July’s People is a story about the drastic change and upheaval of society caused by the ending of apartheid in South Africa. Throughout the story the theme of conflict between blacks and whites is brought up and explored. This theme of conflict is largely played out between Maureen, the white suburban mother of three, and July, her servant and host during this time of upheaval in Johannesburg. While the two engage in conflicts throughout the book it isn’t the type of conflict that is injurious to either party, it is the type which forces both sides to grow and evolve their opinions and outlook on society.
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This change and evolution is seen mainly in Maureen who, over the course of the story, evolves and in the end is essentially reborn into a more enlightened version of herself as a result of the conflict which she goes through with July. At the onset of July’s People, all Maureen Smales has ever known is being a mother and wife. As the story progresses it becomes clear that she will shed this role and step into a version of herself vastly more complex and real than the one she left behind.
The longer Maureen is in the village, the less in touch she is with the person she was back in Johannesburg. Along with losing touch with her old self, Maureen begins to discover things about her family that she did not realize in the city, “He left the smell of his sweaty sleep behind him; she had not known, back there, what his smell was (the sweat of lovemaking is different, and mutual). Showers and baths kept away, for both of them, the possibility of knowing in this kind of way. She had not known herself; the odors that could be secreted by her own body. “(p. 103).
During this passage Maureen is using the stage of not knowing the natural odor of herself and her husband as a metaphor to emphasize that back in the city everything gets covered up by cologne or otherwise, while in the village, where none of this disguise is available, the true smell, or nature of a person becomes clear. As Maureen’s old reality begins to slip away it leaves a gapping hole in its absence. The hole then needs to be filled, and this is where July and the conflict he brings comes into play. What Maureen learns about the dynamics of culture while talking to July is eventually what fills up the hole.
From early on in the book, Maureen and July are in conflict with each other, butting heads on numerous topics including control of the Bakkie and Maureen’s role in the village. While this conflict may look counterproductive at first glance, it is actually providing both Maureen and July with valuable insight into each other’s thoughts and feelings of the current situation. As it becomes increasingly clear that Maureen is losing touch with who she was in the city, the reader begins to see Maureen struggling to understand July and the mentality of the people living in the village, ” -My, my, my.
What can we do. Is terrible, everybody coming very bad, killing… burning… Only God can help us. We can only hope everything will come back all right-“. Maureen then goes on to say, “-But you don’t mean the way it was, you don’t mean that. Do you? You don’t mean that. -“(p. 95). Here Maureen is taken aback at the fact that a black person might not want the social change that the end of apartheid would bring with it. This is a prime example of a white suburban woman being faced with a idea that doesn’t fit into her categorization of the world and her struggling to understand this new and strange concept.
The more that Maureen has these conflicting moments with July the more she begins to grow and move towards releasing her old ideas and prejudices, while adopting a new view of the world. The closer the story draws to its end the more Maureen is seen letting go of her old self and adopting new ideas in their place. For Maureen, the gun that Bam brought with him is her very last link to her life back in the city, when it is stolen Maureen tries desperately to get July’s help to get it back, pleading with July, ”You’ve got to get that gun back. (p. 149). Maureen is clinging to the last link she has to her past self, trying to hold on to the smallest bit of normalcy and having the gun ripped away from her brings all that crashing to the ground. For Maureen, the ultimate moment of letting go occurs just after the gun is stolen following a conversation with July, “The skin of her body was creeping with and ecstatic fever of relief, splendid and despicable to her. ”(p. 153).
This passage is Maureen’s way of expressing her release of her old self. The use of the word fever here is a clue to what is going on, the body uses a fever to kill off an illness by overheating it, and now Maureen is having the part of her that is connected with Johannesburg “killed off”. The despicable yet splendid feeling that this gives her symbolizes how painful and hard it is to let her past go but also how good it feels to be ready to move freely into the future.
Once Maureen was ready to move on it just took the right situation and the arrival of the helicopter was just that situation, “She is running to the river and she hears them, the man’s voice and the voices of children speaking English somewhere to the left. But she makes straight for the ford, and pulling off her shoes balances and jumps from boulder to boulder, and when there are no more boulders does as she has seen done, moves out into the water like some member of a baptismal sect to be born again…”(p. 159).
This passage encompasses both Maureen leaving behind her old self as well as her moving forward to be re-born into a new person. This is the moment when Maureen’s journey comes full circle. She was prepared for this moment of rebirth by way of her numerous conflicts with July, through which she grew greatly as a person. As the story evolves and Maureen begins to realize that she and her family are not the same people they were back in Johannesburg, she finds herself in conflict with July and his thinking more and more.
These conflicts, which existed in her, were not so much those of racial equality but rather of personal identity. By way of her discussions with July, Maureen is able to sort out the issue of personal identity and transform herself into a “born again” person by the end of the book. While these discussions often take on the form of a conflict they are conflict which leads to growth, not to destruction. The conflict that she has with July over the course of the story is essential to Maureen becoming the free, reborn version of herself and to discover who she is outside of apartheid.