Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
The novel opens with July bringing tea to Maureen and Bamford Smales in bed as they wake one morning. It soon becomes clear, however, that this is far from a normal day: The Smales family and their servant July have driven for three days and nights through fields, staying off roads, to escape the violence in Johannesburg. A revolution to wrest control of South Africa from the white minority has begun. Instead of awakening in their seven-room suburban home, the Smales find themselves in a one-room circular hut that belongs to July’s mother.
In twenty short chapters—unnumbered and untitled—July’s People follows the lives of the Smales family in the rural settlement for about a month. Stripped of their routine and away from their home, the family begins to disintegrate. The three children meld into the community, relying less on their parents. The children adjust rather quickly, finding friends and adopting their habits and bits of their language with little difficulty. Maureen and Bamford, however, have a much more trying time psychologically. They discover how tenuous their control of their lives has been, how dependent they have been on convention, routine, and apartheid society. Although both Maureen and Bamford disapprove of minority rule in South Africa, they clearly have benefitted from being part of the privileged class. Now living in July’s rural settlement with only extended members of his family, they learn what it is like to be...
(The entire section is 501 words.)
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*South Africa. Nadine Gordimer’s homeland, a country in Southern Africa in which legal segregation, or apartheid, sanctioned racial inequality for decades. Although in reality apartheid was abolished when constitutional reforms led to democratic elections in 1994, Gordimer’s novel describes a time when a long-feared civil war between blacks and whites has erupted. Major airports have closed due to antiaircraft fire, and ports have been bombed or blockaded. Black revolutionaries have received arms and military assistance from Russia and Cuba. Volunteers from neighboring countries have also joined the revolutionaries, adding to their strength. The Smales family, although sympathetic to reforms to improve the lives of blacks, have nevertheless lived the privileged life of whites and fear that the revolutionaries will find, torture, and kill them.
Hut. Dwelling in which the Smaleses take refuge. The importance of the hut as a setting is apparent as Maureen Smales, wife and mother, awakens slowly in the opening segment of the novel. It is the Smaleses’ first morning in the hut, and their servant July has brought them tea, a common and expected South African custom.
July’s efforts to care for the Smaleses in the manner to which they have become accustomed contrasts starkly with the reality of the dwelling. The hut loaned to the Smaleses is round and constructed of thick mud walls with a...
(The entire section is 638 words.)
July's People (Magill's Literary Annual 1982)
Nadine Gordimer’s time and place have been twentieth century Africa and she has presented to her readers for the past thirty years her knowledgeable perceptions of the chaotic political, military, and social conditions of that world. Had she been an inhabitant of another place in another time, however, her novels and stories would have been much the same, for Gordimer’s emphasis is on the human alienation, isolation, and solitude that occurs within the given framework of a particular situation, and the response, conditioned and conditional, that the concerned individuals make.
Out of her immersion in the culture of South Africa, Gordimer uses again and again as one of her principal themes the relationship between black and white people, but by varied techniques and stylistic devices as well as multiple character situations, she manages to keep this theme fresh and effectively reusable. Though the larger canvas of the political and social climate provides the backdrop, Gordimer operates on the level of the individual.
July’s People, in the first few paragraphs, immediately sets the theme. “’You like to have some cup of tea?’—July bent at the doorway and began that day for them as his kind has always done for their kind.” The novel grows more complex as Gordimer develops first the situation in which her characters find...
(The entire section is 1659 words.)
The Union of South Africa was formed in 1910 under a constitution excluding blacks from parliament. In 1912, a number of chiefs joined members of the middle class to form the opposition party, the African National Congress (ANC). ANC protests from 1912 until 1940 were within the law. When WWII broke out, South Africa fought with the Allies. After the war, there was a great influx of Africans into the cities. This shift in demographics, coupled with a rise in crime and shanty-towns, created a degree of paranoia amongst the enfranchised (white) citizens. In the elections of 1948, the Afrikaner Nationalists were voted in because they promised to restore order.
