Places: July’s People

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1981

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Soon after 1980

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*South Africa

*South July’s PeopleAfrica. 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

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. Insects infest the interior, attracting chickens that enter and exit at will, adding fresh excrement to the already unhealthy conditions.

The hut is furnished with an iron bed and car seats removed from the “bakkie,” the recreational vehicle in which the Smaleses arrived. A paraffin lamp provides light, and the cooking facilities consist of a wood fire in front of the hut. During the first rain, the many insects in the roof are awakened and further disturb the human inhabitants. Gordimer uses these and other details to dramatize the Smaleses’ struggle to adjust to the rudimentary shelter.

July’s village

July’s village. Small African settlement consisting of a few huts. The village also includes a goat kraal, chicken coops, and a pigpen of “thorny aloes, battered hub-caps, . . . plates of crumbling tin, mud bricks.” Water for drinking and washing comes from a nearby river. Although Maureen insists that the children drink purified water and use toilet paper, the children soon adopt village ways, drinking river water and wiping themselves with a stick. The husband and father, Bam, attempts to fit into the village by using his gun to hunt for and provide food, but Maureen has little to contribute. July dismisses her efforts, telling her that wood gathering, for example, is only for the village women. Attempting to help nevertheless, she is rejected by these same women, especially July’s mother, who scoffs at Maureen’s inability to differentiate between edible and poisonous plants. July, however, is at home in the village environment and this increases his independence. Gradually his role of servant to the Smaleses decreases, and without informing them of his intentions, he learns to drive the bakkie.

Bush

Bush. Also known as veld (or veldt) or savanna, high grassland plateaus dotted with shrubs and trees. The menacing bush stretches out in all directions from the village. Its immensity confines the family to the relative safety of the village. The shifting appearance of the bush, especially subject to changes of light and weather, renders it unfathomable. The bush hides everything, but sounds travel easily here. Voices of people passing, cattle trampling the undergrowth, and various other unidentifiable noises carry a frightening message. The feared revolutionaries may emerge from the bush with little or no warning. Each time July drives away in the bakkie the marooned and isolated Smaleses await his return.

Sources for Further StudyBodenheimer, 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.Library Journal. CVI, March 15, 1981, p. 680.Ms. IX, June, 1981, p. 41.Nation. CCXXXII, June 6, 1981, p. 705.Neill, Michael. “Translating the Present: Language, Knowledge, and Identity in Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 25, no. 1 (1990): 71-97. Sees the novel as being not so much about the revolutionary future as about the difficulties of the South Africa of the novel’s present. Analyzes how language, knowledge, and identity break down with a change of culture.The New York Review of Books. XXVIII, August 13, 1981, p. 14.The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, June 7, 1981, p. 1.The New Yorker. LVII, June 22, 1981, p. 114.Saturday Review. VIII, July, 1981, p. 101.Smith, Roland, “Masters and Servants: Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People and the Themes of Her Fiction.” In Critical Essays on Nadine Gordimer, edited by Roland Smith. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. Centers on Maureen’s recognition of the flaws of her liberalism. Sees a main theme of the novel as the inability of whites and blacks to communicate.Time. CXVII, June 8, 1981, p. 79.Times Literary Supplement. September 4, 1981, p. 1001.
Categories: Places