he old is dying and the new can not be born;
in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.

Antonio Gramsci

Sometimes changes in life can be so radical that people find themselves almost unable to adapt to their new existence. In most cases people will find a way of dealing with even the biggest changes in their lives. However this adaptation can change the conception of their identity forever. Forced immigration from the city to a rural community is a good example of such a change. Unable to stay in their homes, people are compelled to leave for a place unknown, where they have to settle and will try to accept very different surroundings as their new home.

Nadine Gordimer’s July’s people (1981) is set in South Africa and tells the story of a white family, after they have been forced to flee their Johannesburg home to the village of their black servant, July. The novel was written in 1981 when apartheid was still part of everyday life in South Africa. In this futuristic story Gordimer constructs a nightmarish scenario about the effect of a violent revolution by the blacks on the everyday life of a liberal white family. From the moment they flee from the white suburbs, the Smales family is depending completely on July, their male servant, who ironically is the only one who can help them out. July’s people tells the story of father Bam, mother Maureen and their children. When their comfortable suburban life is disturbed by riots, they are forced to flee Johannesburg. The blacks are taking over the country and the only place where the Smales family can be safe is in the rural village of their black servant July, where the black rebels probably won’t look for white people. 

In the dwellings of July’s rural community they have to get used to a new uncomfortable primitive life and have to learn to live like the black people. You could say that the Smales are compelled to migrate to a totally different place, because July’s village, compared to the white suburbs of Johannesburg, is literally black. 

In July’s people Gordimer shows the new everyday life of the Smales in a rural black community and compares it to their life ‘back there’ in Johannesburg. The difference between life in the city and life in a rural community is astonishing. One of the most important developments in the book is the way the power struggle between Maureen and her servant July evolves. In this article I will attempt to analyze the changing relationship between July and Maureen by using Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. Furthermore I will try to understand the open ending of the novel by analyzing the disintegration of the main character, Maureen Smales.

Power reversal

The master-slave dialectic is part of Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit, written in 1807. In the first chapter of his PhD dissertation The dialectics and Aesthetics of Freedom: Hegel, Slavery and African American Music Greg Harrison explains Hegel’s allegory of the master and the slave and analyzes its importance in the field of African American Studies. I will use Greg Harrison’s article to explain in short what Hegel’s master-slave dialectic is all about.

Hegel uses the allegoric relationship between a master and a slave to explore the social interaction of two consciousnesses or minds involved in a power struggle. He believed this relationship would be transformed ‘from one of dependence to one of true self-consciousness and independence’ (Harrison). According to Harrison the model has such a universal meaning that it could be ‘applied to every form of physical and psychological domination’ (Harrison). The typical development of the master-slave relationship starts with two independent beings, in search of recognition. Each consciousness aims at negating the other so they will become the victor. In this trial one of the participants will be defeated, but instead of killing, the victor enslaves the other, so there’ll be someone to acknowledge the power he has gained. After this first stage there’s a master, a consciousness that is purely independent and lives only for itself in contrast to the other, the bondsman or slave, being dependent and living his life to suit the master’s needs.

The dialectic, however, is very dynamic and causes the relationship to develop into the reversal of what was anticipated. Although at first sight you would say the master is an independent being, he in fact becomes more and more dependent on the slave for acknowledging his position. This is in contrast to the subordinated slave who will, through constructive activity, be able to develop to a state of complete independence.

Given the fact that the master-slave relationship is a phenomenon present throughout history, it is no wonder it has been used frequently by scientists and philosophers to support their analyses or theories on human behaviour. Marx in The Communist Manifesto (1848) is one of the most famous philosophers using Hegels’s dialectic for supporting his political theory of communism. 