The Afrikaner Nationalists began a system of apartheid, a regime based on racial discrimination that was instituted nationwide. In 1956, for example, the regime removed 60,000 mixed-blood "colored" from the voting rolls of Cape Province. In late summer, 100,000 non-whites were forcibly evicted from their homes to make room for whites. Africans were required to live in designated areas and carry "passes" or permission papers. The inability to provide an inquiring official with one's papers meant jail or fines. Generally, the system of apartheid aimed to keep the non-white people living...
(The entire section is 981 words.)
Chapters 1-2 Study Questions and Answers
1. July's People opens with this quote by Antonio Gramsci: "The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms." How is this quote relevant to the Smaleses' situation?
2. Is July's People an "historical novel?" Why or why not?
3. What was the Smaleses' formal relationship with July? How has it changed?
4. Why did the bank accountant warn the Smaleses? Was he right?
5. What is the bakkie and why is it important?
1. The end of apartheid was a "dying" of political power and prestige for all whites, including the Smales. However, the Smales cannot start a new life without that power and prestige because they are refugees, hiding in order to stay alive. Their time in the village is not intended to be permanent, and yet they do not know how long they will stay. Therefore, it is the "interregnum" for them. Maureen's state of mind displays some "morbid symptoms" such as confusion, guilt and anger.
2. July's People was written in 1981 and discusses the end of apartheid. However, apartheid did not end until 1990. Therefore, although the novel is based on historical fact, the novel can be viewed as a futuristic, predictive work.
3. July was servant to the Smaleses in the city. He is their savior and protector, and now that he is legally free, they are...
(The entire section is 329 words.)
Chapters 3-5 Study Questions and Answers
1. Maureen has sent gifts to July's wife throughout the years. What does she realize about those gifts when she meets July's wife for the first time?
2. What does July's wife reveal about the hut where the Smaleses are living?
3. When July explains about the riots and the bombs on planes, why does his wife become afraid?
4. How does Bam stay busy in the village?
5. What does the photograph of Lydia and Maureen cause Maureen to realize?
1. Maureen realizes that her gifts were inappropriate and revealed the depth of her ignorance and the assumptions inherent in her liberal views. July's wife has no use for handbags because she lives in extreme poverty.
2. July's wife chastises July for taking away his mother's hut and giving it to the white people, thereby revealing that the Smaleses are not the only displaced people in the village.
3. July's wife thinks that the whites will take revenge on the blacks for killing so many whites. She cannot comprehend that the whites are defeated and instead thinks that the black resistance will cause only suffering greater suffering.
4. Bam repairs tools and puts together a water tank to collect rainwater. He does small tasks involving mechanical ability.
5. Lydia and Maureen were friends, but Lydia always carried Maureen's school case. Looking at the photograph,...
(The entire section is 252 words.)
Chapters 6-8 Study Questions and Answers
1. What has Maureen remembered that both she and Bam believe is important?
2. What does Maureen do in the rain?
3. Who is Nyiko? What is her relationship to the family?
4. What explanation does July give for taking the bakkie?
5. How does Maureen connive to get the keys to the bakkie from July?
1. Maureen brought anti-malaria pills she looted when the pharmacies were destroyed by rioters. She and Bam both know how important their health is to surviving in the village.
2. Maureen takes off her clothes in the nighttime rain and lets the rain wash her.
3. Nyiko is an African girl who has befriended Gina. The two girls have an intense, private friendship. Nyiko's good manners distantly embarrass Maureen.
4. July tells the Smaleses that he took the bakkie to get supplies for them.
5. She says that she needs a rubber mat from the bakkie and holds her hands out for the keys, quietly demanding them from him despite his obvious reluctance.
(The entire section is 161 words.)
