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appears reflected in July’s People (1981), a novel by one of South Africa’s most worldrenowned writers: Nadine Gordimer. In order to fulfil this purpose, we shall first of all present the historical backdrop against which Gordimer’s literary career has developed for so many years. The racial segregationist movement of apartheid led many South African intellectuals to use their writings as powerful weapons against a system they did not believe in. Nadine Gordimer’s strong commitment to this intellectual struggle has permeated most of her novels, short stories and critical essays, to such a degree that some of her works were banned during the apartheid regime. It should be noted, however, that despite her social realism in depicting the plight of black people under this unfair system, Nadine Gordimer has always kept a strong sense of artistic individuality, which, as we shall see, shines through both her language and literary images. Once the historical and biographical background is set, we will then draw our attention to the nightmarish “interregnum” found in July’s People. In the light of the uprisings of the 1970s, the novel’s fictitious revolution leaves the (white) reader with a disturbing feeling about what might happen in South Africa, if the country’s black population overthrew the system of apartheid. Gordimer’s futuristic novel is the writer’s attempt to make South Africa’s white liberals aware of the fact that, despite their opposition to the system of apartheid, deep down they share with apartheid supporters the same racial prejudices and lack of communication with black people. Summary or Plot The novel is set during a fictional civil war in which black South Africans have violently overturned the system of apartheid. The story follows the Smales, a liberal White South African family who were forced to flee Johannesburg to the native village of their black servant, July. The novel opens the morning after an exhausting three-day trip through bush country to reach the village. July brings tea for Maureen and Bamford Smale and breakfast for their children, Victor, Gina, and Royce. After experiencing disorientation from the trip, Maureen asks her husband about their vehicle, a small truck called a bakkie. He tells her that July has hidden it. The Smales find themselves dependent on July, and July's family questions their presence in the village. He explains their situation, telling his mother and wife, Martha, about the violence in the country. They cannot, however, fully believe his account given their past experience with white dominance. To do something other than listen constantly for news on his radio, Bam Smale builds a water tank for the village. Maureen tries to read a novel, since July will not let her work, but discovers that no fiction can compete with her current situation. She then recalls her girlhood days and remembers walking home from school with her family's black servant, Lydia, who carried Maureen's school case on her head. One day, a photographer took their picture. Years later, Maureen saw the picture in a Life photograph book and for the first time questioned why Lydia was carrying her books. One night, after Bam unsuccessfully tries socializing with the villagers, Bam and Maureen are startled by July's departure as a passenger in the bakkie.
Everyone joyfully feasts on the meat. the long absences of their husbands have become an expected part of black women's lives. The chief asks them . Knowing that she does not want him to keep the keys. Though they could. July discounts Martha's worries that the white family will bring trouble. Maureen sees the bakkie return. July tells them he went to the shops for supplies. She then retaliates by mentioning Ellen. then realizes it was his wife's. Bam gives the larger wart-hog to the villagers and keeps the smaller (and more tender) one. Before the hunt. that he is nolonger a servant. When they ask him what he willdo if caught driving the vehicle. frightened. saying he worked for her for fifteen years because his family needed him to. Daniel. Bam asks Maureen if she found a home for the kittens. As he kills the warthogs he realizes just how different his life was and how spoiled they were (he went from shooting birds to warthogs and didn't like the difference in blood and destruction). As always. Maureen struggles with her new subservience to July. Gina and her friend. if he really wants a return to the ways things were. Maureen. He informs her that he and the Smales have been summoned to the chief's village. He wakes up in a daze and thinks the pig's blood is on his penis. The Smales visit the chief the next morning. she feels that the workplace language they speak hinders their ability to communicate. afraid that the chief will force them out. She reveals that she has drowned them in a bucket of water. July begins to learn how to drive. Maureen tries to defend her treatment of him and says their former relationship has ended. they still must ask the chief's permission to stay. his mistress in Johannesburg. Like the seasons. shoot the gun sometime. Bam kills two baby warthogs with his small shotgun. She falls asleep that night without telling Bam about the vehicle. Though July has authority in his village. and Bam and Maureen make love for the first time since their journey. July asks if hunger compels her to search for spinach with the women. Maureen knows July will never forgive her this transgression. digging up leaves and roots. after they listen for news on the radio. Nyiko. they argue. She returns the bakkie'skeys to July. like most men with families. He keeps the car keys. Martha recalls the times without July when he. he offers to let July's friend. they do not ask him for the keys to the bakkie. he says he will say he owns it. Though feeling a hollow victory. dumbfounded. Later. When July comes to their hut the next day. July does not want to hear about the killing on the news and hopes everything "will come back all right. Maureen asks Victor to retrieve July (here she mentions that she is menstruating). play with newborn kittens.Later. Maureen tries working with the women in the fields. blaming each other for their situation. Later. she replies that she goes to pass the time. When July says she should not work with the women. Afterward. He also recalls the distrust he sensed from her at the time. He then shocks her by asking if she is going to pay him this month." Maureen asks. she goes to see July. The scene shifts to July and his family eating the meat and talking about the Smales. an intoxicating delicacy. He offers the car keys back to her. Stung by hiswords. worked in the city. he makes her recall his former status as her"boy" when he kept the keys to her house. Apparently ignoring Bam's tone. she asks if he fears she will tell his wife about Ellen. who is working on the bakkie.Anxious over losing the vehicle. Bam greets him with the inappropriate authority of their former relationship. realizes that the dignity she thought she had always conferred upon him was actually humiliating to him. and Maureen scolds them. He angrily asserts that she can only tell Martha that he has always been a good servant. while standing nude in the rain.
