July's PeopleNadine Gordimer
For Further Study
In light of the uprisings of the 1970s, Nadine Gordimer presented a very bleak and cynical prophecy to white and black South Africa. That prophecy suggested no solution to problematic race relations but foresaw an inevitable overthrow of the apartheid system of the Afrikaner Nationalists. With the declaration of independence by the neighboring nations of Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, the demise of white rule in South Africa was anticipated.
July's People takes place during a future revolution in South Africa. Amid such chaos, traditional roles are overturned and new ones must be forged. In that sense, the novel exists in Antonio Gramsci's (the source of the novel's epigraph) interregnum—between the explosion of the old but before the birth of the new.
July's People captures the mood of a South Africa expecting revolutionary violence just like that experienced by neighboring countries. Instead of writing about a revolution, however, the novel assumes such an event will happen and imagines what affect it might have on a liberal white family. In this case, the family decides to accept their servant's offer of refuge and flee to his village. There, with all the awkwardness of Friday nursing Robinson Crusoe, they hope to wait out the war. Gradually, all the family's accoutrements of civilization are given up, stolen, or proven to be completely useless. Simultaneously, the power relations of society are revealed as hollow. However, there is hope in that self-awareness and in the children's immersion in village life as a possible route to the construction of a new South Africa.
Gordimer was born in Springs, an East Rand mining town outside Johannesburg in the Transvaal region of South Africa, in 1923. Springs served as the setting of her first novel, The Lying Days (1953). Her father was a jeweler from Latvia and her mother was of British descent. Growing up, Gordimer was often sequestered indoors because her mother feared she had a weak heart. She spent some time in convent school where, she admits in an autobiographical essay "A Bolter and the Invincible Summer" (1963), she was a habitual truant.
In response to her confinement, Gordimer began writing at the age of nine. Her first published story was "The Quest for Seen Gold," which appeared in June of 1937 in the Johannesburg Sunday Express. Fortunately, she maintains, the publication of her work did not lead to the smothering that one sees with those considered "gifted." Instead she was left to her own devices and, thus, began a long career of writing about life in South Africa.
Her short stories were continually published in magazines until her first book came out in 1952. It was a collection of short stories titled The Soft Voice of the Serpent (1952). Already, her technique was evident. Her writing had clarity, little emotion, and great control.
Gordimer lived through the system of Apartheid and fought to bring about its end. She was a member of the African National Congress (which was an illegal party until the 1980s), and she chose to stay in South Africa when many other writers and political dissidents left for school or safety in Europe and America. However, she was not a prominent dissident—like Ruth First—but she was a voice of protest. "I remain," she said, "a writer, not a public speaker: nothing I say here will be as true as my fiction." Still, many of her books were banned in South Africa from 1958 until 1991.
A prolific writer, Gordimer has written many essays on politics, censorship, writing, and other writers. Much of this work parallels her fictional work and taken together she has painted a damning picture of apartheid. She was a founding member of the Congress of South African Writers. She has won numerous awards for her writing, including the Booker prize, the Modern Literature Association Award, and the Bennett Award. Many universities have honored her with degrees and the French government gave her the decoration of Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Currently, she lives in South Africa, is the Vice President of PEN (a worldwide organization of writers), a member of the Congress of South African Writers, and she continues to write.
In July's People, Nadine Gordimer depicts the lives of a liberal, white South African family, the Smales, forced to flee to the native village of their black servant, July. Gordimer sets her novel during a fictional civil war in which black South Africans violently overturn the system of apartheid. In order to escape the violence in Johannesburg, the Smales must accept July's charity and live a life that makes them all confront their assumptions about one another.
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 Smales 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 the 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 Smales 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. Anxious over losing the vehicle, they argue, blaming each other for their situation. Later, while standing nude in the rain, Maureen sees the bakkie return. She falls asleep that night without telling Bam about the vehicle.
When July comes to their hut the next day, Bam greets him with the inappropriate authority of their former relationship. Apparently ignoring Bam's tone, July tells them he went to the shops for supplies. Though they could, they do not ask him for the keys to the bakkie. July begins to learn how to drive. When the they ask him what he will do if caught driving the vehicle, he says he will say he owns it.
Later, Maureen returns the bakkie's keys to July. Knowing that she does not want him to keep the keys, he makes her recall his former status as her "boy" when he kept the keys to her house. He also recalls the distrust he sensed from her at the time. Stung by his words, Maureen tries to defend her treatment of him and says their former relationship has ended, that he is no longer a servant. He then shocks her by asking if she is going to pay him this month. He offers the car keys back to her, saying he worked for her for fifteen years because his family needed him to. She then retaliates by mentioning Ellen, his mistress in Johannesburg. Though feeling a hollow victory, Maureen knows July will never forgive her this transgression. He keeps the car keys.
Bam kills two baby wart-hogs with his small shotgun. During the hunt, he offers to let his black hunting companion, Daniel, shoot the gun sometime. Bam gives the larger wart-hog to the villagers and keeps the smaller (and more tender) one. Everyone joyfully feasts on the meat, an intoxicating delicacy, and Bam and Maureen make love for the first time since their journey.
The scene shifts to July and his family eating the meat and talking about the Smales. July discounts Martha's worries that the white family will bring trouble. Martha recalls the times without July when he, like most men with families, worked in the city. Like the seasons, the long absences of their husbands have become an expected part of black women's lives.
Gina and her friend, Nyiko, play with newborn kittens, and Maureen scolds them. Later, after they listen for news on the radio, Bam asks Maureen if she found a home for the kittens. She reveals that she has drowned them in a bucket of water.
Maureen tries working with the women in the fields, digging up leaves and roots. Afterward, she goes to see July, who is working on the bakkie. July does not want to hear about the killing on the news and hopes everything "will come back all right." Maureen asks, dumbfounded, if he really wants a return to the ways things were. July asks if hunger compels her to search for spinach with the women; she replies that she goes to pass the time. As always, she feels that the workplace language they speak hinders their ability to communicate.
When July says she should not work with the women, she asks if he fears she will tell his wife about Ellen. He angrily asserts that she can only tell Martha that he has always been a good servant. Maureen, frightened, realizes that the dignity she thought she had always conferred upon him was actually humiliating to him. He informs her that he and the Smales have been summoned to the chief's village. Though July has authority in his village, they still must ask the chief's permission to stay. Maureen struggles with her new subservience to July.
The Smales visit the chief the next morning, afraid that the chief will force them out. The chief asks them why they have come to his nation and asks about events in Johannesburg. He cannot believe that the white government is powerless and that whites are running from blacks. He says that the black revolutionaries are not from his nation and that the whites, who would never let him own a gun, will give him guns to aid in the struggle against the black attackers. He tells Bam to bring his gun and teach him how to shoot it.
Outraged by this suggestion, Bam asks if the chief really intends to kill other blacks, saying that the entire black nation is the chief's nation. After further discussion, the chief allows them to stay with Mwawate (July) and says that he will visit them to learn how to shoot Bam's gun.
On the return trip, July explains that the chief talks instead of acts. Furthermore, the chief, who never fought the whites, is too poor and defenseless to fight other blacks. Upon their return to their hut, Maureen and Bam speak in the phrases they had used in their former life, and these phrases cannot adequately describe their current predicament. Bam begins criticizing July's new confidence and his criticisms of the chief. Maureen says that July was talking about himself, that he will not fight for anyone and is risking his life by having the family there. Maureen suggests that they leave, making Bam confront what they both know: they have nowhere to go and no means by which to get there.
With the women, Maureen clumsily cuts grass for the huts. After the cutting, July criticizes Martha for placing the grass bundles in front of the Bam and Maureen's house, where their children will ruin it. They discuss July's past and his times in the city over the last fifteen years. Rejecting July's contention that his family will move to the city once the fighting ends, Martha suggests that he stay in the village. According to Daniel, they will no longer face white restrictions, and, with his city experience, July can run his own shop.
A man brings a battery-operated amplifier to the village and provides them with a night's entertainment, during which many villagers drink heavily. The Smales do not partake in the drinking but return to their hut, where they find their gun missing.
With no police to help him, Bam is impotent in the face of the theft. Maureen feels humiliated for Bam. She leaves to find July, who is by the bakkie. They realize that only Daniel was absent from the party, and Maureen says July must get the gun from him. Daniel, however, has left. After July asserts that the Smales always make trouble for him, Maureen accuses July of stealing small items from her in Johannesburg. Angered, he speaks to her in his own language, and "She understood although she knew no word. Understood everything: what he had had to be, how she had covered up to herself for him, in order for him to be her idea of him. But for himself—to be intelligent, honest, dignified for her was nothing; his measure as a man was taken elsewhere and by others," his own people. July then informs her that Daniel has joined the revolution. She tells July that he abandoned Ellen and only wants the bakkie so he can feel important, but that, too, will become useless when his gas money runs out.
After Gina goes to play with Nyiko and Bam goes with Victor and Royce to fish, a helicopter with unidentifiable markings flies over the village. Maureen fervently chases the helicopter, and the novel ends with her still running toward it and its unknown occupants, who could be either "saviours or murderers."
The chief, as befits his position, is the only character who attempts to make sense of the greater picture. He has no weapons and no wealth. He asks Bam for his gun; however, Bam is shocked that the chief would kill the "good guys"—the people of Mandela and Sobukwe—for the white government. But at least the chief wants to do something even if alone and armed with one gun. He would prefer action to hiding out and waiting to be taken over again. What Bam does not want to understand is that the chief and his people have their own history which has little in common with the urban African National Congress.