The novel opens in South Africa, where the white people have won the power struggle and need the black people to acknowledge their higher status, like the master in Hegel’s dialectic needs the slave to acknowledge his position. But in July’s people, a revolution is taking place: the black rebels can no longer be contained by the white authorities. The relationship between Maureen and July is defined directly on the first page, when July brings Maureen and Bam a cup of tea ‘as his kind has always done for their kind’ (Gordimer, p. 1). Using ‘his kind’ and ‘their kind’ clearly sets out the social separation there is between Bam and Maureen on the one hand and July on the other: although they live together, they belong to different groups. On the same page however, it becomes clear that July is no longer just ‘their servant’, but has become ‘their host’ as well (p. 1). Throughout the novel roles are reversed, July starts to take control of every possible aspect of the life of the Smales. It starts with him being taught how to drive by Daniel, a friend of him, without even asking Maureen or Bam if he could ride their ‘bakkie’, a yellow truck. When he has finished, July is very reluctant to give the keys of the car back and demands them back as soon as possible. When Maureen gives the keys back, he blames her for not doing it happily, accusing her of not being able to trust him. He even uses the word ‘boy’ for himself to annoy her in the following dialogue:

[Maureen:]’July you don’t ask me, you’re just telling me. Why don’t you let me speak? Why don’t you ask me? (…) [July answers:] What you going to say? Hay? What you can say? You tell everybody you trust your good boy. You are good madam, you got good boy.’ (p. 62)

By using the word ‘boy’ for himself and calling Bam his master throughout the whole book, July confronts Maureen with the way it has always been, although she was fooling herself by not calling him ‘boy’, because of her liberal sympathies. She has always considered herself to be liberal, which means she thinks she has treated her black servant well, while throughout the book she is forced to acknowledge, she behaved like a hypocrite. For example, she used to give things to July, which seems very generous, but only did that when they were ‘shoddy or ugly, to her, and if it were some old object, it was because she no longer valued it.’ (p. 59) In the argument about the keys of the bakkie, July points out correctly that Maureen has never really trusted him to take care of the things he had to do, while the family went away, although he’s smart enough to have remembered these things.

When you go away I’m leave look after your dog, your cat, your car you leave in the garage. I mustn’t forget to water your plants. Always you are telling me even last minute when I’m carrying you’re suitcase, isn’t it. (p. 62 my enforcement) 

The Maureen from ‘back there’ in Johannesburg thought she was being good to July, kidding herself into believing she didn’t treat him like a servant. She actually liked ‘what he had had to be’ (p. 135), regarding him as a good man. But now she’s at his mercy in the rural community and she feels very differently: he has always been ‘a moody bastard’ (p. 57). All these years July has been behaving like she wanted him to behave: ‘to be intelligent, honest, dignified for her was nothing’ (p. 135). By continuously using the words ‘boy’ and ‘master’, July is keeping the Smales at distance. In reality he is all but ‘their boy’. Roles have reversed now, July is their host, even their safekeeper, and although it seems at first as if he tries to protect them and care for them, at the same time, it seems, he makes sure that they won’t get too independent: their dependency on him could give him a feeling of power. Although it doesn’t seem that important at that point, July is not willing to let Bam chop wood for his family; his ‘women are doing it’ (p. 52). Later on it becomes clear that July does not want the Smales to act on their own. He’d rather not have Maureen using cough medicine which his wife gives to his own children, saying it’s not good for white people. He’d also rather not have her picking spinach, while mingling with the other women. It’s not only the scenery that has changed: in the rural community Maureen and Bam are no longer in power.

Maureen can feel how July is winning the power struggle, which puts her in a situation she has never been in: she is scared of a man for the first time in her life and she has to acknowledge her new position of subservience: ‘She was unsteady with something that was not anger but a struggle: her inability to enter into a relation of subservience with him that she had never had with Bam.’ (p. 90) The only way she can still win an argument with July is by cowardly threatening him to tell his wife about the mistress he had in Johannesburg, enjoying this small victory far too much.