With the women. who would never let him own a gun. Maureen says that July was talking about himself. He tells Bam to bring his gun and teach him how to shoot it. Daniel. The Smales do not partake in the drinking but return to their hut. during which many villagers drink heavily. Angered. They realize that only Daniel was absent from the party. who is by the bakkie. however. he speaks to her in his own language. Bam begins criticizing July's new confidence and his criticisms of the chief. Maureen and Bam speak in the phrases they had used in their former life. Maureen clumsily cuts grass for the huts. they will no longer face white restrictions. that he will not fight for anyone and is risking his life by having the family there. She tells July that he abandoned Ellen and only wants the bakkie so he can feel important. Maureen accuses July of stealing small items from her in Johannesburg. where their children will ruin it. Maureen feels humiliated for Bam. and "She understood although she knew no word. and. the chief allows them to stay with Mwawate (July) and says that he will visit them to learn how to shoot Bam's gun. Bam is impotent in the face of the theft. But for himself — to be intelligent. making Bam confront what they both know: they have nowhere to go and no means by which to get there. has left. will give him guns to aid in the struggle against the black attackers. who could be either "saviours or murderers. and the novel ends with her still running toward it and its unknown occupants. Martha suggests that he stay in the village. She leaves to find July. in order for him to be her idea of him. July can run his own shop. and Maureen says July must get the gun from him. Outraged by this suggestion. too. dignified for her was nothing. With no police to help him. He says that the black revolutionaries are not from his nation and that the Whites. his measure as a man was taken elsewhere and by others. After Gina goes to play with Nyiko and Bam goes with Victor and Royce to fish.why they have come to his nation and asks about events in Johannesburg. After further discussion. According to Daniel. Furthermore. They discuss July's past and his times in the city over the last fifteen years. and these phrases cannot adequately describe their current predicament. July criticizes Martha for placing the grass bundles in front of the Bam and Maureen's house. He cannot believe that the white government is powerless and that whites are running from Blacks. honest. Maureen suggests that they leave. will become useless when his gas money runs out. saying that the entire black nation is the chief's nation. with his city experience. On the return trip. where they find their gun missing. how she had covered up to herself for him. a helicopter with unidentifiable markings flies over the village. is too poor and defenseless to fight other blacks. Bam asks if the chief really intends to kill other blacks. but that." his own people. July explains that the chief talks instead of acts. July then informs her that Daniel has joined the revolution. Understood everything: what he had had to be. Upon their return to their hut. After July asserts that the Smales always make trouble for him. A man brings a battery-operated amplifier to the village and provides them with a night's entertainment." Themes/Symbols/Motifs . Rejecting July's contention that his family will move to the city once the fighting ends. After the cutting. who never fought the whites. the chief. Maureen fervently chases the helicopter.
which was struggling to be born. July’s protection. the privileged position formerly occupied by the whites (‘colonizers’) is about to be taken over by the blacks (‘colonized’). To provide an example of the uselessness of the Smales’ liberal ideals in the novel’s “interregnum”. it becomes clear that July’s People was written against a backdrop of sociopolitical tension between “the old” system of racial segregation. coupled with the gruesome repression by the apartheid system after the Soweto riots. Motifs and symbols include: the Yellow Bakki.Some major themes of this novel are Racial Equality.. Bam and Maureen Smales were so confident about the immunity they thought they would be granted as white liberals. The previous quotation may be taken as an illustration of the wide disjunction between the ideals associated with white liberalism and reality. July. no matter how hard they tried to “slough their privilege” (Gordimer 1981: 8). born white pariah dogs in a black continent” (Gordimer 1981: 8). who offers them refuge at his mud and thatched hut village. However. withdrew five thousand rands in notes” Gordimer 1981: 7). cleanliness. the huts. Lesser themes are Body and Gender Roles(marriage and fidelity). In the South-African segregationist context. but a reality whose achievement was not going to be plain sailing. will not spare them the ordeal of having to suffer the consequences of such a terrible situation. find themselves forced to accept the help of their black servant. One of these families. blacks would always regard white liberals as “masters” (‘colonizers’). The interval between these two events is what Antonio Gramsci’s epigraph refers to as “interregnum”. the “interregnum” the reader is confronted with in July’s People makes it difficult to maintain such division. slaves (blacks). brought the final liberation of the country closer to becoming a reality. The resurgence of a revolutionary consciousness in the eighties. By introducing the reader to this family. Critical Appreciation Nadine Gordimer wrote July’s People at a time of widespread uncertainty about the future of South Africa. July’s . together with Bam’s yellow bakkie (a little truck). Being liberal.Power(shift).Time/Memory. which was about to die. The metaphorical nobody’s land resulting from such a situation gives rise to a “great diversity of morbid symptoms”. This situation leads many white families to flee their homes in their comfortable residential districts. that they were extremely baffled when they were advised to withdraw all their money from the bank (“Bam.. it is not at all hard to identify to whom each label is assigned: masters (whites) vs. in a state of detached disbelief at his action . Referring to the notion of “masters” doubtlessly involves the existence of slaves. In the middle of a widespread black revolt in South Africa. Nadine Gordimer attempts to highlight the difficult position many white liberal families found themselves in at that time: “they might find they had lived out their whole lives as they were. “turn out to be vital” (Gordimer 1981: 6) in the Smales’ successful escape. and the future system of racial equality. the radio. the Smales. The Smales are white liberals who have always been against the segregationist regime of apartheid. It is precisely this “diversity of morbid symptoms” what July’s People is all about. and the river (water in general). however. Thus.
roaring. July realizes that the Smales are not at all happy about him keeping their car: “You don’t like I must keep the keys” (Gordimer 1981: 69). By using the word “boy” and “master” in this exchange. This power reversal is closely related to the Smales’ growing dependence on their former servant. From the very beginning.. . more than anything else. the fictional account of a power reversal. the Smales (particularly. If the communication between master and servant had been better. Gordimer’s depiction of a reality that is gradually falling apart is clearly reflected in the previous quotation. By the end of the novel. the stealing of Bam’s gun by Daniel brings about the final and complete reversal of roles (master-servant). while the family was on holidays. July points out correctly that Maureen has never really trusted him to take care of the things he was asked to. because it is the only link they have to the outside world from which they fled. frantically searching for stations broadcasting any updates on the current situation of the war. without the Smales’ consent. Having been stripped of the only objects reminding them of their former white power (the bakkie and the gun). this “interregnum” unveils the Smales’ real ideology. thus depriving their everyday lives of ‘meaning’: “If the children need eggs. It is a gradual process that is inextricably linked to the Smales’ gradual loss of power. she would have found out that July felt as any other black did under the yoke of the apartheid regime. crackling out of which the order that is the world has been won” (Gordimer 1981: 124). they do not dare to ask him for the keys of the vehicle. The fragmented reality their life comes down to by the end of the novel does not come about all of a sudden. Despite having been against the use of such words as “boy” and “master” for so long. this was the starting point for July’s rise to power. The Smales are so obsessed with this device. July emphasizes Maureen’s hypocritical liberal ideals: “you tell everybody you trust your good boy” (Gordimer 1981: 70). Not being allowed to cater for themselves leads the Smales to become less independent and more subservient to July’s goodwill. radio stations are attacked and broadcasts are made vague and less informative.He smiled at the pretensions of a child. In the argument about the keys of the bakkie. Throughout the novel. Bam constantly listens to the radio. The only thing that helps the Smales make some sense of their pointless lives is the radio. I bring you more eggs. if they are made at all. This event is in turn followed by July’s learning to drive the bakkie. Desperate for outside news. The former masters begin to lose their privilege at the very moment when they are forced to flee from their comfortable home to July’s village. At one point in the novel. Nevertheless. for they know that they are now at the mercy of their former servant. It is precisely at that moment that Maureen begins to realize that her white liberal ideology is nothing but a show. the only information they can get from the radio is “the sounds of chaos. If losing their bakkie speeded up the Smales’ growing subservience to July.. the reader becomes aware that July does not want the Smales to act on their own. “there was nothing else to do but the impossible” (Gordimer 1981: 11). hindering in its helpfulness – That’s not your work” (Gordimer 1981: 96). rending. July. Since July was the only person they could turn to for survival. July starts to take control of every possible aspect of the life of the Smales.People is. the adults practically worship their radio. whereby former masters become slaves and former slaves become masters. little by little. July is so enthusiastic about his new skill that he is very reluctant to give the keys of the car back to the Smales. Despite being so annoyed at July’s use of their car.
. those who had a high command of English were the white masters. Maureen and July’s final row over the disappearance of the gun is of critical importance. Black South-African schools based most of their instruction either on Afrikaans or on tribal languages. Maureen “understood although she knew no word.. it becomes clear that July feels himself as a member of hiw own black tribe. her physical appearance is not that of a model. Power is related not only to political and economic superiority. 1974). In short. and not as part of the group of privileged white liberals. 1981: 57). 1981: 32). had also benefited from the apartheid regime. those in power are always those who find themselves entitled to modulate and understand language according to their socio.Bam did not have this skill and often irritated him by a quick answer that made it clear. Maureen’s resentment about this reversal of roles may be shown in the way she refers to July at the beginning of the novel: “a good man” (Gordimer. factories and mines. it was her practice to give some noncommittal sign or sound. but also to speech. Surprisingly enough.. Nonetheless. Hence. Maureen gathers all the irony. not the exchange of ideas and feelings (Gordimer 1981: 96) “When she didn’t understand him.. After so many years with July. who. it is only when he starts speaking in his native language that Maureen eventually becomes aware of all that he has gone through: “She was not his mother. in the sense that this passage may be regarded as the novel’s climax.. It was based on orders and responses.. In this passage. voices all his feelings about his relationship with the Smales.. to a greater or a lesser extent. In that attitude. no longer willing to appear as the “good” loyal servant. From what we have said so far.. Hence. Understood everything” (Gordimer 1981: 152). bantu education only intended to supply future labourers with some little instruction.Maureen) have to face up to the fact that they will never recover their former life. July. While white education was aimed at obtaining white professionals (doctors.political loyalties. a grotesque. The curious thing of this exchange is that July speaks to Maureen in his own native language. The following excerpts will serve as an instance of linguistic power: “They could assume comprehension between them only if she kept away from even the most commonplace of abstractions.neglected hair standing out wispy and rough” (Gordimer 1981: 153). his wife. his was the English learned in kitchens. As one might expect.). but a kind of caricature of an attractive middle-aged white woman: “She lurched over and posed herself. lawyers.sweat coarsened forehead. hurt and bafflement of someone whose former role (master) has been exploded. This scene ends with Maureen posing herself provocatively against the hood of the bakkie. it is no wonder that Gordimer refers to July’s English as that language variety . his friend.. what July is trying to tell us is that Maureen was not the kind and benevolent white liberal who would treat her servant as a relative or a friend.the black man’s English was too poor to speak his mind” (Gordimer 1981: 97) As may be remembered from the second section of this paper. not in English. surely the role played by language in July’s People has not gone unnoticed. as opposed to the way she calls him towards the middle of the novel: “a moody bastard” (Gordimer. like a model in an advertisment. his sister. his people” (Gordimer 1981: 152). consigning English to a secondary position (Afrikaans Medium Decree.
Last but not least. Nadine Gordimer uses the children’s relationships to cast some light on those of the adults. discrimination. She also calls our attention to the hypocrisy underlying white liberal ideals. social. the immediate consequence of such lack of linguistic competence was an uncomfortable miscommunication between masters and servants (“Bam did not have this skill”). Bam and Maureen. factories and mines”. Roy.. The only ray of hope in Nadine Gordimer’s apocalyptic prophesy of a future South Africa rests on the new generations of South African children.“learned in kitchens. where relationships have become undefined. This dichotomy highly contributes to explaining why Bam and Maureen. Gordimer probably thinks that all the children born after the overthrow of the apartheid regime will not be contaminated with the racial and social prejudices of their parents. find it so hard to become independent: “her children had survived in their own ability to ignore the precautions it was impossible for her to maintain for them. whereas the children are too young to have been completely contaminated or influenced by adulthood. Their adaptation is so great that they even begin to acquire the language of the other black children. past and present. What I mean is that the only thing children are concerned with is playing and having fun. It is precisely this lack of communication that challenges all the preconceptions Bam and Maureen Smales had about July. as adults. has been called into question. unlike their children. of paramount importance in July’s People is the role played by children. are contaminated with all the values and ideas associated with white urban life in South Africa (privilege..) prejudices typical of adults. and for failing to recognize that their material well-being owes a great deal to the discriminatory policies of apartheid. while adults do not. and us (whites) and them (‘the others’: the blacks) are magnificently combined by Nadine Gordimer. This award-winning writer introduces us to a future South Africa where a lack of communication between races will continue to be a major problem. Gina and Victor quickly get used to July’s village.. More often than not.). In comparison with the great pains taken by Bam and Maureen to adapt to the new situation.” (Gordimer 1981: 123) Conclusion July’s People inhabits a world where traditionally assumed roles and rules have been overturned. It seems that white South African liberals are criticized for their passivity in the anti-apartheid movement. Source: Internet .. The reason for such successful adaptation on the part of the children lies in the fact that children play. In this novel. they have not yet been contaminated with the (racial. even vocabulary and language. where everything.
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