July's friend Daniel shows him how to drive the bakkie as well as fix it. He befriends the white family. Bam shows him how to shoot and Daniel accompanies the family to the chief. He disappears at the same time that Bam's gun goes missing. It is assumed he has taken the gun and gone off to join the revolutionary army.
While July lives with the Smales, he has a mistress named Ellen. She is from Botswana and is an office cleaner. The money she earns in the city is sent to pay for her son's high school education in Soweto. While ironing July's clothes with Maureen's iron, she sometimes chats with Maureen. "[O]nce [she] had put a hand under her breasts with the gesture with which women declare themselves in conscious control of their female destiny … I'm sterilized at the clinic."
July recalls the character of Friday in the eighteenth-century novel by Daniel Defoe, RobinsonCrusoe. Benevolent masters named both characters for calendar measurements and both were trusted with their masters' lives. July appears to be "their servant, their host," but the revolution has disrupted traditional roles. He remains the white family's savior, but as time goes on they become his people. He represents all the myths and stereo-types of the black servant, but he also uses those same myths to his advantage.
Determined to remain their servant as long as he is paid, July seeks to become the master of the family. It is a revolution of roles rather than the herald of a new society. July accomplishes his objective by sequestering them and confining them to their role as his master. As such, they depend on him for everything. He also makes sure that Maureen is unable to establish relations with the other women and, therefore, she cannot fully integrate to society. Lastly, July slowly appropriates the tokens of civilization they have managed to bring with them, the most important being the bakkie.
In a flashback, Maureen returns to her young love for a family servant named Lydia. She recalls with joy the many afternoons that she would "bump" into Lydia on the way home from school. Customarily, Lydia would take Maureen's burden onto her head with the shopping and they would go home. The relationship is one of master and servant. However, in Maureen's memory it is also that of young girl in love with an older female. From this context she is able to say that the photo, taken by the journalist to depict apartheid as a white girl next to a "black woman with the girl's school case on her head," shows a context of "affection and ignorance." The memory of Lydia reveals Maureen's blindness to her own empowered status.
The wife of July, Martha is a simple character. She represents the agrarian traditional figure that is resigned to her role. For her, "The sun rises, the moon sets; the money must come, the man must go." She does not react to the white people in her mother's house too much nor does she relate to Maureen. The women met and "something might have come of it. But not much."
A girl from the village who becomes Gina's childhood intimate. They become more and more inseparable and are reminded of their origins of difference only when the adults want to know whose child Gina is minding. She is a subject of fascination for Bam and Maureen when she takes a sausage.
Descended from Boers (Dutch colonists), Bam has the privilege of the white South African in an Apartheid state. He is an architect for Caprano & Partners and husband to Maureen. He likes to boast of being a judge at conferences and of his professional abilities, like speaking French. He also name-drops. Being middle class, he hunts for sport and bought himself the yellow bakkie as a hunting vehicle. He sees himself as strong, masculine, and in control of his life. He does not mind exchanging suburban leisure for laboring on improvements about the village. In his mind this gives him an importance, but in reality he is a secondary character to his employers and to his wife.
Politically, Bam is a pacifist who empathizes with the blacks. Personally, the situation utterly emasculates him; his former servant controls the bakkie and calls the shots. He admits that he feels like "a boy with a pea-shooter." His final abdication as white man occurs when his gun is stolen. Without his gun he is of no use to the chief, he holds no symbolic power, and he is unable to uphold his economic place of provider and, therefore, has no sexual claim on Maureen.
- July's People was made into an audio cassette by Blackstone Audio Books in 1993.
Of all the characters, only Gina represents the hope of that a new South Africa is possible. She shows the opposite characteristics of the small-minded Victor. She is the second child and shows every sign of ease with village life. She finds a best friend in Nyiko and a sense of responsibility in minding the younger children in the village. In addition,
she begins to learn the local language. The beginning of a new South African person can be glimpsed in Gina—she is multilingual and the race barrier that her brother Victor depends on is not present for her. Gina insists on her difference from her siblings. Her mother notices she is "always a moody bastard" who acts like a witch to her brothers.
Maureen Hetherington Smales
The focus of the novel, Maureen is a woman from the Western Area Gold Mines who has been living in the safe environs of the suburbs. Until the revolution and the flight to July's village, she was in charge of her household and family. Her husband was a wonderfully successful architect and they both shared a liberal view of apartheid. Together they hoped that dialogue and discussion would bring about greater equality.
All of that vanishes in the flight in the yellow bakkie with her family and servant to the country-side. Leaving her suburban life behind, she attempts to manufacture a new value system within her new surroundings, but instead discovers that values are relative. Further, those values depend on personal relationships; in her new life, she discovers these relationships are not as strong as she once thought. Eventually, after a failed relationship with July, she runs off into the unknown.
In this final flight, she is finally understands that she must break free from the circularity of her traditional role. Thus by abandoning her family and being spumed by her servant, she virtually joins Daniel and merges with the social revolution.
Royce is the littlest of the Smales and July's favorite. He annoys his parents with his request for a Coke. He slyly exacerbates his bother's tantrum by asking if he is really going to buy a buggy. He at once questions his brother's awakening masculinity while making light of the moment.
The oldest child, Victor adamantly tries to maintain racial separation despite the liberal example of his parents. He wants to have the spoils of white rule. The character of Victor represents the idea that racism is childish. Furthermore, the pettiness of the racist is that of a spoiled child who insists on dragging out his racing-car track. This is demonstrated when Victor wants to keep the blacks away from the rain catch his father has made ("who owns the rain?" asks his mother). He is also infuriated that a black should accuse him of stealing garbage—an orange sack. Victor also shows that the anger of a racist person must be handled carefully, "[he] was angry with a white man's anger, too big for him." Yet Victor learns some manners from his black playmates, though not as many as Gina and Royce do. This occurs when he accepts a piece of fishing line from July with the typical open palm gesture of the other children.
July's mother gives up her hut for the Smales. She is apprehensive of the white people's presence in the village and resents being unable to replace the roof of her hut. She represents old age, as well as the natural rhythm of the village and its agricultural focus. She also contrasts with the image of Ban's associate who died in his own plane's crash. Grandmother, conversely, is still working and will work "bent lower and lower towards the earth until finally she sank to it—the only death she could afford."
The incredible situation which the Smales find themselves in is attested to and dealt with at a very personal level. The real discomfort and disruption of the revolution has been displaced to a new awareness of the physical body. "For the first time in her life [Maureen] found that she smelled bad between her legs … [she] disgustedly scrubbed." There is also a constant concern about living in the village, especially the risk of disease. However, this fear does not stop them from trying to keep up appearances. Maureen secretly washes her menstrual rags in the river because the shame of her period looms far greater than the "risk of bilharzia."
In addition to these sufferings, it is in the description of another person's body that the Smales admit their whiteness. Maureen comments on her children coughing like the black children do. She also notes that her kids look dirtier than the village children because of their white skin. It is never said directly but it is suggested that there is something natural about black people living in primeval nature—they seem to blend in with darkness: "they could see his fingernails and his eyes." These are intentional stereotypical references. But the most certain sign that the family is realizing its fear of losing whiteness (or going native) and becoming villagers is Bam's terrifying report that he has seen Royce wipe himself with a stone—not a treasured piece of toilet paper.
Reversing roles, the blacks are now able to walk freely in the city, and Maureen feels herself confined to the hut: "Maureen could not walk out into the boundlessness." She excuses her confinement by saying she fears being spotted by a patrol; but everyone knows they are there. Disease keeps her from going to the river too often. She steers clear from July's hut while July keeps her from fraternizing with the other women. She tries to work with the women once in the field—but she feels self-conscious because of her white legs.
Before her flight into the unknown at the end of the novel, the only time she gives into nature is a secret, naked, dance in the rain. Her attitude or fear of the boundlessness is repeated in her attitude toward her own body and those bodies around her. Overcoming nature becomes Maureen's epiphany.
The disruption of reality—or what Maureen has known as reality—caused by the revolution has forced her to reflect upon the nature of reality, "since that first morning she had become conscious in the hut, she had regained no established point of a continuing present from which to recognize her own sequence." Reality, in this context, had been decided upon in the mind of each individual according to their position in an economy of sex roles. Reality is dependent upon human relations that are based on a false resistance to apartheid and a position of claimed innocence. "The Humane creed … depended on validities staked on a belief in the absolute nature of intimate relationships between human beings."
Maureen realizes her life has been gilded by a suburbia whose sterility thwarts honest intimacy. It is this realization that causes her to feel embarrassed about Ellen and about visiting July when he was ill. She also realizes that power relations in society are reflected within her family. She discovers that there is little real intimacy and begins to view her husband and children as strangers.
Topics for Further Study
- 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 or not?
- Do some research into the disease risks associated with living in the rural regions (as opposed to the wilderness) of South Africa. Given the fact of war and that July's home is an old agricultural village, how much of Maureen's worry about illness is valid? How much is simply an expression of her discomfort at not being in familiar surroundings?
- In the United States we had a similar, though milder, system of laws that institutionalized racial discrimination known as Jim Crow Laws. What were those laws and how would they compare with the system of apartheid?