It seems there is a stronger separation between black and white or master and servant in July’s mind, than there has ever been in the minds of Maureen and Bam. July still wants to continue serving them, thus prolonging their dependence on him, because in effect he is really their master. Because money doesn’t have much value during this period of black revolution, the Smales really do not have anything to offer July. He knows they are at his mercy, which means he can control their lives and take their most important possession, the bakkie, the only means of getting back home. Bam realizes how much they are depending on July, after July allowed him to drive the yellow truck: ‘You saw he ‘let me’ drive, going there?… A treat for me. July’s pretty sure of himself these days.’ (p. 114) Moreover July doesn’t seem to be bothered at all when it turns out the gun has been stolen, the Smales’ last possession, which gave them the (false) impression of still being different from the rest of the people within the community. When Maureen is comparing her own situation with July’s past situation in Johannesburg, ‘was it like this for him?’ (p. 137), July has clearly won the power struggle.

Falling Apart

In his article ‘Artist in the Interregnum: Nadine Gordimer’s July’s people‘ Jeffrey Folks describes the term ‘interregnum’ as a period between rulers, which can be disorienting and sometimes threatening time but, in case of the Smales family, can also be the beginning of a potential revitalization. Folks seems to believe that the Smales, even though they cannot return to their former comfortable city life, will find a new order after an unsettling transition period. 

Given the open ending of the novel, I’m not sure this is the case. Throughout the story almost everything is described through Maureen’s eyes. Struggling with the new life of her family as white people living in a black rural community, Maureen’s character slowly disintegrates. She cannot control her situation: ‘she was not in possession of any part of her life’ (p. 123) and desperately tries to cling to the habits and values of her former city life. For example, she wants her children to keep using toilet paper and she boils water to try to protect her children from bacteria. It is obviously very difficult for Maureen to reconcile herself to the terms of rural life. Everyday it seems less likely that the Smales will ever be able to return to their comfortable suburban life. Slowly Maureen starts to give up hope of ever returning home and although she tries, she can’t manage to fit in. This becomes clear in one of the chapters written from the perspective of July’s women:

(…) the old woman had the chance to look at her [Maureen] closely in the satisfying, analytical way she didn’t often get without the woman disguising herself by trying, with her smiles and gestures, to convey respect etc. as she thought this was done by black people. (p. 116)

Although the women aren’t exactly welcoming Maureen into their community, it is July who is definitely trying to keep Maureen from integrating by taking all the work she is willing to perform out of her hands, like when he hears she has been picking spinach with the other women: 

‘If the children need eggs, I bring you more eggs. I can bring you spinach.’ ‘I’ve got nothing to do. To pass time__ (…) I’ve got no work.’ He [July] smiled at the pretensions of a child, hindering in its helpfulness. ‘That’s not your work.’ (p. 85) 

As I described in the paragraph above, Maureen is involved in a power struggle with her servant and she is losing this duel. It is not only draining her energy, it also destroys the ideas she had about herself and the way she was leading her life. In addition the only one that she could have expected comfort and consolation from, her husband Bam, has become just another person surrounding her, but unconnected. They argue, irritate one another or simply ignore each other’s presence. Although flashbacks supply us with images of a very happy couple in Johannesburg, surviving in a rural community is not only wearing each of them out, but also devastating their relationship. Robert Green remarks in his article ‘From The lying days to July’s people: The Novels of Nadine Gordimer’, that Maureen sees Bam as ‘a balding stranger’ (p. 562) and in the following citation used by Green, it becomes clear how much Bam feels they have grown apart:

Her. Not ‘Maureen’. Not ‘his wife’. The presence in the mud hut, mute with an activity of being, of sense of the self (…). With ‘her’ there was no undersurface of recognition; only moments of finding each other out. (Gordimer, p. 93)

Even Maureen’s children, who in contrast to their parents, have completely adapted to their new home, are in no need of their mother. They have done exactly the thing their parents fail to do: they’ve integrated among the black children, taking over their habits while slowly forgetting the habits they were raised with. For example, Royce has started to ‘wipe his behind with a stone’ (p. 31), while Maureen brought toilet paper from home, and Gina seems to have become just like her black friend Nyiko, which is obvious in the following citation:

(…) she [Gina] walked in with the old woman’s sciatic gait of black children who carry brothers and sisters almost as big as they are. She had a baby on her small back and wore an expression of importance. (…) Her eyes were crudely blue in the mask of a dirty face. Red earth engraved the joints and knuckle-lines of her little claws and toes and ash furred the invisible white fluff on her blond legs. (p. 36-7)

