Setting in Gordimer's July's People

Benjamin Graves '98 UTRA Fellow 1997

Having been "displaced" from the material, bourgeois trappings of their home in Johannesburg, Bam and Maureen awaken to their new make-shift quarters in July's village:

You like to have some cup of tea?-
July bent at the doorway and began that day for them as his kind has always done for their kind.
The knock on the door. Seven o'clock. In governors' residences, commercial hotel rooms, shift bosses' company bungalows, master bedrooms en suite-the tea-tray in black hands smelling of Lifebuoy soap.
The knock on the door
no door, an aperture in thick mud walls, and the sack that hung over it looped back for air, sometime during the short night. Bam, I'm stifling; her voice raising him from the dead, he staggering up from his exhausted sleep.
No knock; but July, their servant, their host, bringing two cups of tea and a small tin of condensed milk, jaggedly-opened, specially for them, with a spoon in it. (1)

Gordimer employs a paradoxical mingling of continuity and change in order to introduce the Smales' unsettling immersion into a foreign class structure. The fact that July "began that day for them as his kind has always done for their kind" suggests a static continuity or repetition that belies the radical setting change between affluent "governors' residences, commercial hotel rooms, shift bosses' company bungalows" and the "aperture in thick mud walls" that now serves as the Smales' front door. The setting change--an abrupt transition between "the knock on the door" and the non-sequitor that follows ("no door")--not only foregrounds the correspondence between "place" and the formation of identity, but also introduces the inversion of power that characterizes the Smales' new dependence upon July. In other words, whereas the "master bedrooms" of Johannesburg provide a setting in which the Smales exercise authority over July, their displacement to his village suddenly invests July with a degree of power over them (a "dialectical" Hegelian inversion, about which more below). And yet July's broken English in the first line ("You like to have some cup of tea?") underscores the language barriers that somewhat limit his recourse to power.

[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