The Material Basis of Relationships

Benjamin Graves '98 UTRA Fellow 1997

What's telling is the attention Gordimer pays in her introduction to material objects in relation to the emergence of the Smales' class identity. Even though their living conditions have been reduced to "thick mud walls" and a ceiling composed of a "sack that hung over it looped back for air," the Smales cling to the anomalous bourgeois conventionality of "two cups of tea and a small tin of condensed milk, jaggedly-opened, specially for them, with a spoon in it." The novel's first quarter or so abounds with description of material objects that function as class emblems indicative of the Smales' bourgeois privilege. Shortly after arriving at July's village, Maureen sifts through the family's belongings in search of her shaken class identity:

Picking them up one by one, she went over the objects of her collection on the bookshelf, the miniature brass coffeepot and tray, the four bone elephants, one with a broken trunk, the khaki pottery bulldog with the Union Jack painted on his back. (3)

Notice how the "four bone elephants" and the "khaki pottery bulldog" with the "Union Jack" insignia function as tokens of imperial expansion. Compelled by the possession of objects (and moreover the "possession" of their servant July), Maureen and Bam can only define their identities as a series of empty middle class titles that demonstrate economic advantage: "Maureen and Bam Smales. Bamford Smales, Smales, Caprano & Partners, Architects. Maureen Hetherington from Western Area Gold Mines. Under 10s Silver Cup for Classical and Mime at the Johannesburg Eisteddfod" (2). Material objects of course bear centrally upon the narrative's turning points-namely, July driving away the Smales' "bakkie" (a jeep "bought for pleasure" (6)), and further on, the disappearance of Bam's gun (142-143). What Maureen and Bam soon realize is that their First World material advantage fails to translate coherently into the Third World belief structures of July's village. For instance, their attempts to compensate July's family for its hospitality with foreign "bits of paper" (28) perhaps demonstrate the Smales" empty capitalist dependency on systems of currency. Economics not only structures the formation of identity but the relationships or "exchanges" between Maureen and Bam, between the Smales and July, and between July and his own wife. The passage below, in which Maureen contemplates both her crumbling marriage to Bam and her relationship to July, demonstrates Gordimer's concern for the "economy" at the heart of human interactions:

The humane creed (Maureen, like anyone else, regarded her own as definitive) depended on validities staked on a belief in the absolute nature of intimate relationships between human beings. If people don't all experience emotional satisfaction and deprivation in the same way, what claim can there be for equality of need? ... Yet how was that absolute nature of intimate relationships arrived at? Who decided? 'We' (Maureen sometimes harked back) understand the sacred power and rights of sexual love are as formulated in a wife's hut, and a backyard room in a city. The balance between desire and duty is-has to be-maintained quite differently in accordance with the differences in the lovers' place in the economy. These alter the way of dealing with the experience; and so the experience itself (65 my emphasis)

Questioning society's dubious "belief in the absolute nature of intimate relationships," Maureen perhaps realizes that human interactions are not absolute but rather determined by material conditions- "the lovers' place in the economy" (65). My point is that this passage illustrates Gordimer's sympathy to Marx, who teaches us that one's "superstructural" consciousness (perhaps the "human creed" Gordimer suggests above) is neither innate nor autonomous but rather determined by the nexus of "productive forces" and "means of production" that structure a community's material and economic base. The master/servant relationship, for example, is primarily an economic relationship of mutual dependence. The marriage between Maureen and Bam, much like their relationship to July, is predicated upon a complicated "balance between desire and duty"-a balance that is to grow increasingly precarious as the novel progresses. Materially dispossessed, Maureen and Bam come to realize their own identities only in terms of their lives' vacancy of substantive value and meaning in the face of economic loss.

[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