Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 897
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 every second Sunday off but has leave to visit his wife and children in the rural area only every other year.
Once Maureen lives in his home, she realizes what it is like to be dependent, not to have status. For example, she cannot walk far for fear of being seen by someone who might report the presence of whites in the area. (July, as a black South African, for years had to follow very strict laws governing where he was permitted to live, work, and travel.) Necessities—food and shelter—come mainly from July’s willingness to supply them, and his willingness could end at a moment’s notice, just as a new white farm owner in South Africa had the power to tell black farmworkers born on the farm to leave.
Maureen’s whole life begins to fall apart. Her children do not seem to need her care. She feeds them from the supplies July brings, but otherwise they take care of themselves, spending time with the other children of the village. She does not recognize her husband as the same man she lived with in Johannesburg, and she bickers with him, pointing out his character flaws. She herself changes. When her civilized life is stripped to the primitive, she sees her past as a pose. She is not content with her present either. She finds life in the rural area degrading; she has no function there.
In his home area, when July realizes power has passed from Maureen to him, his language becomes more assertive. In fact, during the last conversation he has in the novel with Maureen, July uses his own language, a language Maureen cannot understand. That language, in the settlement, is the language of power. Maureen thinks that she and July communicate well, understand each other. Maureen was mistaken for fifteen years; the agreeableness of July is the response of one who knows his position in South Africa. He never forgets he is the servant who can stay in the city only as long as Maureen signs his pass book each month.
Although the broader story of July’s People may be the revolution in South Africa, the central story is the discovery by one woman of how deluded she has been about her own life, about her treatment of July, and about her liberal stance regarding South African politics. July’s People is Gordimer’s first novel to center all the action on the home ground of the blacks in South Africa. Although Maureen is the protagonist, she can only be understood through an understanding of July. Gordimer tells Maureen’s story and in doing so reveals July’s.
The closing of the novel does not clarify Maureen’s future. Will she be successful in gaining access to the helicopter? Who is in the helicopter? Americans who come to rescue their countrymen from the revolution? Cubans who come to aid the revolutionaries? The ending does make clear that Maureen wants to abandon her past life in Johannesburg and her present life in July’s settlement. That her running can lead to a better life is suspect, but it does suggest she realizes the failure of her past.