July's People Essay - Critical Evaluation

Nadine Gordimer

Critical Evaluation

Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991, Nadine Gordimer has published nonfiction, more than two hundred short stories, and eleven novels. Born in South Africa, Gordimer sets most of her fiction in that country and as a consequence deals with apartheid, the racist system of government that lasted until 1991. Her eighth novel, July’s People, deals with the possibility of a successful black revolution against the white power structure. The revolution is the background of the novel, not the central focus. As with her other novels, July’s People concentrates on individual lives, not the broad politics. Gordimer centers her attention on Maureen Smales, a twenty-nine-year-old Johannesburg wife and mother. As the novel opens, a revolution is in progress and the Smales family takes refuge with July, their male servant, in a rural settlement. The novel traces the sudden role reversal between Maureen, who for fifteen years employed July, and July, who suddenly takes control not only of his life but also of the Smales family. The role reversals of Maureen and July serve as the microcosm for the supposed effects of the revolution. The title of the novel is deliberately ambiguous: The phrase “July’s people” appears twice in the novel, the first time referring to the Smales family and the second time to July’s extended family in the settlement. Once in the novel the narrator refers to “July’s white people,” distinguishing them from his relatives.

Although the novel lets the reader understand July’s position, Maureen is central. A privileged citizen in South Africa, she deplores apartheid and feels her treatment of July as a servant for fifteen years is beyond reproach. Maureen and Bam pay him for his services, give him living quarters in their yard, send home presents to his family, start a special bank account for him with a hundred rands in honor of ten years of service, and never question his relationship with Ellen, the woman who lives with him in Johannesburg. The novel reveals that July feels he is not treated with dignity. Maureen gives him their cast-offs and orders him about, seemingly oblivious to some of his hardships. He has every Wednesday and...

(The entire section is 897 words.)