July’s People

by

Nadine Gordimer

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July’s People: Chapter 6 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Bam spends his days working or resting. The third category of activity, “leisure,” is a “suburban invention” that doesn’t exist in the village. On the Smales’ second weekend in the village, July invites Bam to participate in the beer-drinking, talking, and singing that happens over the course of the weekend. He offers Bam a mug to drink out of while the rest pass around a clay pot. The other men tease Bam as he drinks their liquor. Bam stays long enough to be polite—he hasn’t understood a word the others are saying, and the maize brew is awful—before returning to his family’s hut.
The Smales family has only been in July’s village for a brief period of time, and already July has extended more hospitality and good will toward them than they have in the 15 years he’s worked for them. As far as readers can tell, they treated July well but kept their personal lives separate from his. It’s also striking how July’s people are so generous with their food, drink, and shelter despite having so little, while in contrast, the Smales, who had considerably more wealth, provided July with only basic necessities.
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
Lately, the many jobs Bam has had to do and the constant presence of the children have kept Bam and Maureen from talking seriously about their situation. Tonight, however, the children are gone, fixated on a pair of young men banging on drums outside. Bam sits down on the iron bed beside Maureen, who says that she saw Royce wiping his bottom with a stone earlier in the day. Amused, Bam asks how long she thinks the toilet paper rolls that she packed will last. Maureen doesn’t respond. Instead, she thinks about the villagers she’s observed using items she recognizes from her house. The other day, she noticed July holding a pair of her scissors. While Maureen had always thought July to be “perfectly honest,” it’s clear that he has stolen these items over the years.  Maureen decides that honesty is really only “how much you know about anybody.” 
Lack of privacy is a major cultural adjustment for the Smales. Their home in Johannesburg had many rooms for the family to spread out in. The disparity in space and privacy is a metaphor for the main difference between the Smales’ old life and life in July’s village: wealth. It’s not so much privacy that strains the Smales’ marriage, but a lack of resources that limits how and when they spend time together. They feel suffocated not just by a lack of space but by a lack of choice. These middle chapters ramp up the tension that has been bubbling beneath the surface until now. When Maureen sees villagers using objects she recognizes from her house, it’s evidence that July has been stealing from her all these years and isn’t as “perfectly honest” as she’d once thought he was. Maureen’s remark about honesty being about “how much you know about anybody” reframes honesty as less of a personality trait and more about the way others perceive a person. Honesty thus becomes superficial: about appearing honest instead of being honest. 
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
Leaving their home has strained Bam and Maureen’s relationship. Most of their conversations are about decisions they don’t want to make on their own. Now, Bam wonders aloud if they should be saving the malaria pills that they brought with them for the kids. Maureen reasons that they should take the pills, since the children would be helpless if the two of them were to die from the disease. A silence passes between them, which is common these days. Finally, Bam argues that July’s people would look after the children if something should happen to the two of them. Inwardly, Maureen thinks Bam is “wearily, boredly trusting.”
Bam and Maureen’s new environment strains their relationship because they’re suddenly forced to contend with life-or-death issues like malaria, a mosquito-borne illness that can result in death in severe cases, on a daily basis. Their problems seem to have been more superficial back home. Another new source of conflict is how to navigate their new relationship with July. Maureen is almost immediately suspicious about July’s people and seems to question July’s loyalty to her family. For this reason, she finds Bam’s faith in July to be “wearily, boredly trusting” and naïve.
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
The radio station that Bam and Maureen turn to for news had been off the air for 24 hours, but it’s back on now. There’s been no word about what caused the outage, but it’s likely that there would have been some celebratory message if the Black people had won. Maureen sits in one of the car seats the children have been using as beds, picking under her fingernails with a stray wire. She used to think it would be fun to visit here and see how July lived, she tells Bam. She’d imagined the trip as a mini vacation: they’d go while the children were out of school, bring all their camping gear and a portable fridge. Now, she scoffs at her fantasies about waltzing into the village bearing gifts for all, proudly showing the children “how [July] lives,”  and then returning home to brag to their friends about driving out to the bundu to see “a friend.”
