Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

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.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*South Africa

*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 thatched roof. Its doorway is hung with a sack, and its floor is made of stamped mud and dung....

(The entire section is 638 words.)

July's People

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

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 themselves and then the tensions that emerge consciously and unconsciously out of that situation.

Bamford Smales is a member of the architectural firm of Smales, Caprano & Partners, and Maureen Smales (née Hetherington) is “from Western Areas Gold Mines.” July, their black servant for fifteen years, has seemingly profited from an economically sound, secure, and comfortable existence in Johannesburg. On the surface he is considered to be almost one of the family, performing outside chores, provided with a white uniform when he works inside, serving meals and helping with the care and discipline of the Smales’ children, Gina, Royce, and Victor. July has been “for fifteen years in their home; of service, not servile, understanding their needs and likings, allying himself discreetly with their standards and even the disciplining and indulgence of the children.”

July has his own living quarters in the yard, where he is allowed to keep his “town woman,” Ellen, and where his friends can visit him. He visits his village on a fairly regular basis to take money and supplies to his village wife Martha, his child, and his aged mother.

In Gordimer’s fictional scenario, the labor strikes that began in 1980 in Soweto have continued and spread; without any work to occupy them, more and more black workers become hungry and angry. At last, approximately fifteen thousand blacks march against Johannesburg. In fear for their lives amid the burning, looting, and killing, the Smales are forced to flee with their servant, who becomes “frog prince, saviour, July.”

In panic the Smales grab what supplies and household articles they can (mostly useless) and with July, they escape in the yellow bakkie, a small truck Bam bought on his fortieth birthday as a hunting blind. For three days and three nights, Bam drives fearfully, while Maureen and the children hide beneath a tarpaulin, six hundred kilometers on back roads to July’s village. July’s mother resentfully gives up her mud hut so the white family can have a roof over their heads, and it is here as the novel begins that Maureen wakes as though from delirium, remembering first her childhood life and the more immediate past, to their present situation. “At first what fell into place was what was vanished, the past.”

Maureen bathes the three children and herself, using the same water because of its scarcity, in the small zinc bathtub July was wise enough to bring. In the ensuing days, a period of adjustment to an unbelievably bleak life-style—water that must be carried and boiled, and a diet of pap, greens, mealie-meal, porridge, goats’ milk, and pawpaws—sets in. “They had...

(The entire section is 1657 words.)

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Children Refugees in South Africa Published by Gale Cengage

South Africa
The Union of South Africa was formed in 1910 under a constitution excluding blacks from parliament. In 1912, a...

(The entire section is 970 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

The narrative is told from a third person point of view and the tone of the narrative voice is that of...

(The entire section is 606 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In July's People, Gordimer prophesied the inevitable overthrow of the apartheid system of the Afrikaner Nationalists.


(The entire section is 178 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

South Africa: in 1991 the total population was about 30 million persons of which 5 million were white, 2.5 million were...

(The entire section is 150 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 178 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Daniel Defoe's The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe is the famous tale of a shipwrecked man who survives for decades on an...

(The entire section is 251 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Gordimer won the Booker Prize for her 1974 novel The Conservationist. The novel fictionalizes the consciousness of the agricultural...

(The entire section is 128 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

An audio version of July's People was issued on cassette by Blackstone Audio Books in 1993.

(The entire section is 15 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

July's People was made into an audio cassette by Blackstone Audio Books in 1993.

(The entire section is 13 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 350 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Judith Chettle, in a review in National Review, Vol. XXXIII, No. 25, December, 1981, p 1561.


(The entire section is 1041 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Gordimer won the Booker Prize for her 1974 novel The Conservationist. The novel fictionalizes the...

(The entire section is 386 words.)