with July. She tries to imagine him. She wonders about his town woman, whether he loved her, whether he would have liked to have brought her to his home instead. Maureen’s thoughts are like those of a jealous lover. Although Maureen and July never literally share a sexual experience, the language depicting their private interaction is laced with a conscious eroticism. As Maureen stands nude in the rain, she sees and hears July. There is a “dimension between her and some element in the rain-hung darkness” and he is described as “savouring” and “burning” (48). When they meet to discuss who will hold the keys to the bakkie, an obvious symbol of power, they share the shame of their “affair.” “His chin was raised, trying to sense rather than see if Bam was in the hut behind. Her silence was the answer: not back; they both knew the third one had gone off” (69). Removed from the politically and socially accepted ideology which had governed her thoughts and actions, Maureen imagines herself as the peak of a triangle, her loyalties and desires torn between the blond man “back there” and her “frog prince, savior, July.”

Their conversation dissolves into mean-spirited insults. Again like lovers, Maureen and July seem to know exactly which words will strike deepest. July chastises her for her dehumanizing lack of trust. “You looking everywhere, see if everything it’s still all right. Myself, I’m not saying you’re not a good madam — but you don’t say you trust for me. — It was a command” (70). He throws “boy” at her, a term of contempt for them both, and again shifts the topic to money, “refusing to meet her on any but the lowest category of understanding” (71). Truly hurt, Maureen retaliates by mentioning Ellen, the town woman, a rival. In doing so, “they stepped across fifteen years of no-man’s land, her words shoved them and they were together, duellists who will feel each other’s breath before they turn away” (72). But again, Gordimer refuses to allow Maureen’s “triumph” to simplify their relationship. Although some ideological boundaries between the two have been blurred, others are drawn with each of Maureen’s awakenings. In a beautifully effective narrative shift, Gordimer shows Maureen — and us — the consequences of her transgression (I love this line): “A servant replied uninterestedly to a dutiful enquiry on the part of the good madam who knows better than to expose herself to an answer from the real facts of his life” (73).

The two separate, but Maureen again searches July out a few days later. She is drawn to him, leaving her husband behind. “Maureen felt it had been decided she had to come look for July; helpless before the circumstantial evidence that they were now alone, again” (95). Like reconciling lovers, they speak casually of mundane topics, both hoping to ignore all that had passed between them. But their civility is short lived. When July denies her any interaction with the women of the village, Maureen surprises them both with a venomous threat: “Are you afraid I’m going to tell her [your wife] something?” (98). Again Maureen fires back her knowledge of Ellen; again she is surprised by July’s response. “Before her,” Gordimer writes, “he brought his right fist down on his breast. She felt the thud as fear in her own” (98). It is the first time that Maureen ever fears a man. Her husband, “the architect lying on a bed in a mud hut,” is an anachronism, “a presence in circumstances outside those the marriage was contracted for” (98). But July threatens something within her, awakens another part of herself which she fears:

How was she to have known, until she came here, that the special consideration she had shown for his dignity as a man, while he was by definition a servant, would become his humiliation itself, the one thing that was to say between them that had any meaning.
Fifteen Years
your boy
you satisfy (98)

Gordimer emphasizes place and time. It is only here and now, “in this interregnum,” that it is possible for Maureen to recognize any of the complexities which make it impossible for her to ever really know July.

Maureen also recognizes that her interaction with July is effected greatly by language, by their inability to discuss “even the most commonplace of abstractions” (96). Gordimer describes July’s English as that which is “learned in kitchens, factories and mines. It was based on orders and responses, not the exchange of ideas and feelings” (96). In his discussion of the “national narrative,” Bhabha finds language to be the most appropriate analogy for the ambivalence of modern society. He cites at length the work of Claude Lefort:

The enigma of language — namely that it is both internal and external to the speaking subject, that there is an articulation of the self with others which marks the emergence of the self and which the self does not control-is concealed by the representation of a place ‘outside’ — language from which it could be generated. (146)

Defined by a language external to his self and outside of his control, July is a construct, a patchwork of stereotypes and naïve assumptions. Conflicts arise in July’s People when Maureen becomes aware of her role in his construction, and when she realizes that her role is changing. Lefort acknowledges the contradiction inherent in his enigma. “Only the authority of the master allows the contradiction to be concealed, but he is himself an object of representation; presented as possessor of the rule, he allows the contradiction to appear through himself” (146-47). As Steven Clingman points out in The Novels of Nadine Gordimer, Maureen’s fear of July is simply the horrifying realization that even her language is a daily medium of his oppression (200). Removed from an ideology which has arbitrarily assigned power to her and those like her, Maureen is exposed, shown to be as much an “object of representation” as July.

The final meeting between July and Maureen is also the most poignant. By the end of the novel all authority and power, symbolized by the bakkie and the gun, have been transferred to July’s people. Bam weeps openly in front of his children. He and Maureen interact “as divorced people might” (140). Their relationship becomes one composed of indeterminate pronouns — “Her. Not ‘Maureen’. Not ‘His wife'” (105). Maureen goes to July and demands that he return the weapon. This time she approaches him as one conscious of a shared past that can never be reclaimed. She flings “back at him his uprightness, his moralizing — whatever the rigmarole of form he had always insisted on establishing between them” (149). But like dry ice that evaporates instantly when removed from its secure environment, their posturing dissolves quickly in the bush. Again, each becomes frustrated with the other. Clingman calls the language of the scene a battlefield — “as much a battlefield as the realm of private and political relations it helps both constitute and conceal” (200). Maureen accuses July of stealing rubbish from her home, then tells him of the shame she felt because of it. All he can manage in response is, “You” before slipping into the eloquence of his native tongue. Clingman aptly characterizes July’s furious venting as a “machine gun barrage” of words (200). July’s weapon hits its mark.

[Maureen] understood although she knew no word. Understood everything: what he had had to be, how she had covered up to herself for him, in order for him to be her idea of him. But for himself — to be intelligent, honest, dignified for her was nothing; his measure as a man was taken elsewhere and by others. She was not his mother, his wife, his sister, his friend, his people. (152)

Gordimer completes the scene by surrounding Maureen and July with the evening,”as if mistaking them for lovers” (153). Maureen strikes a grotesque pose against the hood of the bakkie, another message which means nothing to him. Defeated, she returns to Bam and asks, “Was it like this for him?” (154).

Kate Chopin’s Edna Pontellier is reborn as a new creature, “opening [her] eyes in a familiar world that [she] had never known before” (124). Her awakening comes as she begins her swim towards death. Maureen Smales’s final destination is slightly more ambiguous, but no more promising. July’s People ends when a helicopter of unknown origins flies over the village and lands nearby. Maureen, acting on instinct like an animal, runs toward the sound, although she is unaware “whether it holds saviours or murderers; and — even if she were to have identified the markings — for whom” (158). Gordimer has referred to the finale as a Pascalian wager, “Salvation exists or doesn’t it?” (Wagner, 112). Stripped of all certainties, removed from all roles and expectations, and armed with only a new self-awareness, Maureen flees both the old which is dead and the new which has just been born.

Works Cited

Bazin, Nancy Topping, and Marilyn Dallman Seymour, eds. Conversations with Nadine Gordimer. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1990.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening and Selected Stories. New York: Signet, 1976.

Clingman, Stephen. “The Subject of Revolution: Burger’s Daughter and July’s People.” The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside. London: Allen & Unwin, 1986. 170-204.

Gordimer, Nadine. July’s People. New York: Penguin, 1982.

Wagner, Kathrin. Rereading Nadine Gordimer. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994.