It's unclear which message Bam and Maureen are waiting—or wanting—to hear. Are they rooting for the apartheid government to take back control of the country, thereby enabling them to resume their life the way it was before the civil war, or are they holding out hope for Black victory, which aligns with their purportedly progressive views? Maureen’s remarks about how misguided she had been to think that it would be a fun, culturally enriching experience to visit July’s village suggests that she’s already becoming disillusioned by her former idealism. It was also easier for her to consider July “a friend” when the confines of their relationship were dictated according to their clearly defined roles as employer and employee. In this village, where their roles are less defined and July is less obligated to obey the Smales without question, Maureen starts to doubt their friendship.  
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
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July’s People PDF
The last thing Bam sees before falling asleep is her frowning face before him. Suddenly, Bam awakens to the sound of the revving bakkie. Maureen runs out of the hut just in time to see the vehicle disappearing into the distance, two Black heads visible in the front seats.
It's unclear who took the bakkie, and, given the demographics of the village, the Black heads that Maureen spies in the front seat doesn’t narrow the pool of possible suspects. 
Themes
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Bam leaves the hut to try to find out where July is but only receives vague, unhelpful replies. He returns and tells Maureen that it was likely July who took the bakkie. Bam had given July the keys the other day. This had seemed the logical option: it was July’s village, after all, and he must know what’s best. The other day, for instance, July advised them to keep the vehicle locked with the tools inside, since his relatives would likely borrow them, and he wasn’t confident they’d return them. As Bam explains July’s reasoning to Maureen, a palpable tension begins to build between them. Bam thinks about the gun he brought from home and hid in the hut’s thatched roof. He wonders if killing would give them more leverage in the village, should something happen to July. 
The possibility that July has taken the Smales’ bakkie without asking permission forces the Smales to rethink which behaviors are allowed in their new relationship with July. July’s decision to take the bakkie forces Bam and Maureen to consider if they really want July to be their friend, or if they want him to be an obedient servant. While the Smales have purported to see July as a friend, they’ve never been put in a situation where July has not acted as a servant to them: he’s never gone against their wishes. The Smales family is clearly discomforted by the personal agency that July exercises by taking the bakkie, suggesting that they’re not as comfortable treating him as an equal as they’d once thought they were. 
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
The boys wander back into the hut. Maureen opens a can of pork sausages for dinner. She calls for Gina, who enters carrying a baby tied to her back. Maureen orders Gina to return the baby to its mother. The atmosphere in the hut is tense. Suddenly, a child appears in the doorway, “Nyiko,” according to the children. Nyiko retrieves the baby from Gina. As a  peace-offering, Maureen stabs a sausage with Bam’s penknife and offers it to the child. The child holds her palms together as though accepting communion and takes the sausage from Maureen. Maureen returns the knife to Bam and remarks how great it would be if their children would “pick up the good manners along with the habit of blowing their noses in their fingers and relieving themselves where they feel like it.” There is hostility in her voice.
Nyiko accepting the sausage from Maureen conjures images of the well-off helping the needy. Maureen wants to see herself as a savior to the less fortunate. She does not yet recognize that she is the less fortunate whom this girl’s people have saved. More of Maureen’s latent racism emerges in the visible disgust she exhibits toward the girl, using a penknife to give the girl a sausage in order to limit physical contact and making a disparaging remark about the village people’s hygiene. Maureen’s purported desire to be friends with July is complicated by the reality that she is disgusted by his people and their culture and sees herself as superior to them.
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
After dinner, the children antagonize one another in the hut. Maureen and Bam sit in silence and agonize over July’s absence. Bam closes his eyes and sees the snow of Canada. If they’d fled there as they intended to five years ago, they could be settled into a new life already. Inwardly, Bam blames Maureen for wanting to stay in South Africa, though he also can’t remember what he’d wanted to do.
This scene presents a discrepancy between Bam’s genuine feelings about their situation and what he shares with Maureen. Bam is clearly unhappy and resentful about having to live as refugees in the primitive atmosphere of July’s village, evidenced by the image of snowy, westernized Canada—the polar opposite of the rural African village that has become their home—that haunts his daydreams.
Themes
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Cultural Displacement  Theme Icon
Maureen sits with her back to Bam and adjusts the radio, unable to get a signal. Bam snaps at her about wasting the battery. Maureen thinks about the conflict back home and wonders aloud why the white people who can speak the Black languages are never good white people like themselves, but white people convinced that they are racially superior. If only they could speak with July’s people and defend themselves, she laments. Bam urges Maureen not to “go fishing. Not at this stage.” He begins to ramble on about how knowing an African language simply used to be a job requirement for white people working in the pass offices, for instance. Maureen observes that Bam is speaking about their lives in town in the past tense, though he doesn’t appear to realize it.
