July’s People

by

Nadine Gordimer

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July’s People: Chapter 19 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Upon closer investigation, the Smales discover that their boxes of cartridges are missing, too. Maureen pretends not to notice that Bam’s hands are shaking. The family searches every corner of the hut, but the gun is nowhere to be found. Bam asks the boys if they took it, since “no one else knew it was there.” Neither boy tells their father the truth: that the whole village knows about the gun. Royce reminds his father that he “cn’n tell the police.” Bam doesn’t respond. Maureen silently considers that Bam must realize that he doesn’t know what else to do besides call the police, whom they had both condemned “back there” in Johannesburg. 
Losing his gun forces Bam to confront both his powerlessness and the limitations of his progressive views. Bam realizes that his condemnation of the police has been purely theoretical until now, when a crisis is upon him. The moment he encounters a situation where he needs help, his beliefs no longer serve him.
Themes
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Power  Theme Icon
Quotes
Maureen looks at her husband, “who ha[s] nothing, now” and sets off toward the gumba-gumba to confront July—Mwawate—about the missing gun. When she doesn’t find him there, she goes to the women’s hut. Martha and July’s mother are there. Martha is struggling to bathe her resistant baby boy. She indicates that July isn’t around. Maureen thinks she could help Martha bathe the child but immediately decides against it.
Maureen’s observation that Bam “ha[s] nothing, now” refers not only to Bam’s lost gun, but to his lost beliefs and connection to the past as well. When she refers to July by his non-anglicized name, Mwawate, she symbolically juxtaposes the power that her husband has lost with the power that July has gained. Maureen seems to believe it was July who took the gun, a conclusion she’s arrived at after watching July increasingly make decisions about how to protect the Smales on his own terms, rather than theirs. Calling him by his real name is a symbolic gesture that acknowledges that July is no longer beholden to them: he’s his own person.  
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Gratitude and Resentment  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Cultural Displacement  Theme Icon
Maureen leaves the hut and walks toward the river, but July isn’t there, either. As she walks, she suffers from the distinct sense “of not being there,” the same feeling she’d had upon watching the man with the red box approach the village. Suddenly, the only person she can be is “Maureen Hetherington on her points to applause in the Mine Recreation Hall.”
Just as July becomes Mwawate to signal his empowerment, Maureen Smales becomes “Maureen Hetherington […] in the Mine Recreation Hall.” By reclaiming her pre-marriage name, she signals her transformation from the likeminded wife of progressive Bam Smales to the girl whose family has profited off the exploitation of Black workers. Reclaiming her old name is the closest Maureen has come to confronting her internalized prejudice.
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Gratitude and Resentment  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Cultural Displacement  Theme Icon
Maureen makes her way to the bakkie’s hiding place—July and Daniel’s “retreat.” She thinks back to when she and Bam had entertained the idea of converting their garage into a space where July could hang out with his friends. They’d ultimately decided against it, reasoning that it would attract too many other Black servants who didn’t have as many privileges as July and become too noisy and unruly. 
Maureen’s claims about treating July with dignity don’t align with her actions: she and Bam regard July as a child whose privileges can be earned and taken away as they see fit. Here, she also makes a generalized claim about July’s Black servant friends, suggesting that they’re universally noisy and unrefined. 
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
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Maureen finds July sitting on a stool beside the bakkie. She demands that he return the gun. July’s response signals to Maureen that she is mistaken: he has no idea what she’s talking about. They argue back and forth as Maureen describes returning to the hut and finding the gun missing from its hiding place. July suggests that one of the Smales boys took it. The accusation angers Maureen. Suddenly, she realizes that Daniel wasn’t at the gumba-gumba with everyone else and demands to see him. July tells Maureen that Daniel left the village a few days ago and claims not to know where he went. 
Maureen is quick to accuse July of stealing the gun. Yet her suspicions are largely unfounded, based almost exclusively on her resentment about him interacting with her and her family on his own terms. This is why she’s so enraged by his suggestion that one of her sons took the gun and by his unwillingness to say where Daniel might have gone: she sees both of these actions as affronts to her authority.
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Gratitude and Resentment  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Maureen tells July that he has to get the gun back from Daniel. July can smell the familiar “cold cat-smell” of Maureen’s sweat. July angrily tells Maureen the gun is her and Bam’s problem—not his. Maureen suspects that Daniel took the gun to sell to the chief. She insists that July is lying about not knowing where Daniel is since they’re always hanging out around the bakkie together.
July’s ability to detect Maureen’s “cold cat-smell” resonates with the earlier scene when Bam exits the hut and Maureen realizes she’s just now smelling his natural scent. The couple has used society and culture as distractions from knowing each other, yet July is attuned to the Smales’ true characters and understands them at a deeper level by virtue of his status as an outsider.   