Chapters 9-12 Study Questions and Answers
1. With what name does Maureen madden July? Why?
2. Why is the warthog piglet cause for celebration?
3. Why does July want his wife and mother to praise the meat Bam brought to the village?
4. Why is Martha not used to obeying July?
5. What happens to the kittens, and why?
1. Maureen mentions Ellen to July as an underhanded threat to the stability of his current life. By bringing up Ellen, Maureen shows herself to be disloyal and in possession of knowledge that could seriously complicate July's marriage.
2. The family has not had meat in a long time, and to their half-starved systems, the piglet provides an exhilarating treat full of energy. The food goes straight to their heads.
3. July knows that the women do not approve of the whites taking refuge in the village. Both Martha and July's mother are angry that the Smaleses have taken over the mother's hut. July wants them to admit that they like the meat as evidence that July was right to bring them there.
4. Usually July only visits the village once every two years. Martha has trouble adapting to July's constant presence and orders since she is used to ruling the village in his absence.
5. Maureen drowns the kittens. They belong to no one and there is not enough food for them.
(The entire section is 218 words.)
Chapters 13-15 Study Questions and Answers
1. Why does Maureen tell July that Bam won't steal the truck?
2. If the village is July's, why do the Smaleses have to visit the chief?
3. Why does the chief think that the whites will kill all the blacks?
4. What does the chief ask Bam to do for him? Why does Bam refuse?
5. The chief calls July by the name "Mwawate." What does this mean?
1. July and Bam both want the truck very badly. Since the exhaust pipe has broken and July cannot fix it, Maureen tells him that Bam will. Then she reassures him that Bam won't steal the truck. This is revealing because it illustrates that Bam no longer owns the truck; he would have to "steal" it because it is now July's.
2. July is the head of his small village, but several villages are ruled by one chief. The chief has called for the Smaleses to be introduced to him, and so the Smaleses must go.
3. Like Martha, the chief cannot conceptualize the whites' loss of power. The government is in the midst of changing hands, and the whites will probably fight the blacks, but it is unlikely that the whites will triumph. However, the chief cannot imagine a world where white skin doesn't connote power, wealth, and the ability to punish those who disagree.
4. The chief asks Bam to teach some of the villagers, including the chief, how to shoot his gun. Bam refuses because the chief says...
(The entire section is 324 words.)
Chapters 16-17 Study Questions and Answers
1. What does July tell Maureen and Bam explains the chief's desire to learn to shoot?
2. Maureen concludes that they must leave the village because of Bam's reaction to the chief's request. Why must they do this?
3. Why does Martha think that July took the Smaleses to visit the chief?
4. Martha reveals she is pregnant. Why does this disturb her?
5. If July's pass book represents white power, why hasn't he destroyed it yet?
1. July says that the chief is all talk. The chief must obey those with greater force than he, whether they be white or black, and will try to join the winning side of any battle. The chief probably wants to learn to shoot to be associated with white power, the power of guns, and to raise his own status.
2. Maureen realizes that July is seen by his people as a sell-out for saving their lives. By running from the rioters and keeping his whites safe, July kept from aligning with the revolutionary forces trying to equalize blacks and whites. If the Smaleses do not obey the chief, July will be at risk.
3. Martha thinks that July petitioned for the chief to take the Smaleses in, rather than their village.
4. Usually Martha becomes pregnant once every two years, when July is allowed to visit. July has come home a year early, so the routine is disrupted and Martha will have another baby outside of...
(The entire section is 331 words.)
Chapters 18-19 Study Questions and Answers
1. What is a gumba gumba man?
2. Why did Daniel take the gun?
3. When Maureen clambers atop the bakkie, what pose does she assume? Why is it a mockery of that pose?
4. How do the villagers react to the helicopter?
5. Where does Maureen run? What is there?
1. A gumba gumba man travels from village to village with speakers and a record player. When he arrives, a party commences. Maureen's children instinctively understand this, although Maureen and Bam both struggle with the concept of a party for no reason other than the gumba gumba man's arrival.
2. Daniel took the gun to fight for revolution. He has joined the militia fighting to overthrow the white government.
3. Maureen assumes the pose of a centerfold seductively lying across the hood of a car. Her ragged hair, ridiculous clothes, emaciated body and unkempt appearance make her anything but sexy, so the pose mocks the white image of a vamp.
4. They see the helicopter as an exciting diversion, as something familiar but at the same time unusual. They do not fear it as Maureen does.
5. Maureen runs to the helicopter. Either death at the hand of revolutionaries or salvation at the hand of those sympathetic to the whites awaits her. She also runs to her family, but the text explicitly says that she runs for herself as a solitary person, and not with...
(The entire section is 234 words.)
The narrative is told from a third person point of view and the tone of the narrative voice is that of dispassionate documentation. The voice reports on the activities and behavior of the characters as they adjust to their marooned state However, the narration does not add information about the world that might explain the situation In this way, the narrator knows only as much as the Smales know or learn from the radio. At the story's focus is Maureen, her thoughts are more often revealed. As a result, the story told is filtered through her and censored by her body of knowledge. Furthermore, the reader loses track of the political background and must consider what the basis of human relations are and what they need to be in a more just society.
Occasionally the focus shifts to Bam and there is some insight into his thought process, but this is not enough to give him any depth. Maureen and July (who is a function of her) are the only substantial characters in the novel. Maureen causes the narrative's linearity to be clouded in a way that reflects her disbelief that any of the revolution was possible or happening.
Realism is a literary technique often used to examine the mores and customs of middle-and lower-class characters. July's People focuses on middle-class liberal whites to examine them as they deal with a complete disruption of their society. The story asks the...
(The entire section is 606 words.)
The narrative of July's People is told from a third-person point of view, and the tone of the narrative voice is that of dispassionate documentation. The voice reports on the activities and behavior of the characters as they adjust to their marooned state. However, the narration does not add information about the world that might explain the situation. In this way, the narrator knows only as much as the Smales know or learn from the radio. At the story's focus is Maureen; her thoughts are more often revealed. As a result, the story told is filtered through her and censored by her body of knowledge. Furthermore, the reader loses track of the political background and must consider what the basis of human relations is and what it needs to be in a more just society.
Occasionally the focus shifts to Bam, and there is some insight into his thought process; but this is not enough to give him any depth. Maureen and July (who is a function of her) are the only substantial characters in the novel. Maureen causes the narrative's linearity to be clouded in a way that reflects her disbelief that any of the revolution was possible or happening.
Realism is a literary technique often used to examine the mores and customs of middleand lower-class characters. July's People focuses on middle-class liberal whites to examine them as they deal with a complete disruption of their society. The story asks the question, what next—what kind of role do...
(The entire section is 609 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
In July's People, Gordimer prophesied the inevitable overthrow of the apartheid system of the Afrikaner Nationalists.
1. The ending of July's People leaves a great deal to the imagination. Imitating Gordimer's style, write your own ending. Was there a helicopter or not?
2. Do some research into the disease risks associated with living in the rural regions (as opposed to the wilderness) of South Africa? Given the fact of war and that July's home is an old agricultural village, how much of Maureen's worry about illness is valid? How much is simply an expression of her discomfort at not being in familiar surroundings?
3. In the United States we had a similar, though milder, system of laws that institutionalized racial discrimination known as Jim Crow Laws. What were those laws and how would they compare with the system of apartheid?
4. What characteristics give rise to the opinion that Gina is Gordimer's representative of a new South Africa? What will that new entity be like? How closely does it resemble the actual South Africa that has developed since the abolition of apartheid?
(The entire section is 178 words.)
In light of the uprisings of the 1970s, Nadine Gordimer presented a very bleak and cynical prophecy to white and black South Africa in July's People. That prophecy suggested no solution to problematic race relations but foresaw the inevitable overthrow of the apartheid system of the Afrikaner Nationalists. With the declaration of independence by the neighboring nations of Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, the demise of white rule in South Africa was anticipated.
July's People takes place during a future revolution in South Africa. Amid such chaos, traditional roles are overturned, and new ones must be forged. In that sense, the novel exists in Antonio Gramsci's (the source of the novel's epigraph) interregnum—between the explosion of the old but before the birth of the new.
July's People captures the mood of a South Africa expecting revolutionary violence just like that experienced by neighboring countries. Instead of writing about a revolution, however, the novel assumes such an event will happen and imagines what effect it might have on a liberal white family. In this case, the family decides to accept their servant's offer of refuge and flee to his village. There, with all the awkwardness of Friday nursing Robinson Crusoe, they hope to wait out the war. Gradually, all the family's accoutrements of civilization are given up, stolen, or proven to be completely useless. Simultaneously, the power relations of society are...
(The entire section is 1254 words.)
Compare and Contrast
South Africa: in 1991 the total population was about 30 million persons of which 5 million were white, 2.5 million were people of color, and the rest were black. The black population is expected to total 66 million by 2010 with little change in the other two racial categories.
USA: the total population now exceeds 267 million persons. Approximately 11% are black. The birth rate among whites is low but among His-panics and native Americans it is very high.
South Africa: European colonialists designated 10 areas as reservations for blacks. These areas became known as homelands and were briefly independent. In 1994, the homelands were re-absorbed during the elections so that South Africa is one administrative unit without a reservation system.
USA: European colonialists signed treaties with Native Americans granting them rights to homelands This too was a reservation system These treaties recognize the Indian Tribes as sovereign Nations but the United States has never allowed Native governments much independence.
(The entire section is 150 words.)
Topics for Further Study
The ending of July's People leaves a great deal to the imagination. Imitating Gordimer's style, write your own ending. Was there a helicopter or not?
Do some research into the disease risks associated with living in the rural regions (as opposed to the wilderness) of South Africa. Given the fact of war and that July's home is an old agricultural village, how much of Maureen's worry about illness is valid? How much is simply an expression of her discomfort at not being in familiar surroundings?
In the United States we had a similar, though milder, system of laws that institutionalized racial discrimination known as Jim Crow Laws. What were those laws and how-would they compare with the system of apartheid?
Gordimer wrote her novel at a time when a racial revolution seemed inevitable. Americans have felt this fear in the past as well (for example, at the times of The Great Sioux Uprising, Wounded Knee, Watts Riots, LA Riots). Does that fear exist m any form today, say, m immigration quotas or as hysteria over the Mexican border?
(The entire section is 178 words.)
Daniel Defoe's The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe is the famous tale of a shipwrecked man who survives for decades on an island. He constructs a settlement with his man Friday and dies very rich. The story came to epitomize the saga of the settler attempting to recreate England everywhere in the world.
Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness is a parable of colonial empire. It is just one of the many colonial myths referenced in Gordimer's work.
Among contemporary works, July's People has often been compared to Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), by J. M. Coetzee, because of similar questions about the fate of those in power. Coetzee's story is a parable about colonialism told by the magistrate of a fort. A garrison has come to help defend the fort against unseen barbarians. Eventually, the garrison retreats and things return to normal, but it is unclear whether anyone will survive the coming winter or when the barbarians will attack.
When the crackdown on dissent came in the 1960s in the wake of the ANC ban, Ruth First was one of the first to be imprisoned. She wrote about her experience in a novel called 117 Days (1965). She was assassinated by a letter bomb in 1982 and was survived by her husband, Joe Slovo, who was living in exile.
Set after World War II, Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) by Alan Paton tells of the journey of a man to the big city to find his son. The...
(The entire section is 251 words.)
Gordimer won the Booker Prize for her 1974 novel The Conservationist. The novel fictionalizes the consciousness of the agricultural settlers in South Africa and sets up the question being answered in Burger's Daughter and July's People. That question is: what role will whites have in the future of South Africa?