The final acts that cause Maureen to despair are July’s possession of the bakkie and the disappearance of their gun. All the hope of ever leaving July’s settlement has left her and neither her estranged husband, ‘the blond man [who] fiddled with the radio’ (p. 123), nor her children seem to need her: ‘[her children] had survived in their own ability to ignore the precautions it was impossible for her to maintain for them.’ (p. 123) She might consider her life to be pointless and after they have been to see July’s chief, she is pretty determined to leave the settlement: 

‘Then we’d better go.’ She was looking at him as he had never seen before with dead eyes triumphantly, as if he had killed her himself, expecting nothing from him. ‘So we better go then.’ (p. 115)

Given this citation it is obvious that Maureen no longer trusts her husband to save her from the horrible life she’s leading as one of ‘July’s white people’ (p. 126). When she hears a helicopter, she starts to run towards it, without knowing who is piloting it. Running towards the unknown, or perhaps death if there are black rebels aboard, shows how desperate Maureen is to get away from her current situation. She’s running towards the helicopter, irresponsibly, without thinking about her husband or children, ‘like a solitary animal at the season when animals neither seek a mate nor take care of young, existing only for their lone survival, the enemy of all that would make claims of responsibility.’ (p. 142) Reading this I sensed that Maureen is instinctively trying to get away from a world where she feels lost, but I don’t think, like Folks, that there is any possible future in which Maureen will be revitalized. It actually seems like all the joy she had in life has been drained from her, causing her to run away from the only thing she has left: her estranged family.


Using Hegel’s master-slave dialectic to analyze July’s people shows us how the initial relationship between Maureen and July, established by the South African politics of apartheid, changes after the family has been forced to flee the white suburbs of Johannesburg. In their own home Maureen and Bam depended on July to ease their lives, now they owe him their lives: outside Johannesburg, the Smales would be lost without their servant. In contradiction to her children, Maureen cannot accept the rural community as their new home. In vain she attempts to maintain the habits and values of city life. She slowly realizes that in the country July is the only one who can keep them alive and that he is making sure it stays that way. It is no surprise that by the end of the story Maureen and Bam are no longer July’s masters. Like in the Hegelian dialectic the slave, July, has become the independent master. The Smales are at his mercy; they have become ‘July’s people’.

I think the open ending of July’s people does not imply, as some have suggested, a first step towards revitalization or a new beginning. Struggling with the devastation of her settled life in Johannesburg, Maureen is slowly breaking down during the psychological battle with her former servant in a strange rural environment. She realizes she cannot apply anything she has ever learned or valued to her current situation, which slowly causes all hope to fade. Her run towards the helicopter is like the desperate act of a wounded prey; hunted by the reality of her current life Maureen flees to grab her last possible chance of survival. 

By this ending the book shows how ugly things can get in the everyday life of a white family, when black rebels start to take over South Africa. The described ‘interregnum’ is a nightmarish period of uncertainty and chaos, with scant hope for a return to the status quo. It almost seems Gordimer tried to warn her white readers when apartheid was still ruling South Africa, especially the white people who would like to think of themselves as ‘liberal’. This novel seems to shout out loud, that liberal white South Africans must fight the system of apartheid, instead of simply being nice to black people, otherwise they risk experiencing a similar role reversal…


Folks, Jeffrey J., ‘Artist in the Interregnum: Nadine Gordimer’s July’s people‘, in: CRITIQUE: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 39.2, 1998, pp. 115-126.

Gordimer, Nadine, July’s people, Essex, 1991.

Green, Robert, ‘From The lying days to July’s people: The novels of Nadine Gordimer’, in: Journal of Modern Literature, 14.4, 1988, pp. 543-563.

Harrison, Greg, The dialectics and Aesthetics of Freedom: Hegel, Slavery and African American Music, PhD dissertation,University of Sydney, 1999, pp. 7-54.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *