Drastic changes in societycan cause people a change in their identities. Sometimes changes in life can be sodifficult for people to adapt to their new environment. In most cases peoplewill find a way to cope to their new existence; however, drastic changes suchas forced immigration from the city to a rural place can cause people a massivedisplacement in life. When people are forced to leave their home to an unknownplace, their identities can change forever. The novel July’s People written by Nadine Gordimer portrays the story of awhite middle-class family who are forced to moved out from their home becauseof the overthrow of the Apartheid law by black people.
The only place wherethey will be safe is at the village of their black servant, July. In thevillage, they must find a way to survive and adapt to their new environment.One of the most important developments in the novel is how the changing ofeconomic and political structure of apartheid affect the characters indifferent ways. The character who struggles to accept the new environment isMaureen, a wife of Bam and mother of three children. Maureen who is wellaccustomed to the privileges of the apartheid law is unwilling to cope with hernew reality; as a result, Maureen slowly transforms to an unhappy character. Thesepolitical and economic changes affect Maureen sense of self because she losesher privileges as a white woman, her role as a mother and wife diminish, and thereversal in power with her servant July makes her feel devastated and desperateto escape.
Maureen Smales is portrayed as the protagonistand as the character who expresses a massive displacement and role change throughoutthe whole novel. Maureen grew up in an environment where she had a comfortableand privilege life. Before the Smales are forced to move out from Johannesburgand take refuge with July, they were a middle-class family and they were havinga luxurious life. For instance, they owned “A seven-roomed house and a swimmingpool” (Gordimer 25). Also, they could afford to pay for servants and they hadtheir “growing savings and investments” (Gordimer 8) and many other privilegesthat black people could not have at that time. On the contrary, in July’svillage they must let go of their middle-class expectations of luxuries,comfort, privacy, and possessions. It is at July’s home that the Smales realizethat the privilege they once had is being banished.
Also, all the things theytook for granted such as food, clean water, toilet paper, clean clothes, andmany more, are now so essential in their new home. Ali Erritouni agrees withthis when he mentions “Their new life is a far cry from and is starklycontrasted to the sumptuous life they have led before the war…” (69). Thisshows how their life have changed drastically, especially for Maureen becauseshe cannot cope with the new changes. Maureen does not longer have theprivileges as a white woman, as a result, she finds herself trapped in a worldwithout an exit.
Maureen’s role changes affect herhusband Bam as well as her children because her role as a mother and wife isslowly diminishing. Surviving in a rural community is not only affecting Bamand Maureen, but also their relationship as a couple. For instance, they argue,confront each other, and they ignore their presence around the hut. Even the desire for sexual intimacy is deterioratedas the: “The lack of privacy killed the desire; if there had been any to feel.But the preoccupation with daily survival…probably had crowded that out anyway”(Gordimer 79). Primarily, the reason for their changed relationship is thedestitution of their possessions as well as the lack of privacy, communication,comprehension, and mutual respect.
Furthermore, Maureen’s sense of motherhoodalso diminishes because her children adapt quickly to their new home. Thereason that the children adapt quickly is the fact that they make friends withthe children of the village and they do not stress out about their new life. Maureenfeeds them from the food July brings, but they can take care of themselves. Becauseof her discontent of her current position, Maureen is unsuccessful to providecare and love to her family.
Maureenalso notices that she does not fulfill her expectations as a mother accordingto the norms of the village because she is a white woman. For instance, inJuly’s village women must do housework such as carrying the wood and water,wash clothes, cook food for the families and many other tasks. Even though, Maureen tries to tell July herdesire to join the other women in the fields, he does not agree with the idea.The reason can be explained by the fact that July still considers that thesetasks should be performed by the black women in the village (Gordimer 96). Wecan see that Maureen is jealous of the black women who have tasks to perform whileshe does not have anything to do. Also, Maureen feels devastated in a placethat give her no meaningful status to be part of the happiness of her familybecause she feels she does not not belong in that community. Thefirst changes that we can see in Maureen is that the reversal in power withJuly make her feel confused and uncomfortable; as a result, Maureen realizesshe is not as liberals as she thought she was. During Apartheid Maureen claimedto be a liberal woman because she always treated July well and with respect.