Themes
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Cultural Displacement  Theme Icon
Enraged by July’s seeming unwillingness to cooperate, Maureen accuses him of stealing from their house. She mentions the crane scissors she saw him using when they first arrived at his village. July claims that Maureen gave him all the things he supposedly stole. Maureen says she gave him some things, “but not those.” July accuses her of unloading “rubbish” onto him. Maureen tells him he didn’t need to “take rubbish,” then.
Once more, Maureen redirects blame away from herself, suggesting that July is the one in the wrong for taking the “rubbish” she offered him and therefore allowing himself to be offended. She’s embarrassed by July calling her out on humiliating him and retaliating defensively by claiming he played a role in his own humiliation. She obstinately refuses to see how July’s underprivileged social and economic position would have led him to accept anything that anybody offered him—even if it was demeaning to do so. 
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Gratitude and Resentment  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
July is furious. He speaks animatedly in his own language. Maureen might not understand the words, but July’s meaning is clear: all these years, he has adapted to fit into her world. Meanwhile, her attempts to make him feel dignified, respected, and humanized were really patronizing. Maureen’s approval means nothing to him: “She was not his mother, his wife, his sister, his friend, his people.” July ends his speech in English to tell Maureen that Daniel has gone to join the fighters in town.    
Maureen’s efforts to make July feel respected and dignified assume that her approval is worth something to July. In reality her behavior was more for her than for July: a way for her to reconcile the optics of exploiting Black labor with her progressive views. In reality, her efforts would have been better spent toward, say, paying July more. Maureen’s misunderstanding reveals more of her prejudiced attitude: she assumes that her approval is worth something to July by virtue of her higher social and racial status. She thinks her whiteness and affluence give her clout with him. 
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Gratitude and Resentment  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Cultural Displacement  Theme Icon
Quotes
Maureen is suddenly seized with a fierce anger, and “she t[ells] him the truth, which is always disloyal.” She claims that July is happy to stay behind and “profit by the others’ fighting.” She accuses him stealing the bakkie “to drive around in like a gangster” and make himself feel like “a big man.” If July is such a big man, Maureen asks, then why doesn’t he know or care what became of Ellen? Furthermore, the bakkie is useless to him, since he has no money or means to buy petrol for it. Soon, the bakkie will become just one more “bit of rubbish.” Maureen lunges forward and positions herself on the vehicle’s hood, mirroring the provocative position of a show girl at a motor show. She laughs when July, predictably, does not understand the cultural reference.   
Maureen’s anger is defensive. Being called out for her condescension humiliates her, so she tries to redirect blame back toward July, arguing that his ethical shortcomings invalidate his opinions. She’s not challenging any accusations July has made about her: she’s saying that July’s thoughts are worthless because he doesn’t have any credibility. Her criticisms of July don’t hold up under scrutiny, either. She’s happy to condemn his decision to stay behind and “profit by the others’ fighting,” yet if July had joined the fight, her family would not have had the option to seek shelter in his village. She calls him a “big man,” suggesting that he parades around in the bakkie to give off the appearance of wealth and power that are only surface-deep, yet she is guilty of flaunting her liberal politics in the same superficial way, making a big show of granting July privileges, and respecting him to appear like a good person while really harboring racial bias against him.
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Gratitude and Resentment  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Maureen returns to the hut. Bam and the children are eating mealie-meal. Maureen ignores them and locates the water bottle, which she drains in one go. Her family doesn’t comment on her disturbed behavior. The gumba-gumba begins again. They can hear records playing in the distance. If there are freedom fighters nearby, they’ll be able to hear it. When Maureen lies down in bed, Bam remarks on how dirty her feet are. She cleans them with the river water July brought them, which they keep in an oil-drum that belongs to July. Maureen wonders aloud if this is how July must have felt at their home: perpetually in a house where nothing belonged to him. Bam interjects, insisting that they treated July well. Maureen tries to tell Bam that it was Daniel who took the gun, but she can’t speak.
Maureen finally understands the claustrophobia and alienation July felt living in her house in Johannesburg. She finally understands that adequate treatment and the approval of his employers is not enough to counteract the disempowering sensation of being removed from one’s familiar culture, existing on a fundamentally lower level on the social hierarchy, and having no other option but to continue existing there because an oppressive system has limited his agency over his life. When she uses the water July provided—despite just getting into a heated altercation with him—she realizes why July accepted the so-called rubbish he was insulted to have been offered: because his disempowered situation left him no other choice but to accept what help he was offered.
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Gratitude and Resentment  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Cultural Displacement  Theme Icon