Bam is on edge about wasting the radio’s battery because, now that the bakkie is gone, the radio is the Smales’ last remaining connection to the outside world. The distinction that Maureen establishes between “good” white people like themselves and apartheid-supporting white people reveals her ignorance about her own latent racism, especially given the disparaging remark she made about Nyiko only hours before. Bam’s advice to Maureen not to “go fishing” means that Maureen shouldn’t question July’s people’s loyalty to them. He’s implying that Maureen is being irrationally paranoid. This isn’t quite fair, because readers can tell from Bam’s inner thoughts (which he does not share with Maureen) that he, too, is unhappy and uncertain about their future in July’s village. Maureen and Bam seem to be engaged in a silent competition to out-do each other’s tolerance for cultural difference and suffering. Nobody wants to be the first to say that they have issues with living here.
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’s father had spoken “the bastard black lingua franca,” though his vocabulary was limited to giving orders to and receiving orders from Black people. When Maureen married Bam, “her liberal young husband,” she’d told him this story with shame. Now, she feels ashamed about that earlier shame. Tension builds as the couple struggles to decide who is to blame for their current situation. Maureen claims that Bam would have thought they were “run[ning] away” if they’d left five years ago. Bam denies the accusation, but Maureen won’t let it go. She accuses him of constantly putting on fronts to impress people.
This scene presents additional insight into the central conflicts of Maureen and Bam’s relationship. Maureen felt an extra pressure to appear open-minded in front of “her liberal young husband” because she was brought up by a racist father who exploited Black workers and is ashamed of her past. At the same time, she questions her supposedly “liberal” husband’s integrity, arguing that Bam is more concerned about appearing good than with actually being a good person.
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Gratitude and Resentment  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Bam accuses Maureen argue some more. Finally, Bam puts his hands up in exasperation. “I know I gave him the fucking keys—” he begins, ascertaining that this is the source of their ongoing argument. Maureen demands that Bam at least admit that it was a stupid idea to come here.
The keys are a sore point for the Smales because they symbolize their loss of control and freedom of mobility. Even if it would be unsafe for them to leave the village without July’s protection, having the bakkie there gave the Smales the illusion that they still had some control over their life. On the other hand, July’s decision to take the bakkie without their permission symbolizes July’s corresponding increase of power and control. In a reversal of the way things were under apartheid, where the Smales gained comfort and security through exploiting July, now it’s July who gains freedom and personal agency at the direct expense of Maureen and Bam.  
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Gratitude and Resentment  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
This goes on for some time, with neither husband nor wife willing to admit that it was both of their faults for not fleeing the country while they had the chance. The children eventually fall asleep in their car seats. Outside, rain beats against the old, thatched roof. Water slowly trickles down into the hut. The humidity brings swarms of bugs. Maureen and Bam carry the children to the bed to keep them off the wet floor
Faced with a crisis of uncertainty, the Smales’ idealistic, ethical reasons for staying in South Africa (not wanting to run away and abandon their support of Black liberation, or a nostalgic attachment to their homeland, perhaps) suddenly seem naïve.
Themes
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Bam drifts in and out of sleep. Maureen steadies herself against the wet wall of the hut and removes her clothing, letting water stream down her naked body as though she were under a showerhead. Suddenly, she spots headlights cutting through the darkness. The bakkie pulls into the settlement. Were it not for the pouring rain outside, Maureen knows she’d be able to hear July’s voice, for she knows him to be a “talkative man, liking to run through small events again, to savour his activity.” Maureen returns to the hut and falls asleep on a car seat.
Maureen’s description of July as a “talkative man, liking to run through small events again, to savour his activity” disparages him for being happy. She’s offended by the casual manner in which he took the bakkie, an action that caused herself and Bam undue stress and existential anguish. Again, readers see that Maureen’s talk of wanting to be friends with July is all talk: she is uncomfortable and unhappy with July as a person and enjoys his company only when she has a hand in controlling him. When he does things on his own terms, she resents him for it. 
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Gratitude and Resentment  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon