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July's People, by Nadine Gordimer, is a novel that deals with incredibly delicate subjects that are made even more sensitive under the novel's historical scope.
Set during a fictional period of civil war within Apartheid South Africa, the novel is about the white South African Smales family and the way that their lives are affected as a result of social changes take place during trying times.
The reason why Gordimer chooses to separate the different social sections that are depicted in the novel is because the novel is set in a time and place when social roles are strictly differentiated for whites and blacks. Furthermore, social roles were also delineated for blacks within their own social circles. For example, July is presented to us first as merely the servant of the Smales family; a man who is subservient, obedient, and willing to fulfill his duties as a servant. Gordimer needs to define each role so that the reader can understand the significance of the changes that are to come.
However, we see how his character does a complete turn-around when he is again presented to us as the chief of his own village, to which he takes the Smales family when things get really dangerous for them. Here is where we see the significant difference in roles; society has made July a servant, but July is actually a leader in his own right.
Moreover, the roles of the Smales family change as well. Once in charge and in full power, now Maureen and Bam are reduced to being unwanted guests among July's people, who cannot adapt to the idea of having a white family partake with them in their daily routines. In all, many paradigms shift, and many dynamics are broken once the roles begin to change.
Hence, there are four separate social groups in the novel within which social rules totally shift. There is July, represented at first as the stereotypical black servant and host to a white family. Then there is July, the village leader, problem solver and in the end, usurper of the bakkee-he becomes a despot in his own right.
We then have the villagers;poor and lowly-educated people who depend on their leaders, such as July, to maintain the order. Then we have the Apartheid white South Africans, such as the Smales, who at first are shown as liberal, and modern, only to end up so limited and reduced that they have to literally struggle to earn their dignity of status back, to no avail.
It is the combination of cultural conflict, and the switching of roles, what makes it important for Gordimer to define clearly what each social role is first so that, when the shifts begin, the reader can really appreciate the difference.
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