- Gordimer wrote her novel at a time when a racial revolution seemed inevitable. Americans have felt this fear in the past as well (for example, at the times of The Great Sioux Uprising, Wounded Knee, Watts Riots, LA Riots). Does that fear exist in any form today, say, in immigration quotas or as hysteria over the Mexican border?
Furthermore, her previous conception relied on "sexual love formulated in master bedrooms" for the purposes of fulfilling a "place in the economy." From this viewpoint, her marriage to Bam becomes insupportable. Disgust grows between them in parallel to their individual disgust at their own body. She takes on the "matriarchal frown of necessity performed without question, without reasoning; the same frown she had had turned up to her by July's wife." While he "had the menacing aspect of maleness as man has before the superego has gained control of his body, come out of sleep. His penis was swollen under his rumpled trousers." Not only do bodies disgust them, but also the very physical life of the village disgusts them. Nothing is pressed; nothing is familiar.
The marital breakdown is reflected in the pronouns used toward each other but also in the sexual act. They do not have sex except for the night of the hog feast when they succumb to the influence of the meat. Bam dreams of the pig; he wakes to what he thinks is pig's blood on him when it is her menstrual blood he sees. It is a further sign that they are not in the sterility of the suburb and that their coitus rests on violence—the master bedrooms of apartheid economics.
Likewise, Maureen offers herself to July but "the death's harpy image she made of herself meant nothing to him, who had never been to a motor show complete with provocative girls." It is an awesome conjunction. Marital sex has become an act of drunken violence neither really wanted. Maureen, in her confusion over reality, desperately and pointlessly offers herself to July—the new master of the bakkie—as another possession, the final one. Having now broken all possible connections, marital and otherwise, Maureen is ready to leave.
Along with natural bodily function, culture clash is a main thematic of the story. An important aspect of this is the way that Maureen and July conjure the legendary friendship of Robinson Crusoe and Friday—but replacing Friday's cheery obedience with a tense political dilemma.
The similarity is found in the careful listing and discussion of objects. In the story of Crusoe, he is incredibly lucky to have been able to recover many items from the shipwreck to assist the creation of a marooned settlement. The most important possessions for the Smales are the bakkie ("A ship that had docked in a far country"), the radio (before which Bam looks like a monkey fingering the bars of a cage), malarial pills, toilet paper, and the gun. Conversely, July's unwanted items from the past—like the two pink glasses of the opening scene—are now employed to recreate the Bam and Maureen's home.
More ironic, however, are the items grabbed in the hectic moment of flight which serve absolutely no purpose: the race track; bundles of monetary notes which become bits of paper; ornamental clay vessels; and "a gadget for taking the dry cleaner's tags off clothes." In reference to these items, Maureen notes that they now have nothing. Then she sees her old scissors and her small knife-grinder in use around the village, realizing that July "must have filched them." It is Maureen's feeling of deprivation of discarded household items that prevents her from seeking July in his hut. "She no more wanted to have to see her cast-off trappings here, where they separated [July] from the way other people lived around him, than she did back there, where they separated him from the way she lived." But while Maureen works through the problem of possession, Bam, on the other hand, is utterly emasculated by the loss of his bakkie and his gun.
The narrative is told from a third person point of view and the tone of the narrative voice is that of dispassionate documentation. The voice reports on the activities and behavior of the characters as they adjust to their marooned state. However, the narration does not add information about the world that might explain the situation. In this way, the narrator knows only as much as the Smales know or learn from the radio. At the story's focus is Maureen, her thoughts are more often revealed. As a result, the story told is filtered through her and censored by her body of knowledge. Furthermore, the reader loses track of the political background and must consider what the basis of human relations are and what they need to be in a more just society.
Occasionally the focus shifts to Bam and there is some insight into his thought process; but this is not enough to give him any depth. Maureen and July (who is a function of her) are the only substantial characters in the novel. Maureen causes the narrative's linearity to be clouded in a way that reflects her disbelief that any of the revolution was possible or happening.
Realism is a literary technique often used to examine the mores and customs of middle-and lower-class characters. July's People focuses on middle-class liberal whites to examine them as they deal with a complete disruption of their society. The story asks the question, what next—what kind of role do white people have when they are overthrown? That question is the subtext of Maureen's battle with July. In fact, the climax of the story is the moment when he yells at her in his own language and she understands. She hears that her sympathies for him were an insult, that he is trapped as a servant in a society ruled by whites. But that is his morass.
The real criticism of the story is centered on Maureen. She represents the liberal who tried to prevent or ignore the growing revolutionary violence. Now, she discovers, she must do something. The focus on the hypocrisy of the liberal political stance is exposed without having to resort to a specific listing of their faults. It is exposed by a story of a symbolic family marooned among people it never really wanted to encounter (though they might have felt for them from a distance). Gordimer wants the reader to examine his or her beliefs. The novel's dramatic circumstances serve to point out that only a fantastic event, unfortunately, will wake people up.
In musical composition, a leitmotif describes the technique whereby certain themes are repeated to signify emotion, announce a character, or accompany specific scenery. July's People is composed of an incredible series of such events whereby the novel's noise—the insects, the radio, the people, the helicopter—becomes a symphony or operatic display. Moreover, every superficial theme actually reinforces the overarching theme that a woman, Maureen, cannot simply hide from history.
There are subtle objects that instantly retell the story. For example, Manzoni's I Promessi Sposi is the only novel Maureen has taken with her. She never reads the famous nineteenth-century novel, but it reminds her of civilization. Like that novel, her marriage is thwarted by the overlord July—but there will be no happy ending because she rejects suburban culture with its fanciful tales of romance. Another example is found in the pink teacups and the way July supplies fruit at the end of the meal. The insistence upon living in the same manner as they once did only further points out the absurdity of that previous life.
The Union of South Africa was formed in 1910 under a constitution excluding blacks from parliament. In 1912, a number of chiefs joined members of the middle class to form the opposition party, the African National Congress (ANC). ANC protests from 1912 until 1940 were within the law. When WWII broke out, South Africa fought with the Allies. After the war, there was a great influx of Africans into the cities. This shift in demographics, coupled with a rise in crime and shanty-towns, created a degree of paranoia amongst the enfranchised (white) citizens. In the elections of 1948, the Afrikaner Nationalists were voted in because they promised to restore order.
The Afrikaner Nationalists began a system of apartheid, a regime based on racial discrimination that was instituted nationwide. In 1956, for example, the regime removed 60,000 mixed-blood "colored" from the voting rolls of Cape Province. In late summer, 100,000 non-whites were forcibly evicted from their homes to make room for whites. Africans were required to live in designated areas and carry "passes" or permission papers. The inability to provide an inquiring official with one's papers meant jail or fines. Generally, the system of apartheid aimed to keep the non-white people living under South African rule a disciplined pool of workers. Dissent or organization into labor unions or political parties was not tolerated. The political groups, lead by the ANC, used boycotts, strikes, and demonstrations in an effort to change the government.
On March 21, 1960, thousands of people all over South Africa responded to an ANC call of civil disobedience. The people marched without their passes and offered themselves for arrest. The government responded at Sharpeville, 40 miles south of Johannesburg, where 20,000 people had gathered. Police panicked and opened fire. Sixty-nine black people dead, 180 injured, and one week later the ANC was banned. This event forced leaders to flee underground where they formed armed groups whose aim was sabotage. One of the leaders jailed soon after was Nelson Mandela.
Tensions increased as the strictures of apartheid tightened: every year saw the passage of laws decreasing the civil liberties of blacks. It also saw the highest incarceration rate in the world and barbaric police brutality. The opposition parties were working underground but were not invisible for long. In the 1970s, the Black Consciousness movement formed but then was destroyed by the government. Its purpose was accomplished; it raised awareness among people and made possible a new generation of black dissidence. A revolt was organized from schools where teachers and students were dissatisfied with low salaries, a crumbling education system, and a recent law that made Afrikaans the equivalent of English.
On June 16, 1976, roughly 15,000 school children turned out to demonstrate against apartheid in Soweto. The police opened fire, killing 25, and wounding dozens more. The protest spread over the country and continued through 1977. One of the organizers was soon arrested. His name was Stephen Biko and his death in jail created an international outcry. After restoring order, the government appointed the Collié Commission of Inquiry to investigate the cause of the unrest in the black residential areas.
The Commission gave its report in February of 1980 and stated that the problem stemmed from the implementation of the language policy and ensuing linguistic misunderstandings. As a result of the report, Soweto was given a new school, teachers were given a raise, and a new Education Act made school compulsory—boycotts and protests were now illegal. What the government did not realize was that Soweto had galvanized a palpable opposition that had not been raised by Sharpeville or any of the other incidents. It is at this point, when "it seemed that all was quieting down again," that Gordimer published July's People and the ban on Burger's Daughter was lifted.
State of Emergency
The government dealt with Soweto effectively. An independent homeland scheme wherein there would be limited self-governance was master-minded by P. W. Botha and seemed to ease tensions. Meanwhile, some laws were changed and some liberties restored to blacks. White administration of the homelands was ended in 1982. But police actions simultaneously intensified throughout this period. In 1984, a new constitution was written and Botha became president. On the issue of parliaments, a compromise was brokered whereby there would be one lawmaking body but with three racially segregated chambers.
The developments at the parliamentary level translated into frustration at the street level. Youths were impatient for change—they had grown up aware of the Soweto massacre and conscious of the guerilla efforts of the ANC. On September 3, 1984, the day the new Tricameral parliament was to become reality, riots broke out and South Africa entered a constant state of turmoil.
This unrest led to the declaration of a State of Emergency. The army re-enforced the police in October. Then in February 1985, the government tried to remove a squatter camp outside Cape Town called Crossroads. This had been tried before but the task of removing the 87,000 residents had not been achieved. During this attempt, 18 people were killed and international news cameras were on the scene. The whole world saw the violence and leaders around the world were furious. On March 21, 25 years after Sharpeville, the police killed 40 people gathered for a funeral of other police victims.
The End of White Rule
Since 1985, the ANC and its affiliates had become a revolutionary army with increasing tactical sophistication. They attacked government posts, police, and, by 1989, military installations. South Africa was in a state of civil war and the government was losing. The National Party changed its tactics by making F. W. de Klerk leader of the party. De Klerk was an outsider who was more receptive than his predecessors were. He was elected president in 1989. He lifted the ban on the ANC and released Nelson Mandela from jail. Throughout 1990s, exiles returned and new elections were called for. Mandela was elected president in 1994 and incredible change swept the country.
Gordimer has never had a large reading audience inside South Africa. South Africans have been dissatisfied with her work or they have been kept from it through censorship. Internationally, however, Gordimer has been the interpreter of South Africa through her short stories and novels. July's People was hardly different in this respect, but it is often treated not as a novel but as prophecy.
Compare & Contrast
- South Africa: in 1991 the total population was about 30 million persons of which 5 million were white, 2.5 million were people of color, and the rest were black. The black population is expected to total 66 million by 2010 with little change in the other two racial categories.
- USA: the total population now exceeds 267 million persons. Approximately 11% are black. The birth rate among whites is low but among Hispanics and native Americans it is very high.
- South Africa: European colonialists designated 10 areas as reservations for blacks. These areas became known as homelands and were briefly independent. In 1994, the homelands were reabsorbed during the elections so that South Africa is one administrative unit without a reservation system.
- USA: European colonialists signed treaties with Native Americans granting them rights to homelands. This too was a reservation system. These treaties recognize the Indian Tribes as sovereign Nations but the United States has never allowed Native governments much independence.
Soon after its publication, Anne Tyler praised the novel in the New York Times Book Review. She compared the story to Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and noted the strange symbols of civilization, like toilet paper. For Tyler, the novel "demonstrates with breathtaking clarity the tensions and complex interdependencies between whites and blacks in South Africa." Joan Silbur agreed in her review in the same magazine. She added that "Gordimer's novel is an intense look at a network of power relations—black to white, servant to master, male to female, child to parent—and the enormous changes wrought in all allegiances once power shifts utterly. For all the extremities of the situation it chronicles and the suspense—drama of its plot, it is a very subtle book—spare, careful, and instructive."
Judith Chettle, however, was not so appreciative in The National Review. Understanding that revolution has long been a possibility in the talk of South Africa, she simply sees that Gordimer has staged one. Chettle contends that revolutions "are messy things to write about, so perhaps [Gordimer] can be forgiven for being brief and somewhat vague about the revolution itself. She prefers to tell about a white family … [But] because her people think more than they feel, Miss Gordimer never seems to grapple seriously with the questions she has raised. The situation may be revolutionary but the insights are not." Another review in the The Natal Witness described Gordimer as a difficult prophet. Evidently, the narrative structure was too problematic.
Academic studies of Gordimer have been consistently insightful. They pick up on the myths being exploited in the novel while understanding the political play. Stephen Clingman, a fellow countryman, published The Novels of Nadine Gordimer after the 1985 State of Emergency—an admittance by the government that the nation was in a de facto state of civil war. He, therefore, offers particularly valuable insight. He writes:
"in terms of the method in which its picture of revolution is presented, the novel is still candidly impressionistic. For there may be a way in which the novel is less interested in the future per se than in its unfolding in the present.… [thus the novel] may be the most deceptive, and deceptively simple, of all of Gordimer's novels, and perhaps less genuinely prophetic than, say, The Conservationist. What the novel is apparently doing is projecting a vision into the future; but what it may be doing most decisively is in fact the reverse. For what appears to be a projection from the present into the future in the novel is from another point of view seeing the present through the eyes of the future …"
Change in South Africa, according to Clingman reading Gordimer, is inevitable but "nothing new has been born." And that is why the ambiguity of the novel's end is fitting.
Rowland Smith, in his 1990 essay, focuses on the frequency of impasse as a theme of Gordimer's works and the way July's People shatters this dead-lock. Instead of stalled and hesitant whites confused about how to behave toward blacks, the whole of white society is blown away: " … the collapse of white military power which the novel assumes is far less disturbing than the collapse of white moral power which it analyses. Part of the degradation of white suzerainty is shown to be white scruples themselves, even the scruples of human, dissenting whites. The paradox which epitomizes the dead-lock of the book's ending is that only when the black man refuses to talk the white woman's language is she able to understand 'everything."'
Kathrin Wagner's recent book, Rereading Nadine Gordimer, discusses many features of the novel. One element she focuses on is the "bildungsroman" element; that is, she watches Maureen's journey through a "heart of darkness" as one of self-discovery. Her journey, moreover, is that of a person in the "anguish of the only partially redeemed as history catches up with them." In such a reading, the run towards the helicopter—sign of civilization, technology, or the larger movements of history—with its complimentary baptismal dip in the river, becomes a simple reflex. Aware of the shallowness of her former life and, therefore, feeling even more out of place in the village, she seizes the moment and flees.
Still, according to Wagner, the novel falls apart at the end. "In her writing," says Wagner, "she implicitly and explicitly urges onward a historical process whose revolutionary phase must destroy the comfortable contexts within which she writes."
Felty is a visiting instructor at the College of Charleston. In the following essay, he examines Nadine Gordimer's depiction of the relationship between her characters' social status and their self-perceptions, which collapse after the overthrow of white rule in South Africa.
Nadine Gordimer's July's People explores the nature of revolution, both on a political and a personal level. When the white Smales family must flee the violence that erupts to end the caustic racial oppression of South African apartheid, they lose not only their economic and social status but also any firm sense of their own identities.
The novel's title, in fact, underscores the indefinite nature of the relationships in the book. For instance, the fact that July is the servant of the Smales makes the family, to July's village, "July's people." However, when the Smales must try to adapt to living in this village, they encounter July's other "people"—his family, as well as July's extended "people," black South Africans. They also find that in becoming July's responsibility in his home, their own status as his "people" makes them both dependent on him and an unwelcome burden to him.
In the process of this discovery, Maureen Smales discovers that her previous views of herself as a wife, mother, and liberal humanitarian were false since they were based on her economic and racial privileges. Her most painful realizations come during her confrontations with July, when she becomes aware of her inability to communicate with him and he forces her to recognize the true nature of their relationship. Maureen's losses culminate in her possibly suicidal rush to escape her situation at the novel's end.
What Do I Read Next?
- Gordimer won the Booker Prize for her 1974 novel The Conservationist. The novel fictionalizes the consciousness of the agricultural settlers in South Africa and sets up the question being answered in Burger's Daughter and July's People. The question is, what role will whites have in the future of South Africa?
- Burger's Daughter, also by Gordimer (1979), won several awards but was banned in South Africa. It is the story of a woman very much the opposite of Maureen Smales. She is Rosa Burger, the daughter of Lionel Burger (a fictionalization of Abram Fischer—a very prominent leader of the South African Communist Party), whose self-liberation from familial restraints requires acceptance of her political inheritance and challenges apartheid. One of the sources for this novel was Joe Slovo's 1976 essay, "South Africa-No Middle Road".
- July's People has often been compared to Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), by J.M. Coetzee, because of similar questions about the fate of those in power. Coetzee's story is a parable about colonialism told by the magistrate of a fort. A garrison has come to help defend the fort against unseen barbarians. Eventually, the garrison retreats and things return to normal, but it's unclear whether anyone will survive the coming winter or when the barbarians will attack.
- When the crackdown on dissent came in the 1960s in the wake of the ANC ban, Ruth First was one of the first to be imprisoned. She wrote about her experience in a novel called 117 Days (1965). She was assassinated by letter bomb in 1982 and was survived by her husband, who was living in exile, Joe Slovo.
- Gordimer's novel makes constant mention of health problems. Randall M. Pakard's 1990 work, White Plague, Black Labor: Tuberculosis and the Political Economy of Health and Disease in South Africa (Comparative Studies of Health Systems and M), discusses the daunting health problems of South Africa.
- G. H. L. Le May's 1995 work, The Afrikaners: An Historical Interpretation, attempts to put some perspective on the people known as Afrikaners and their political system known as apartheid. He does so with hindsight and from a new South Africa.
- In 1987, Universal Pictures released a film, entitled Cry Freedom, about the events which led South Africans to suspect that a revolution was imminent. Denzel Washington played Steve Biko and Kevin Kline played Donald Woods, the editor of the Daily Dispatch.
Gordimer continually emphasizes the relationship between material possession and power in the book. Accustomed to a life defined in part by economic security and ownership, the Smales struggle to maintain their former sense of themselves once these material supports have been destroyed. The Smales children at first maintain this ethic of ownership, but they soon adapt themselves to their new situation, learning the village ways and redefining themselves within this context. Maureen and Bam, however, never fuUly adapt to their environment because their self-definitions rely on their status as possessors. Now dispossessed, politically, culturally, and economically, they cling to their few remaining belongings in order to maintain their identities.
The bakkie, in particular, becomes an object of contention for them. They fear July's appropriation of the bakkie both because he now controls their only means of escape and because his ownership of the vehicle inverts their relationship with him. In Johannesburg, they supervised his movements in the city. Now, however, July frustrates their futile attempts to maintain their independence by implicitly claiming the bakkie as his own.
Both he and the Smales recognize the consequences of his decision, as his first major confrontation with Maureen reveals. During their conversation, he insists on referring to himself as her "boy" and asserts that while she gave him the house keys in Johannesburg, she never completely trusted him to do his work. Maureen sees July's use of "boy" as a weapon, since the Smales never used the word. July views this as a rationalization and not using the word did not change the nature of their relationship. They were his employers, and he was completely dependent on them. And they treated him as such.
When Maureen contends that their relationship has now changed, July insults her by asking if she is going to pay him this month. Throughout their argument, he consistently reaffirms the economic foundations and divisions in their relationship. July keeps the keys and leaves Maureen profoundly disconcerted; he has made her recognize the economic underpinnings of her perceptions of both him and herself.
Not only material deprivation brings Maureen to the point of internal crisis. She also suffers from her inability to find a worthwhile role in either her family or the village community. She cannot fulfill a motherly role because her children adapt to village life without her assistance. And Bam ultimately becomes only the "blonde man" to her, as she becomes only "her" to him. Maureen and Bam become alienated from one another because they cannot identify with each other outside of their former domestic context, which defined them both.
Also, while Bam can perform small tasks like building a water tank and hunting with his shotgun, Maureen cannot work with the other women. She hopes to encourage a sense of feminine kinship between her and the village women, but July thwarts her attempts by disapproving of her actions. Yet even with July's approval, the women would not welcome Maureen. She believes she can transcend their racial differences, but the black women see her not as a fellow woman sharing in their endeavors but as an incompetent white woman who cannot perform even simple tasks. She becomes frozen in a now bankrupt role: July's white "mistress" to whom others cater.
Once again, a confrontation with July underscores Maureen's predicament, since he will not allow her to improve her status to him and, thus, the other villagers. She desires an effective means of communication with him, but such communication proves impossible because of the limits of his English. The English they spoke in Johannesburg was not a problem because "it was based on orders and responses, not the exchange of ideas and feelings."
In their former roles, Maureen did not need to communicate complex ideas to July and did not need to discuss her emotional situation or his own needs. Their language proved functional and kept them at a distance from one another. Now this language is both an impediment to understanding and a means for July to maintain his distance from Maureen. For instance, when July disapproves of her desire to work with the other women, Maureen asks if he is afraid she will tell Martha "something." Angered, July responds, "—What you can tell?— … —That I'm work for you fifteen years. That you satisfy with me—." Once again, he asserts the mercantile nature of their relationship. She has no special knowledge of him that can prove valuable to her or dangerous to him. They were not friends and she did not know him. In fact, her pretense of liberal tolerance and respect actually humiliated him.
Thus, in her attempts to overcome the constraints of her current existence, Maureen actually discovers the limits of her former existence and the arrogance of her comfortable sense of personal worth. Having believed herself a woman of humane values with a secure place in the world, she now recognizes that she depended on an accepted cultural dominance over others to define her social (and familial) roles. Now at the mercy of a new cultural context, she is subject to the perceptions and definitions of others.
Maureen's fragile self-perceptions and her hopes of establishing a fruitful relationship with July are dealt a crippling blow in her final argument with him. When Bam's gun, their last possession, is stolen, Maureen tries to force July to retrieve it, desperately relying on him to salvage some sense of their former power. Instead, by declaring that she has become an unwanted burden to him and that he cannot help her, July makes Maureen feel "stampeded by a wild rush of need to destroy everything between them." She accuses him of stealing from her in Johannesburg, reasserting her property owner's right to indignation. He denies the accusation and, enraged, speaks to her in his own language. In this moment, Maureen understands him for the first time and realizes that she had perceived him as she wanted to perceive him, made him into her idea of him. He, however, never needed her approval but drew his sense of manhood from his family. Therefore, when the economic and social structures of white South Africa unravel, he retains crucial elements of his sense of self while hers disintegrates.
Because Maureen finally achieves an insight into July's character, the reader might think that this moment could lead to understanding between them and help forge a new, mutually beneficial relationship. Gordimer undermines such an optimistic reading, however, when Maureen confronts July with words that "sank into the broken clay walls like spilt blood." She tells him that he will profit from the losses of others, that he wants the possessions he never had before, regardless of their human cost. These possessions will make him feel important until, like the bakkie, they become in-operative and useless. Then he, too, will experience the same deprivation as the Smales, since they all draw their worth from what they own.
In an action that reveals Maureen's final, desperate association of herself with material possession, "she lurched over and posed herself, a grotesque, against the vehicle's hood," aligning herself as a sexual accoutrement to economic status. Her attempt fails, though, because "the death's harpy image she made of herself meant nothing to him, who had never been to a motor show complete with provocative girls." July does not share the cultural references from which Maureen derives her gesture of self-humiliation. Thus, she can neither fulfill a sexual role in July's domain, nor can she impress upon him that he, too, has been corrupted by greed and a complacent sense of superiority. She is left with only her comprehension of her own entrapment and powerlessness.
This comprehension may explain Maureen's ambiguous flight from the village toward an unidentified helicopter at the novel's end. Gordimer provides no direct explanation of either Maureen's motivations or the consequences of her actions, but the images she employs imply both the helicopter's threat and Maureen's internal transformation. Maureen experiences the sound of the helicopter as a sexual invasion as "her body in its rib-cage is thudded with deafening vibration, invaded by a force pumping, jigging in its monstrous orgasm," and she sees the helicopter with "its landing gear like spread legs, battling the air with whirling scythes." These images imply rape and warfare, but Maureen does not react fearfully to the helicopter, as if she is either unmoved by or actually welcomes the danger the helicopter poses. It could hold "saviours," who would presumably harken a return of white control, or "murderers," either black or white, who come to punish.
In her flight to reach the helicopter, she runs past "the man's voice and the voices of children speaking in English" and enters the river "like some member of a baptismal sect to be born again." In the end, she runs for herself alone, like an animal "existing only for their lone survival, the enemy of all that would make claims of responsibility." The distanced description of the Smales family implies Maureen's disassociation from her husband and children, and the baptismal imagery clearly evokes the possibility of a new birth. But a birth into what? Maureen appears to slough off both her familial obligations and her current internal conflicts, but Gordimer leaves open the question of exactly what she desires to transform into. Left with no ideals with which to define herself, Maureen seems to run by instinct toward some sense of closure, escaping the conditions that have proven so destructive to her, even if this escape means her death.
As Maureen realizes, the violent overthrow of apartheid entails not only a political revolt but also "an explosion of roles." She can no longer be "Maureen Smales," the middle-class Johannesburg wife and mother, because the preconceptions upon which she grounded her sense of self-worth collapse with the radical shifts in her social position. And she cannot become one of "July's people" because both she and they cannot escape the cultural definitions and prejudices that prohibit real intimacy between them. Therefore, her firm, comfortable perceptions of herself give way to utter emptiness, a vacancy inside of her to match the vacant horizons of the bush country. And fleeing this emptiness seems to be her only recourse as she, like the South Africa that Gordimer portrays, runs from a sterile past to an indefinite, ominous future.
Source: Darren Felty, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.
Visser offers his interpretation on the ambiguous ending of July's People.
It is hardly surprising that the ending of Nadine Gordimer's July's People should have occasioned a fair amount of puzzlement. As Maureen Smales runs towards the helicopter, neither she nor the reader has any way of knowing 'whether it holds saviours or murderers; and—even if she were to have identified the markings—for whom.' And not knowing that, we are left uncertain what to make of the conclusion.
One impression readers may gain from the final pages of the novel is that they constitute what Russian Formalists called a 'zero ending', an ending in which the conclusion is left hanging in the air. Certainly, given Gordimer's guiding conception of the historical moment in which she was engaged in writing the novel, a zero ending would make sense. She chose as an epigraph for July's People a well-known formulation by Gramsci that was to become particularly significant for her: 'The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.' A notion of interregnum—a moment between two states of affairs, in which outcomes are not only unclear but cannot yet come into being—is necessarily going to make closure problematic. Nevertheless, I hope to show that, however perplexing the ending of July's People may be, it is not simply left hanging.
What we might think of as the polarities in interpretative responses to the ending of the novel have been outlined by Stephen Clingman and Margaret Lenta. Clingman is so far the only critic to opt for what might be thought of as the positive interpretation:
at the end of the novel Maureen is running. The circumstances in which this occurs are ambiguous, but their significance surely is not. An unmarked helicopter has flown over near July's village and is coming down to land. No one knows whether it is manned by freedom fighters or by the South African army. But Maureen knows she must run. She is running from old structures and relationships, which have led her to this cul-de-sac; but she is also running towards her revolutionary destiny. She does not know what that destiny may be, whether it will bring death or life. All she knows is that it is the only authentic future awaiting her.
The confidence of Clingman's second sentence ('their significance surely is not') is belied by what follows. At precisely the moment we are to be informed of the significance, we are told 'she is running … towards her revolutionary destiny'. The phrase is rhetorically impressive, but it is more of an evasion than an explanation. Linking it to a generalized notion of authenticity only further obscures whatever significance the ending might be thought to have. Clingman sets out to address the problem of the ending; he ends up writing his way out of the interpretative dilemma the ending creates.
Clingman's account of the novel nowhere suggests why Gordimer would want to provide Maureen with a positive ending. Everything the novel discloses about Maureen's life 'back there', before South Africa boiled over into full-scale civil war, renders her as the very type of the white suburban liberal. Clingman himself recounts Gordimer's public break with South African liberalism in 1974, some seven years before the publication of July's People. To suggest, in light of that break, that such a figure moves at the conclusion of the novel towards a positive resolution of her dilemma would have to entail that Maureen has undergone some sort of conversion experience, a moment of Aristotelian anagnorisis or self-recognition. No such experience is rendered at the conclusion of the novel. Indeed, in linking her final action to her confrontation with July, Clingman has to supply Maureen with thoughts that are nowhere expressed: 'she realizes that this too [the reversal of roles whereby July is now dominant] is a circle she must break out of.'
Lenta takes issue with Clingman's account of the ending, discounting not only his positive interpretation but also the view, perhaps set out most clearly by Rowland Smith, that the ending is ambiguous and inconclusive. For Lenta,
The fact that the nationality and loyalties of the crew of the plane are unknown to [Maureen], and that there has been earlier reference to several opposing South African and foreign contenders for power suggests strongly to me that Gordimer intends us to reflect on the negative meaning of her act: she is leaving, not joining. Our verdict is to be passed on the education and social conditioning of a white woman of our own day.
At first glance Lenta's suggestion that the novel prompts a critique of the social conditioning of Maureen in particular and, by extension, liberal values in general is persuasive. Such a view would certainly seem more in accord with Gordimer's reassessment of South African liberalism than Clingman's view. Somewhat less certain is what connection that might have with the ending. The critique is woven into the entire fabric of the novel; it does not have to wait for the ending to be initiated. Moreover, a critique does not imply a comprehensively negative judgement. After all, the Smaleses are not the villains of the piece, and certainly in the context of South African politics and history, not villains in any more general way either. Gordimer's critique of South African liberalism does not include the facile premise that liberals are fully the partners of white racists. The Smaleses are, to be sure, limited, and those limitations are explored at length; nevertheless, the novel does not in any straightforward way condemn the Smaleses. What it does, and does unrelentingly, is expose the intractable contradictions inherent in the lives of such people. In this respect, the novel does not seek to incriminate the Smaleses, but to lay bare the conditions of their social existence.
Clingman and Lenta are unable to provide convincing grounds for their views of the ending. Clingman assures us that its significance is obvious, but cannot say with sufficient clarity just what it is. Lenta says that Maureen's running 'suggests strongly' to her that the ending is to be construed negatively, but it is not immediately clear why the uncertainty about the helicopter's occupants or the fact of contending military forces should suggest anything in particular. Their claims to the contrary, within the framework of interpretation they share, the conclusion to the novel is undecidable.
That framework centres the significance of the ending on the particular action of an individual character—Maureen's running. The meaning of the ending, then, hinges on its significance within the fate of the individual. Given Gordimer's break with liberalism and commitment to an avowedly radical position, which must at the very least imply a shift from the privileging of the individual over the collectivity to a position directly contrary to that, it becomes open to question whether any interpretation which does not shift its gaze beyond Maureen can hope to account for the ending.
One feature of the ending, unremarked by either critic, may provide a clue to what Gordimer is about. The helicopter's approach is represented in a language of aggressive sexuality. We read of the village 'cringing beneath the hoverer'; Maureen is 'invaded by a force pumping, jigging in its monstrous orgasm'; the helicopter descends with 'its landing gear like spread legs', making a 'rutting racket'. The helicopter is the figure of a rapist; Maureen moves spontaneously towards it. That might appear to lend itself to a negative interpretation of the ending, but something quite different is in fact implied, or so I believe.
What I want to suggest about the ending will doubtless seem, at least initially, unlikely to the point of being bizarre. All I can ask is that readers bear with me for a moment. My suggestion is that behind the ending of July's People is another text—Yeats's 'Leda and the Swan'. Copyright statutes preclude quoting the poem in full, which is unfortunate since a direct comparison would make it easier to argue my case.
What initially prompted my impression that Gordimer is invoking Yeats's poem is a series of parallel expressions embedded in the sexually charged language. Some of the parallels are fairly strongly marked; others are subtle echoes. There are at least four of the more direct parallels: Gordimer has 'A racket of blows', Yeats opens the poem with 'A sudden blow'; Gordimer has the 'shuddering of air', Yeats 'A shudder in the loins'; Gordimer has 'terrifying thing', Yeats 'terrified vague fingers'. The most persuasive parallel is Gordimer's 'the beating wings of its noise' and Yeats's 'the great wings beating still'. Since helicopters do not have wings, it would appear that the reference is retained to preserve the connection between the two texts, and to reproduce the excited atmosphere of the moment.
If the more obvious echoes and parallels led me to wonder about the possible connection between the two works, other features reinforced the case. The ending of July's People has some curious stylistic features. There is, for instance, an unusual use of the passive: 'A high ringing is produced in her ears, her body … is thudded with deafening vibration, invaded by a force'; and 'She is righted'. Related to this are such expressions as 'she must have screwed up her eyes: she could not have said what colour it was'. And finally, there is the shift in the final chapter to the present tense. Such stylistic devices may be seen as transformations of some of the linguistic forms and effects of 'Leda and the Swan', notably the mixing of present and past tenses, and the questions of the second quatrain and the conclusion of the poem.
What is involved in these stylistic devices is the relation established between Maureen and the helicopter on the one hand and Leda and Zeus in the form of a swan on the other. In both works, the violently possessed woman is overwhelmed by the violator. Not just physically—the very will to resist is obliterated. The stylistic features in both texts also operate to blur perspective so that descriptions made ostensibly in the voice of the speaker or narrator are given from the standpoint of, or filtered through the numbed, barely registering consciousness of, the woman. The 'racket of blows' is not just stated; it is experienced by Maureen: it 'comes down at her head', just as the 'sudden blow' and 'the great wings beating' are registered, if only dimly, by the consciousness of Leda. The passives in July's People reproduce stylistically the submission of Maureen to the 'force' of the helicopter, just as Leda is 'mastered by the brute blood of the air'.
It is never easy to demonstrate that one text functions as a source for another. The moment one attempts to set out the traces of the one work in the other, the relations between the two, for all that they seemed so obvious, suddenly seem quite tenuous. Nevertheless, I think a careful reading of the two works will persuade readers that 'Leda and the Swan' underlies Gordimer's conclusion. What is more, I think the relation between the two is crucial for our understanding of the ending of July's People.
The standard interpretation of Yeats's poem situates it within his reworking of Viconian notions of historical cycles. Following her rape by Zeus, Leda gives birth to Helen of Troy, whose abduction by Paris gives rise to the Trojan War. The editors of The Norton Anthology of Poetry provide a gloss that sets out the conventional understanding of the poem: 'Yeats saw Leda as the recipient of an annunciation that would found Greek civilization, as the Annunciation to Mary would found Christianity' [Allison, et al., 1983.]
Such an 'annunciation' is what I believe is suggested in Maureen's final action. It is not a question of deciding whether she is running 'towards' or running 'away from'. In any event, there is no clear support in the text for either view. She is drawn to the helicopter, by a power she does not understand, does not even reflect on. On her way, she crosses the river, undergoing what is explicitly figured as a 'baptismal' experience—a ritual cleansing—in which she is 'born again', and passes over the 'landmark of the bank she has never crossed to before'.
The imminent convergence of Maureen and the helicopter, like the convergence of Leda and the god-swan, heralds a new civilization, a new epoch for South Africa that cannot, particularly from within a moment of interregnum, be described but can only be symbolically prefigured in a prophetic gesture of revolutionary optimism. If in the interregnum, as Gramsci puts it, 'the new cannot be born', the convergence, taking the metaphor a vital step further, is a moment of insemination, from which new possibilities will emerge. The significance of Gordimer's conclusion lies not, then, in the particular fate of Maureen: it does not really matter whether we see her opened up to negative judgement or going to seek her revolutionary destiny (though the latter, in its very vagueness, comes closer to capturing what is going on at the end of the novel). Maureen has been overtaken by something far larger than herself, than her self. The ending is neither positive (in any narrow sense focussed on the vicissitudes of Maureen) nor negative; it is not even undecidable or inconclusive. At this moment of closure, July's People moves from a mode of future projection concerned, as Clingman notes, with 'seeing the present through the eyes of the future' to a mode of revolutionary, Utopian vision—a future projection intimating a realm of possibilities beyond interregnum.
Source: Nicholas Visser, "Beyond the Interregnum: A Note of the Ending of July's People" in Rendering Things Visible: Essays on South African Literary Culture, edited by Martin Trump, Ohio University Press, 1990, pp. 61–67.
In this article, Bailey argues that the subject of July's People is actually "Maureen Smales' discovery that she has no substance and no self."
July's People moves to a world of the future where the fears of the whites in all Gordimer's books have become reality—the revolution has occurred, the whites are dispossessed and have no means of escape from the riots and the burning of their cities. They have no place to go—except back in time to the timelessness of the kraal, to the black primitive community of their servant July's village people. The novel's title reflects the two previously unconnected worlds which are brought together when July brings his city people, the white Smales family of Maureen and Bam and their three children, to his bush people, Martha his wife, his elderly mother and his extended family. Neither side is prepared for the other and both are dismayed by the reality that replaces their dream fantasies. Only the Smales children cross the cultural chasm, in a few weeks going back thousands of years in societal development. But since their hope lies in being absorbed by the black community, not in changing it, this hope does not alleviate the despair of the novel's epigraph: "The old is dying and the new cannot be born." …
The true subject of the novel is not the nightmare of South Africa as representative of "injustice and retribution, of betrayal and dispossession," central though this concern is. [In "The Testing Out of Tomorrow," TLS, 1981.] Instead, I will argue, the nightmare the novel records with tender but unflinching honesty is that of Maureen Smales' discovery that she has no substance and no self. The novel dramatizes the horrifying thesis (concerning even those of us lucky enough not to know of South Africa except through novels such as Gordimer's) that without selfhood there can be no adaptation and no miracle of new birth from suffering.
The novel's form is dictated by this inner journey. In both the beginning and the ending of the novel Gordimer raises the subject of delirium. Initially, delirium serves as Maureen's metaphor for the three-day-and-night journey hidden in the back of the truck that delivered her from the city to the bush. The novel proceeds to reflect, as in delirium or dream, memories that are both sharp in detail and yet discontinuous in time and in consciousness. Combined with an elliptical style the narrative form creates problems for the reader. But late in the novel Maureen associates the insubstantiality of time with her own disintegration.
She was not in possession of any part of her life. One or another could only be turned up, by hazard. The background had fallen away; since that first morning she had become conscious in the hut, she had regained no established point of a continuing present from which to recognize her own sequence.
In the novel's opening, awakening in the hut that is "the prototype from which all the others had come and to which all returned," in a space "confining in its immensity," Maureen faces a return in time and in space which has the archetypal possibility of birth or death, of womb or tomb. Her consciousness opens and closes the novel and at the end "she runs" towards the helicopter of unknown origin that has landed in the forest. On the surface it appears that the reader's apprehension of death and destruction has been averted, and that a miracle has taken place. But one of the indications that the ending is not hopeful is that the vitality of language that Gordimer uses as one symbol of new life struggling to be born is replaced by the sounds of the machine. The repeated refrain "lucky to be alive" becomes increasingly ironic and tragic as Maureen experiences the truth of her belated awareness that as "one ought to have known from the sufferings of saints … miracles are horrors."
What is it that frustrates the miracles of rebirth? What is the nature of the self that the novel seeks and finds wanting? Maureen is not the only failure. Like her, July stripped of his persona is unable to discover substance, while her husband Bam rather surprisingly reveals a self that survives the loss of everything on which his "civilized" identity has been predicated. The contrast with the two males illustrates Maureen's plight. Let us turn first to July.
Maureen feels she understands July and has always been able to communicate with him better than her husband has, acting often as a translator between the white master and the black servant. Even when July becomes the master, Maureen continues to confront him and draw responses from him in a way Bam cannot. Their understanding even when expressed as mutual hostility arises, Gordimer shows, from the way the black servant and the white mistress share a common entrapment in a system from which they have gained nothing but material security. Maureen's name on July's paycheques represents the abstraction of money that his village wife translates into the concrete of goods. But Maureen comes to realize that she herself means nothing to July in any real sense.…
Because his self is a reflection of his worth in the eyes of his women, July's return to the village with his white people marks the crisis in his own self-regard. Perhaps intuitively he clung to the Smales and offered them asylum because they provided him with a sense of selfhood, but when they appear in his world as his possessions his own people fail to respond to his master/servant role. Instead of gaining prestige through his possession of this family he arouses the hostility of the matriarchy and becomes a victim of its power.…
July is further weakened by the loss of the young man, Daniel, before whom July could maintain his persona of power which the women had stripped from him. But Daniel steals the Smales's gun and returns to the city world of riot and violence, which July's own kindness prevents him from entering. The novel's first words commenting on July's action, however, connect this attribute to conditioning rather than to positive substance or virtue. "July bent at the doorway and began that day for them as his kind has always done for their kind.…"
Of the three central figures, July's dispossession is the greatest, as is his innocence. His language fights against both grammatical structure and the absence of words in either English or his own dialect to describe his being and his situation as a victim of capitalism more than apartheid.…
It was their possessions and their investments that kept the Smales in South Africa too long and prevented their emigration to Canada. But the loss of the possessions "back there" in the city has, Gordimer suggests, freed Bam to be fatherly and he assumes the role previously appropriated by July with the Smales children. Though Bam plays his new role with distinction, Gordimer does not romanticize the relationship, or suggest that it is a substitute for self-identity. As he leaves his son Victor behind when he goes to shoot the pigs, Bam has "a foretaste of the cold resentment that he would feel towards his son, sometime when he was a man; a presentiment of the expulsion from paradise, not of childhood but of parenthood."
The theft of the gun is a devastating blow to Bam's power and pride both in societal and psychological terms, yet it is he who recovers himself the same night to feed the children while Maureen retreats to the hut, drinking the whole of the water bottle "like an alcoholic who hides away to indulge secret addiction." Bam's adaptation is a remarkable and hopeful indication of a species characteristic essential for survival but it is not as remarkable as his response to the loss of his wife. The relations between husband and wife, Gordimer suggests, are the ones in which the most profound and far-reaching effects for the self are to be found. The sexual desire fostered and apparently dependent on the materialism of the "master bedroom" life disappears in the enforced intimacy of the squalid hut, brought to life once only by the aphrodisiac of the meal of meat. Though Bam recognizes that Maureen' s gesture of baring her breasts before him "was not an intimacy but a castration of his sexuality and hers," he remains tender and protective towards her. It is Maureen's withdrawal from him that renders Bam silent, an impotence more serious than the loss of sexual desire.
The summons of the family to the chief's village makes it clear how little connection remains between the couple. The title of the only book they bring to the bush, The Betrothed, becomes an ironically apt reminder that the union of Bam Smales and Maureen Hetherington was a product of a world that no longer has any reality. Maureen cannot comprehend the fiction because her own life has become fictive:
She was in another time, place and consciousness; it pressed in upon her and filled her as someone's breath fills a balloon's shape. She was already not what she was. No fiction could compete with what she was finding she did not know, could not have imagined or discovered through imagination. They had nothing.
The ambiguous "they" refers as much to the Smales as to the villagers.
It is Bam, however, who relates the deprivation to the loss of communication with his wife. As they prepare to face the village chief who Bam fears will expel them, he longs to share his concern with Maureen. But he recognizes that
he did not know to whom to speak these days, when he spoke to her. Maureen. His wife. The daughter of the nice old fellow who had worked underground all his life … The girl in leotards teaching modern dance to blacks at nightschool.… The consort clients meant when they said: And we'd so much like you and your wife to come to dinner.… The woman to whom he was "my husband".…
Her. Not "Maureen." Not "his wife." The presence in the mud hut, mute with an activity of being, of sense of self he could not follow because here there were no familiar areas in which it could be visualized moving, no familiar entities that could be shaping it. With "her" there was no undersurface of recognition; only moments of finding each other out… He had no idea how she would deal with his certainty. There was no precedent to go on, with her. And he himself. How to deal with it. How to accept, explain—to anyone: after all these days when his purpose (his male dignity put to the test by "Maureen," "his wife," Victor, Gina, Royce, who were living on mealie-meal) had been how to get away—now it was how to stay.…
Although Bam survives the loss of language that accompanies loss of identity, the novel offers no assurance of his rebirth, or of the reintegration of self and community that the researches of Carl Jung suggest is essential for true individuation. [The Collected Works, 1970] Nevertheless Bam, alone of the three protagonists, remains in what Jung suggests is the feminine mode (necessary for both males and females) of relatedness, as well as the masculine one (equally necessary for both sexes) of action and thought. [The Collected Works, 1970] As the novel ends, Bam's identity is focused at the most primitive level—of connection to his offspring, an ironic reversal of the roles enacted in the middle class suburb "back there" by the mother/wife, but parallel to the way July's Martha retains identity despite both the absence of her husband and his theoretical dominance. In contrast, at the end of the novel, Maureen
runs: trusting herself with all the suppressed trust of a lifetime, alert like a solitary animal at the season when animals neither seek a mate nor take care of young, existing only for their lone survival, the enemy of all that would make claims of responsibility.
The last words of the novel are those of the simple sentence, "She runs." But is the helicopter towards which she is running the symbol of the survival she seeks and an implied authorial validation of the state of individualism without reponsibility, or conversely the final symbol of a delusion, a symbol of death rather than life? From the social/political aspect of the novel the latter seems more likely, since it is more probable that the helicopter is manned by black revolutionaries alerted to the existence of the white family by Daniel than that it represents an American deus ex machina. Even if it were the hoped for means of return to civilization, nothing in the novel suggests that Maureen is able to run to something new, a truly recreative or restorative world that would replace the one in which all her life she has lived without acknowledging it as an exploiter of and parasite on the black. Though she may now be able to acknowledge the truth of the Life photograph of herself as a schoolgirl accompanied by her black friend Lydia who is bearing Maureen's case on her head, her sojourn in the bush has not shown her how to alter her condition. The "real fantasies of the bush" that she dreams of as she runs "delude more inventively than the romantic forests of Grimm and Disney," but what they invent are what she associates with the security of her lost part—"the smell of boiled potatoes … promises a kitchen, a house," and "the patches where airy knob-thorn trees stand free of the undergrowth and the grass and orderly clumps of Barberton daisies and drifts of nemesia belong to the artful nature of a public park."
