"There was complicity growing in the silence": the Master-Servant Relationship in Gordimer's July's People

Benjamin Graves '98 UTRA Fellow 1997

Nadine Gordimer's July's People (1981)--a novel ostensibly involving a white middle-class family's flight from riot-stricken Johannesburg into the refuge of their black servant's native village--takes as its epigraph a passage from Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci's Prison Notebooks. "The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms." Gordimer re-appropriates Gramsci's "interregnum" in order to suggest the "morbid symptoms" that shape her novel's setting within the revolutionary moment of early 1980's South Africa. The relationship between Maureen and Bam Smales and their servant July--a nuanced relationship of dependence, defiance, communication, and miscommunication--dramatizes the broader racial, economic, and sexual power dynamics underscoring white apartheid rule and the resistance to it. Herself a consistent if increasingly radical critic of apartheid, Gordimer uses the master/servant relationship in July's People as an organizing motif that allows her to examine the following themes: 1) the material or economic basis of human interactions and the construction of identity; 2) the notion of "displacement"--not merely the Smales' geographical migration but also the process by which the "master/slave" relationship translates or maps onto comparable relationships of power; 3) the function of language as both an index of cultural difference and an exercise of power; and 4) the complicated notion of "complicity" (namely the fear of unknowingly rehearsing the racist workings of apartheid) that shapes the presence of both Maureen and Gordimer herself as similarly privileged, white, bourgeois subjects. My interest is to engage the "master-slave" relationship with the historical moment of revolutionary transition in which Gordimer wrote, and to try also to put her novel in dialogue with Georg Hegel and Franz Fanon"s contending interpretations of the "master-slave dialectic."

[These materials have been adapted from a paper written for James Egan's English 160, The Invention of America, Brown University, 1997]

Gordimer OV July's People

Last Modified: 18 March, 2002