July’s People

by

Nadine Gordimer

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July’s People: Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
July appears in the doorway, a tea tray in his arms. The doorway isn’t so much of a doorway as an opening carved into mud walls. July offers his employers two glass cups of tea and a can of condensed milk with a spoon in it. This is how “his kind has always done for their kind.” July, a Black man, shifts his gaze to the three children sleeping beside his employers. The woman assures July that the children are fine. She thanks July for the tea as he exits the room. 
This opening scene depicts a Black servant tending to white employers. There’s some dissonance between this action and the scene’s setting, however. If the woman is wealthy enough to have a servant, then why is she sleeping in a hut made of mud? The woman might be out of her element—in a place or situation that is unfamiliar to what she’s used to. That the woman observes this behavior to be “what his kind has always done for their kind” suggests that her society enforces a racial hierarchy that places Black people beneath white people.
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Cultural Displacement  Theme Icon
This isn’t the first time the woman has slept in a mud hut. She recalls taking family trips to Kruger Park while her father, a shift boss, was on leave. Bam’s family, too, had built rondavels inspired by “the huts of the blacks.” The rondavels had red, polished concrete floors. The hut she’s in now, in contrast, has a floor made of mud and dung, and cobwebs hang from the walls above. The man and woman are Bam and Maureen Smales, of Bamford Smales, Smales, Caprano & Partners and Western Areas Gold Mines, respectively. As Maureen lies in the hut, she recalls the sensation of trying to sleep during the three previous days she spent hidden on the floor of the car. 
Maureen’s choice to refer to her father as a “shift boss” suggests a distanced, perhaps estranged, relationship to him. This scene reveals that Bam and Maureen both come from wealthy backgrounds. Maureen’s father was a shift boss for a mining company, a booming industry in South Africa when the novel takes place, and Bam is a partner at some kind of firm. This doesn’t quite fit with the way Maureen describes spending the past few days: sleeping hidden on the floor of a car or in a hut made of mud and dung. It’s clear that something extreme has happened to Maureen and Bam’s family to put them in this precarious situation.
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Cultural Displacement  Theme Icon
Maureen compares the harrowing journey to the fever that brings delirium. She remembers its sensations in waves, recalling the scent of the children’s carsickness and the sound of metal jangling. Now, sitting in the tribal hut, Maureen thinks back to her room at shift boss’s house at the mine that she’d had to herself after her older sister left for boarding school. Alone in the room, she would peruse her personal belongings arranged on the bookshelf: a brass coffee-pot, a ceramic bulldog with the Union Jack painted on its back, a velvet embroidered bag. There were also her school shoes, polished by “Our Jim,” the house servant. Our Jim was the name her mother coined to distinguish between the house servant and the shift boss, whom she called “My Jim.”
Maureen’s impulse to compare the past few days of suffering to a fever dream emphasizes how removed suffering and hardship are from her everyday reality. Her generational wealth means that she’s only ever lived a life of privilege, where boarding school and an abundance of material goods are the norm and, perhaps, a distraction from the bigger problems life can throw at a person. Also, Maureen has never known a life without servants there to tend to her every need. Maureen’s mother’s habit of referring to the house servant as “Our Jim” serves the practical purpose of distinguishing between servant-Jim and father-Jim, but the title also has a connotation of ownership: it implies that the servant belongs to the family rather than simply working for them.  
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Back in the present, Maureen watches as pigs pass by the doorway. She hears somebody speaking in an unfamiliar language. Maureen can sense that Bam has awoken beside her. She asks him where the bakkie is. Bam tells her that he was instructed to hide it in the bush. Maureen remains silent as she scans her surroundings. Flies buzz around the mouths of her children. While the children are dirty and smell of vomit, they are, at least, “sleeping, safe.”
The striking contrast between Maureen’s memory of a privileged childhood with the image of pigs passing by the open doorway of the mud hut she’s in now emphasizes how out of her element Maureen is in this relatively primitive environment. Her gratitude for her “sleeping, safe” children suggests that something has just happened to the family to put their lives in danger. Readers meet the main characters of the book at a point of crisis in their lives.
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Cultural Displacement  Theme Icon
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