What Maureen runs to is a return to the illusion of identity created by a world of privilege and possession. What she runs from is her failure to find any creative source for rebirth. Interestingly Jung suggests that in the second stage of life it is the mother who represents the symbol of the "unconscious as the creative matrix of the future." Maureen is fleeing from motherhood, and her own mother is significant by her absence in her daughter's memories—displaced entirely by the father, the miner "Boss." But unlike her father, who went below ground and lost a finger in the danger of his work with black helpers, Maureen has lost touch with the reality of the lives of those she depends upon. She enters July's rooms in the Smales's suburban yard only to minister to him when he is ill, and in the bush instead of going to July's hut she demands that July come to her.…
Maureen is forced to accept her failure in the area she had most prided herself on being superior, the area of communication based on sensation, feeling and intuition, traditionally associated with the feminine. Her access to the matriarchal realm where this often unspoken language is inextricably connected to a power of thought and action that dominates the male even while appearing subversive to him is blocked.
The only unqualified triumph of the novel belongs to the matriarchs, Martha and the mother. No matter who mans the helicopter, they will be freed of the unwanted white people, and they have sacrificed nothing of their own sense of self in the interval. Nevertheless, again (as with Bam's paternal role) Gordimer refuses to romanticize Martha and the mother, who represent the matriarchal way. It is the "old way" and for all its strength and dignity in its own time and place, there can be no turning back to it for someone who has known a different conception of human experience. Maureen can no more go back in time than can Martha go forward. As Martha tells July when he suggests that he will take her to the city with him, "Can you see me in their yard! How would I know my road, who would tell me where to go?"
But for Maureen, without access to the old way and without ability to create a new one the final image is that of "death's harpy … a grotesque against the vehicle's hood." Maureen's is the greatest tragedy of the novel for she has the closest instinctual link to the two creative forces the novel posits for which language is the symbol—the Eros of feminine relatedness and the Logos of masciline thought and action. The androgynous balance the novel supports though the demonstration of its absence in time present cannot be taken as a symbol for solution on the social/political level, but perhaps in its realization by individuals of both races lies the only hope for the future, for South Africa as a nation, and for each of us as individuals.
Source: Nancy Bailey, "Living Without the Future: Nadine Gordimer's July's People" in World Literature Written in English, autumn, 1984, Vol. 24, No. 2, pp. 215–224.
Judith Chettle, in a review in National Review, Vol. XXXIII, No. 25, December, 1981, p. 1561.
Stephen Clingman, "The Subject of Revolution: Burger's Daughter and July's People," in The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside, Allen & Unwin, 1986, pp. 170-204.
Joan Silber, in a review in New York Review of Books, August, 1981, p. 14.
Rowland Smith, "Masters and Servants Nadine Gordimer's July's People and the Themes of Her Fiction," in Critical Essays on Nadine Gordimer, edited by Rowland Smith, G. K. Hall & Co., pp. 140-52.
Anne Tyler, "South Africa After the Revolution," in New York Review of Books, June, 1981, p. 26.
Kathrin Wagner, Rereading Nadine Gordimer, Indiana University Press, 1994, pp. 41, 5.
Michael Atwell, South Africa: Background to the Crisis, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1986.
With a splendid glossary, maps, and some photos, Atwell gives a general history of South Africa beginning with its exploration by whites from 1652.
Rosemarie Bodenheimer, "The Interregnum of Ownership in July's People," in The Later Fiction of Nadine Gordimer, edited by Bruce King, St. Martin's, 1993, pp. 108-20.
Analyzes Gordimer's portrayal of the meaning and power of ownership, which for the characters defines political consciousness and identity.
Stephen Clingman, The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside, University of Massachusetts Press, 1986.
In his thorough study of Gordimer's novels, Clingman addresses the political, economic, linguistic, and sexual revolutions in July's People and connects the work to the historical moment in which it was composed.
Joseph Conrad, The Heard of Darkness, Beckwood's, 1899.
Conrad's novella is the parable of colonial empire. It is just one of the many colonial myths referenced in Gordimer's work.
John Cooke, "'Nobody's Children': Families in Gordimer's Later Novels," in The Later Fiction of Nadine Gordimer, edited by Bruce King, St. Martin's, 1993, pp. 21-32.
Concentrating on three Gordimer novels, Cooke discusses children's breaks from parental authority and the political significance of these breaks.
Daniel Defoe, The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, edited by Angus Ross, Penguin USA, 1995.
The famous tale of a shipwrecked man who survives for decades on an island. He constructs a settlement with his man Friday and dies very rich. The story came to epitomize the saga of the settler attempting to recreate England everywhere in the world.
Stefanie Dojka, "July's People: She Knew No Word," in Joinings and Disjoinings: The Signifcance of Marital Status in Literature, edited by JoAnna Stephens Mink and Janet Doubler Ward, Popular, 1991, pp. 155-71.
Traces the South African revolution's effects on the Smales' marriage and on Maureen Smales' changing character.
Lars Engle, "The Political Uncanny: The Novels of Nadine Gordimer," in The Yale Journal of Criticism, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1989, pp. 101-27.
Engle contrasts Gordimer's vision for South African art with that of Hendrik F. Verwoerd, former Prime Minister of South Africa, and he employs Freud's concept of the "uncanny" to analyze the political elements of Gordimer's fiction.
Nadine Gordimer, The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places, edited by Stephen Clingman, Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.
Collection of Gordimer's essays about her life, theory of writing, and political events relevant to her work.
Jennifer Gordon, "Dreams of a Common Language: Nadine Gordimer's July's People," in African Literature Today, Vol. 15, 1987, pp. 102-08.
Gordon analyzes Gordimer's treatment of the power and limitations of language. She contends that Gordimer implies that a "common language" will be necessary to foster understanding between white and black South Africans.
Robert Green, "From The Lying Days to July's People: The Novels of Nadine Gordimer," in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 14, No. 4, spring, 1988, pp. 543-63.
Green discusses Gordimer's artistic project, which records the changing consciousness of her time and intentionally challenges both her readers and herself.
Susan M. Greenstein, "Miranda's Story: Nadine Gordiner and the Literature of Empire," in Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 18, No. 3, spring, 1985, pp. 227-42.
Using the figures of Miranda and Caliban from Shakespeare's The Tempest, Greenstein examines two Gordimer novels and their breaks from traditional adventure literature about Africa.
Dominic Head, Nadine Gordimer, Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Traces major themes and issues throughout Gordimer's body of work and discusses the issues of identity in July's People.
Tom Lodge and Bill Nasson, All, Here, and Now: Black Politics in South Africa in the 1980s, Ford Foundation-Foreign Policy Association, 1991.
Explains the complex development of politics in the last decade of apartheid. Some background is given but its focus is on the events leading up to a negotiated end of white rule in South Africa.
Alan Paton, Cry, The Beloved Country, Twayne Publishing, 1991.
Set after World War II, the novel tells of the journey of man to the big city to find his son. The novel brought international attention to apartheid.
Sheila Roberts, "Sites of Paranoia and Taboo: Lessing's The Grass Is Singing and Gordimer's July's People," in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 23, No. 3, fall, 1993, pp. 73-85.
Exploring the gothic devices in Lessing's and Gordimer's novels, Roberts views the dwellings the female protagonists inhabit as extensions of these women and, thus, "configurations of the uncanny."
Rowland Smith, "Masters and Servants: Nadine Gordimer's July's People and the Themes of Her Fiction," in Critical Essays on Nadine Gordimer, edited by Rowland Smith, Hall, 1990, pp. 140-52.
Connects July's People to Gordimer's earlier work, focusing on both the Smales' inability to escape their status as whites in July's village and the failures of communication between Maureen Smales and July.
Barbara Temple-Thurston, "Madam and Boy: A Relationship of Shame in Gordimer's July's People," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 28, No. 1, spring, 1988, pp. 51-8.
Examines the breakdown of culturally determined roles in the novel, particularly the gendered relationship of "Madam" and "boy" between Maureen and July.
Andre Viola, "Communication and Liberal Double Bind in July's People by Nadine Gordimer," in Commonwealth Essays and Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2, spring, 1987, pp. 52-8.
Referring to Paul Watzlawick's Pragmatics of Human Communication, Viola discusses the communication strategies that Gordimer depicts in the novel.
Nicholas Visser, "Beyond the Interregnum: A Note on the Ending of July's People," in Rendering Things Visible: Essays on South African Literary Culture, edited by Martin Trump, Ohio University Press, 1990, pp. 61-7.
Visser explores connections between the novel's ending and W. B. Yeats's "Leda and the Swan."
Kathrin Wagner, Rereading Nadine Gordimer, Indiana University Press, 1994.
Examines Gordimer's political views, stereotypes, depictions of women and black South Africans, and use of landscape iconography in her novels.