Inaddition, Bam and Maureen “joined political parties and contacted groups inwillingness to slough privilege” (Gordimer 8). However, Maureen liberal viewsare questioned when she moves to July’s village. For Instance, she used to givematerial things to July, which make her seems so generous; however, she onlydid this when the things were old, ugly, or unvalued (Gordimer, 59). In July’svillage, Maureen’s racism against blacks shows up because the laws are not inher favor anymore. Another example that shows Maureen’s true self is theargument about the Bakkie.
Erritouni shows this when he says, “The reaction tohis assertive use of the car betrays the limitations of their liberalism” (71).In the city, when July was powerless and obedient, the Smales did not approveApartheid. As soon as July takes their property, they feel offended. Asliberals, Maureen and Bam want to belong to a multiracial society but they holdjealously of their possessions and material privileges. This tension rises becausethey experience the contrast between having everything and then losing everything.
The conflict aboutthe bakkie is a good example that shows Maureen jealously of her possessionsand the reversal in power. Maureen resents July because he took the car’s keyswithout permission, but Maureen fails to realize that the roles have changed,and now July has the power. Even though, she is upset that July took the car’skeys without permission she cannot do anything because they rely completely onJuly and the political system that once was benefiting them is now fallingapart. In a conversation about the car’s keys July tells Maureen, “In yourhouse, if something it’s getting lost it’s me who must know… All your thing isthere, it’s me I’ve got the keys, always it’s me” (Gordimer 69). July continues,”Your boy who work for you. There in town you are trusting your boy for fifteenyears…” (Gordimer 69). This argument annoys Maureen because July have nevertalked to her like that. This new language is the language of power.
July stopsbeing subservient and polite while talking to Maureen and this demonstrates ashift of power between Maureen and July. In addition, July reminds her that’back there’ they used to trust July with material possessions. The reason canbe explained by the fact that during Apartheid, the laws were in their favor,they had power over July, and they knew July could not steal anything from them.However, In the new village, July wants to have the power over them. This only causesMaureen’s racism to come out because she is not ready to be equal and share thesame laws with black people. Maureen is struggling with July, as sherealizes July is becoming more independent and less submissive. During oneoccasion, she asks her son to go to tell July to come to the hut: “Go and say Iwant to see him” (Gordimer 73).
July refuses to obey Maureen, but end up goingafter so many attempts from Maureen. By July rejecting her invitation, it showsthat July is now in charge of the power and this behavior irritates Maureen. As Maureen notices that July is winning the power, shefeels vulnerable. The only way she tries to win an argument is by threateninghim to tell his wife about the affair he had in the city with Ellen.
Maureen believes that somehow, she could gain back her control by provokinghim. For example, in a conversation Maureen asks him “What is happening toEllen? Your wife and your children were here, and all those years Ellen waswith you” (Gordimer 72). This conversation makes July upset and he walks awaywith the car keys (Gordimer 63).
Maureenfails to negotiate with July; instead, July realizes that the white family arecompletely depending on him and he does not have to give any explanation abouthis life to Maureen. It is clear from the book that Maureen is a hypocritebecause she has always stated herself as liberal; however, her actions andattitudes in the new village say the contrary. Furthermore, in the end of thenovel Maureen runs after a helicopter with the hope of escaping from thecurrent situation that she cannot deal with anymore. This shows that Maureengrew up in a completely different scenario where the whites are the masters,and black the servants, but things end up completely opposite. “Erritouni says “They resist redistributionof wealth, seemingly obvious to the fact that, before the revolution, theracial laws of apartheid tipped the economic balance in their favor” (71).
AsMaureen realizes the laws are not in their favor, she feels devastated, thus,she runs away in search of a new future, leaving her children and her husbandin the village. Toconclude, the novel July’s people examines a world where traditionally rolesand rules have been overturned, and where relationships have become undefined.The Smales who were the masters of July, find themselves depended on their blackservant to survive. We can also conclude that the Smales are not as liberal asthey thought they were, especially Maureen who struggles to accept her new life.This could have been true for many white people during this time because their privilegeswere taken away. The main theme of the book is the placing of white people in anenvironment where they are no the ones in charge.
The black revolution replacesthe power of the Smales and their comfort in the city. Gordimer demonstratesthis throughout the character of Maureen. The political and economic changes ofapartheid affect Maureen’s sense of self because she becomes a completelydifferent person in the village. Maureen is a good example of what can happento a person when is placed in a completely unknown environment.