Chapters 3-5 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1871

Maureen is introduced to July's wife at the beginning of chapter three. The two women have no common language, but Maureen tries to convey her gratitude for their protection through July. An old woman is present, someone's mother, and this woman demands something of July in their native language. Over the years, Maureen has sent many presents to July's wife. She sent practical things, such as night gowns and handbags. Seeing July's wife now, in her mud hut, with pink glasses displayed as prize possessions, Maureen realizes how distant their lives have been. Her gifts were useless to July's wife.

Maureen recalls July's town woman, Ellen, a cheerful, well educated woman who knew that she had no claim on July's but who slept with him, ironed for him, and basically lived in the Smaleses' yard with him. Maureen could understand that woman, in a way that she could never understand July's wife. Light shines in through the only window in the hut, where July's youngest child rests, sated on milk. Maureen realizes how distant she is from anything familiar, and that she has no idea what the routine of life is like in this new place.

The fourth chapter switches to July's wife's perspective. She complains to him, demanding to know why he has brought such dangerous intruders to the village, people who can't even take care of themselves. When July had arrived with them, she had not protested. She allowed July to take the second bed, the stove, the beautiful pink cups, her mother's hut, and to give all these possessions to these strangers. However, July had known that his authority was temporary. He had spent the past years in town. When in the village, his orders had been obeyed because he brought goods, presents, food, and money. But he was staying too long, and his wife was used to ruling the village.

Surrounded by other females, July's wife criticizes him, saying that the white people are used to living with room after room to spread out in, and hot water, and how could all of those rooms, all of that space, all be gone? She does not believe his stories of looting and murders and riots. July's wife asks why Bam has a gun, why they don't go to their own place, where whites live, take their money and go? July answers that there is nowhere to go, that everywhere is chasing and killing the whites. July's wife asks why they don't go overseas, the only word in the conversation that is in English. July tells her the planes and the airports are blown up, destroyed. His wife laughs at him, at the thought of destroying something so big, so distant, as airplanes. When July insists, she becomes fearful of the reprisals that the whites will exact upon the blacks for their resistance. July suddenly realizes that the Smaleses, for all their white skin, are powerless and helpless.

July compares the group of women listening to his explanations to a court with a short attention span as July's wife orders some girls to get water and his mother leaves to pluck a chicken. His mother yells at him from the door, criticizing the chicken he killed. July's wife thinks about Maureen, who is the first white person she has ever touched. July's wife tells him that Maureen is ugly and has weird hair. Half-longingly, July recalls their groomed appearances in town. July's wife stops her child from eating bird droppings and reminds him there will be no more money. She thinks that there will also be no more letters full of awe-inspiring facts and dreams that she could never follow, not even now that the whites had come to her.

In the fifth chapter, Bam tries to be useful. He repairs farm equipment and rigs up a water tank to collect rainwater. He listens to the radio religiously, trying to catch every news announcement. The suburb across the valley from theirs has been torched, and the U.S. Congress debates airlifting its nationals out of the country. Bam arranges stones as a foundation for his water tower, built using an abandoned water tank that no one had touched for years.

Maureen thinks about the sheer space all around them. Her children cannot comprehend how far they are from a real town and ask to go to a film. The African desert confines Maureen, scary in its "boundlessness," and she only walks as far as the river, and that only rarely. There is no work Maureen can do.

July comes to ask for their clothes, so that the women may wash them. Maureen refuses, but July says that he will not carry water and fuel to heat the water, so they must give him their clothes. Maureen insists that she pay for the service, and July accepts this and tells her there will be soap. Maureen knows the soap must be stolen from their house in town. She watches with amazement as the money she gives July is carried around by the villagers. It seems worthless paper to her, but they have seen how it transforms into pink teacups and bicycles and treasure it.

Without work or even recreation, Maureen hoards the one book she had brought. For awhile, she does not read it, afraid to begin it because once it finishes she will have nothing to look forward to. But she does. She begins reading, and finds that the pleasure is lost because pretending to be somewhere else has lost all of its appeal: "She was in another time, place, consciousness; it pressed in upon her and filled her as someone's breath fills a balloon's shape." There's nothing to pretend when everything is so foreign, so unimaginable.