Gordimer's novel Burger's Daughter (1979) won several awards but was banned in South Africa. It is the story of a woman very much the opposite of Maureen Smales. She is Rosa Burger, the daughter of Lionel Burger (a fictionalization of Abram Fischer— prominent leader of the South African Communist Party), whose self-liberation from familial restraints requires acceptance of her political inheritance and challenges apartheid. One of the sources for this novel was Joe Slovo's 1976 essay, "South Africa— No Middle Road."
(The entire section is 128 words.)
What Do I Read Next?
Gordimer won the Booker Prize for her 1974 novel The Conservationist. The novel fictionalizes the consciousness of the agricultural settlers in South Africa and sets up the question being answered in Burger's Daughter and July's People. The question is, what role will whites have m the future of South Africa?
Burger's Daughter, also by Gordimer (1979), won several awards but was banned in South Africa. It is the story of a woman very much the opposite of Maureen Smales. She is Rosa Burger, the daughter of Lionel Burger (a fictionalization of Abram Fischer—a very prominent leader of the South African Communist Party), whose self-liberation from familial restraints requires acceptance of her political inheritance and challenges apartheid. One of the sources for this novel was Joe Slovo's 1976 essay, "South Africa-No Middle Road".
July's People has often been compared to Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), by J.M. Coetzee, because of similar questions about the fate of those in power. Coetzee's story is a parable about colonialism told by the magistrate of a fort. A garrison has come to help defend the fort against unseen barbarians. Eventually, the garrison retreats and things return to normal, but it's unclear whether anyone will survive the coming winter or when the barbarians will attack....
(The entire section is 386 words.)
Bibliography (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
Sources for Further Study
Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. “The Interregnum of Ownership in July’s People.” The Later Fiction of Nadine Gordimer. Edited by Bruce King. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Sees the novel as revealing the hollowness of a materialistic life. Removed from their privileged society, detached from their material possessions, Bamford and Maureen lose their selfhood.
Christian Science Monitor. LXXIII, June 8, 1981, p. 21.
Clingman, Stephen. The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside. Winchester, Mass.: Allen and Unwin, 1986. Places Gordimer’s first eight novels in the context of South African society and politics; sees major themes of July’s People as racial and class revolution and also a revolution in language and sexual roles.
Dojka, Stephanie. “July’s People: She Knew No Word.” Joinings and Disjoinings: The Significance of Marital Status in Literature, edited by JoAnna Stephens Mink and Janet Doubler Ward. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1991. Sees the deterioration of the marriage of the Smales as an indication that white institutions based on exploitation must be dismantled; the marriage is successful at July’s expense.
(The entire section is 350 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
Judith Chettle, in a review in National Review, Vol. XXXIII, No. 25, December, 1981, p 1561.
Stephen Clingman, "The Subject of Revolution: Burger's Daughter and July's People," in The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside, Allen & Unwin, 1986, pp. 170-204.
Joan Silber, in a review in New York Review of Books, August, 1981, p. 14.
Rowland Smith, "Masters and Servants Nadine Gordimer's July's People and the Themes of Her Fiction," in Critical Essays on Nadine Gordimer, edited by Rowland Smith, G. K. Hall & Co. pp. 140-52.
Anne Tyler, "South Africa After the Revolution," in New York Review of Books, June, 1981, p 26.
Kathrin Wagner, Rereading Nadine Gordimer, Indiana University Press, 1994, pp. 41, 5.
For Further Study
Michael Atwell, South Africa. Background to the Crisis, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1986.
With a splendid glossary, maps, and some photos, Atwell gives a general history of South Africa beginning with its exploration by whites from 1652.
Rosemarie Bodenheimer, "The Interregnum of Ownership in July's People" in The Later Fiction of Nadine Gordimer, edited by Bruce King, St Martin's, 1993, pp. 108-20.
Analyzes Gordimer's portrayal of the meaning and power of ownership, which for the characters...
(The entire section is 1041 words.)