July’s People

by

Nadine Gordimer

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July’s People: Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Bam helps July repair the villagers’ run-down farming equipment. He talks eagerly about using cement to build the foundation for a system of pipes the village can use to collect rainwater during the wet season. This way, the women won’t have to go to the river to get water. The men continue to work—just as they had back home, where Bam expected July to help him. Maureen sits to the side as the men work. Bam keeps the radio on, and he and Maureen listen to the English-speaking reporter for news of further developments in the situation in town. The U.S. government is considering sending in an airlift for U.S. nationals, though it’s not clear where this would take place, since the airports in Cape Town, Durban, and Port Elizabeth are all closed.
It's unclear who is helping whom here: is July continuing to help Bam as Bam had come to expect him to do in town, or is Bam accepting his new indebtedness to July and taking on July’s old role? Everyone seems uncertain about how their relationship has changed or stayed the same since fleeing Johannesburg. The Smales family listens to the radio to receive news from the outside world that the conflict has stabilized and they can go home. They seem torn between espousing anti-apartheid views and desiring the return of that same, oppressive social order. At the same time, the news on the radio of closed airports in major urban areas throughout the country suggests that this order is far from being restored.
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Cultural Displacement  Theme Icon
Maureen contemplates the savannah bush that extends for as far as the eye can see. Her family is only the latest group to use the tracks, which have been traversed since the ancient migrations. Royce asks her if they can see a movie later. Gina and Victor are old enough to understand that there won’t be any movie theaters in their near future, but they sulk and argue, nonetheless.
In their early days at the settlement, the Smales family is overwhelmed by a sense of cultural displacement. They must learn to exist without the cultural reference points and leisure activities that had formerly given their lives meaning and structure.
Themes
Cultural Displacement  Theme Icon
July enters the huts to fetch the family’s clothes for washing. Maureen insists that she can do it herself. July pauses. Maureen asks if July’s wife will do the washing, then, and offers to pay her. July accepts Maureen’s cash. Maureen asks him about soap, daydreaming about having a big cake of it to use for the clothes.
Maureen is uncertain about what her role should be in this new place. Her impulse not to make July’s wife wash their clothes suggests her awareness that July is no longer indebted to them in the way he was in town. She sees the need to carry the weight more than she did in her former life. 
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Gratitude and Resentment  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Unable to work or remain idle, Maureen considers starting a book, Manzoni’s Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), that she snatched from home as they left Johannesburg. She’d refrained from starting it until now, fearing what she’d do once she finished it and had nothing left to read. Suddenly, Maureen is seized with a superstitious fear that her family will be here forever if she puts off reading the book any longer. She sits down and attempts to read, but the sense of being “within another time, place and life” is too distracting. She remembers that her family has nothing and realizes that her life is more fantastical than fiction.
Manzoni’s The Betrothed is an important and widely read work of Italian literature. It’s no coincidence that this is the novel the author has Maureen to bring to the village, since its themes resonate with July’s People’s themes. The novel uses the story of doomed lovers to explore the complicated relationship between love, class, and power. These same issues are at play in July’s People, with Maureen and Bam trying to determine if they can be friends with July outside of the oppressive social system of apartheid. Can July be helping them simply because he’s a good person, or must he have some incentive for doing so that’s related to power and coercion? Can people relate to others without being influenced by social norms and laws?
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
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July’s People PDF
Maureen daydreams about her childhood in the mining town. In the memory, Maureen is on her way home from school when she encounters Lydia, the older Black woman who works for her family. Lydia breaks up her housework with frequent visits into town to run errands and socialize with the other Black people who are out on similar errands. Whenever Maureen runs into Lydia, they walk together leisurely, sharing a Coke and trading bits of gossip. Lydia takes Maureen’s bookbag and carries it balanced on her head. Sometimes, they “are in cahoots.” For instance, Lydia refrains from telling Maureen’s parents when she spots Maureen riding on the back of a boy’s bicycle. Other times, Lydia is in a critical mood, like when she yells at Maureen and her friends for dirtying their pillows outside, since it undoubtedly will be Lydia who takes the fall for the mess.
Maureen’s recollection of her relationship with Lydia portrays them as friends and equals, evidenced by her thinking they were “in cahoots” with each other and capable of associating as confidants. She ignores the complex racial and social dynamics that gave Maureen—a literal child—the upper hand in their interactions. The real dynamics of their situation come through in the off-handed remark about Maureen’s mother blaming Lydia for the children’s messes. Lydia is subject to consequences that Maureen is not, making it fundamentally impossible for them to interact as equals. Lydia had an obligation to be friendly to Maureen that Maureen didn’t recognize as a child.  
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Gratitude and Resentment  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
One day, a photographer takes a picture of Maureen and Lydia while they are out at the shops. He asks them if they mind. Lydia says it’s fine if he promises to send them the photograph. The photographer agrees, but Maureen later realizes the man failed to write down the address they gave him. Years later, Maureen finds the photograph in a Life book about South Africa’s policies, and the attitudes and lives of white herrenvolk. In the photo, Lydia carries Maureen’s book bag balanced on her head. Maureen wonders why Lydia had to do this and whether the photographer had known what he was capturing, and if “the book, placing the pair in its context, g[a]ve the reason she and Lydia, in their affection and ignorance, didn’t know[.]”
“Herrenvolk” refers to the ethnic group allowed to participate in government. Under the apartheid system, Black people like Lydia were disenfranchised, and only the country’s minority white population held any power. Maureen’s remark about the book placing “the pair in its context” refers to the way the book reframes Maureen and Lydia’s relationship within a sociological discussion of life in South Africa under apartheid. This context primes the viewer of the photograph to see how Maureen and Lydia’s different racial and economic backgrounds influence their relationship. Thus, the image of Lydia carrying Maureen’s backpack on her head becomes evidence of an oppressed Black woman being forced to defer to a privileged white child. It’s understandable that Maureen wouldn’t have caught on to the power dynamics at play in her relationship with Lydia. However, her retrospective comment about Lydia sharing in this “affection and ignorance” illustrates her continued ignorance. She’s suggesting that Lydia, an adult woman who has been disenfranchised by a discriminatory regime, is somehow ignorant about her position within that society, which couldn’t possibly be the case.
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Cultural Displacement  Theme Icon
Quotes