Maureen begins to explore her surroundings, venturing into the dark huts searching for decorations. She finds a brass plaque nailed to the wall dedicated to "boss boy." This is a term used by the white boss for the African he relies upon the most, and for the first time Maureen considers the derogatory connotations of that name. She remembers walking with the African servant, Lydia, who was her friend and nanny, chewing gum together and holding hands. Lydia and Maureen joked and teased each other, and Lydia carried Maureen's school case on her head. A photographer captured that moment for Life magazine, and when Maureen saw it as an adult she suddenly realized how odd it was that Lydia had always taken Maureen's case.

When Maureen meets July's wife, she realizes that her assumptions about life are privileged and narrow. For fifteen years she has sent presents to another woman, presents she assumed would be useful to any woman anywhere. Upon meeting July's wife, she realizes that those presents would be not only useless, but indicative only of Maureen's status in the world. July's wife's busy work, childcare, and subsistence living mark a new way of thought for Maureen. Maureen has to realize her own displacement in this new land, where she has not only no work, but also no idea of what life is like. The dark hut where July's wife lives and raises her children seems a territory so distant from the suburban house that Maureen must struggle to put both homes into the same category.

When Gordimer gives July's wife a voice, this allows the reader to understand that not only the Smales have been displaced. By making room for the white refugees, July has given up his mother's hut, a bed, a stove, and peace in his family. July's wife makes her complaints known and also provides a voice for the fear that the blacks had of the whites. Once she believes July's account of events, July's wife becomes afraid of reprisal. She doesn't see the movement as leading to freedom or improvement because the idea of toppling the white government seems so impossible. Unlike July, who has seen the havoc wreaked in the cities, July's wife has been insulated. The apartheid system is just part of life for her, and nothing in her life has changed, other than losing some of her possessions. July's wife has no framework upon which to hang the defeat of the white government. To both Maureen and July's wife, it seems impossible that the Smaleses are refugees. Their white skin has indicated wealth and status for so long that neither can adjust quickly.

Unlike Maureen or his wife, July is able to recall both the beauty and power of the Smaleses' privileged life and to reconcile that with their present situation. July knows that he has saved them, he knows he saved them from certain death, and he knows that the white government will not be able to overwhelm this latest resistance. July can feel what the end of apartheid will do for him because he has been a servant for fifteen years, because he has only visited his family once every two years, and because he knows firsthand the wealth that will be redistributed. For July, the end of apartheid indicates freedom and personal choice. He can be responsible for his own life, and he knows some of the possibilities. His wife hasn't seen the city, hasn't come to viscerally recognize the sanitized, wealthy existence full of choices and possibilities that July has seen. Maureen hasn't been able to envision a new life outside that sanitized, wealthy existence, which was all she knew. Both women have limited perspectives, while July has traveled between village and city, lived in a rondavel and in a house with a bathroom.

While July's wife mourns the letters that provided a window on a world of hope, Maureen mourns the secure comfort she had become accustomed to. Again, Gordimer highlights the absurdity of the transition by using the children's voices. Royce asks to go to a movie and Maureen stares out into the endless bush, the dry, desiccated landscape, and cannot even laugh. She knows that his displacement is as complete as hers, but he lacks the ability to process it yet. The children ask for familiar things, and Maureen has nothing to offer. Similarly, Maureen has nothing to offer the village. Unlike Bam, she cannot repair items or build useful things. Her skills are useless in the bush, and she feels that keenly. Even when she tries to distract herself with a book, reading feels ridiculous and beside the point. Maureen cannot find joy in peering into other worlds because she needs to accustom herself to the new world she inhabits.

The incident with Lydia brings Maureen's past back into contrast with her present. The friendship with Lydia was natural and within the bounds of acceptability, but depended upon the crucial fact that Lydia was willing to carry the white girl's case. The two girls probably had a real connection and enjoyed each other's company immensely, but even in friendship they could not put aside their societal roles. The Life photograph provides the outsider perspective that allows Maureen to see Lydia's subservience to her, and to question it. The photograph requires Maureen to examine her underlying assumptions. In turn, that questioning causes Maureen to see how entitled she acts, despite her liberal views.

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